Vaetchanan: Reach out and youll find Gods love


Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11

Isaiah 40:1-26

My first job as a rabbi brought me a rich, and occasionally painful, experience of Jewish-Christian dialogue. I was the new rabbi in a large, hitherto all-Christian chaplaincy department in a Christian hospital in the Midwest. I was met with great respect and warmth by my Christian colleagues. They were genuinely interested in the opportunity to learn from me about Judaism. A world of learning awaited me in my encounters with them as well. These people taught me a great deal about care for the ill, about God and faith and prayer.

But in the midst of our conversations, one theme emerged with disturbing regularity. Before long, it became clear that my Christian clergy friends carried with them certain unflattering biases about Judaism. Among these perspectives was their assumption that the God of what they called "The Old Testament" (our Hebrew Bible) was a God of law and of vengeance, while the God of their New Testament was a God of love.

I soon recognized that this view unconsciously carried forward the New Testament's internal polemic about why Christian faith was a step forward from the "old" way of loyalty to God expressed through observance of mitzvot, as the Torah so insistently teaches. Yet, working every day with people in pain, I came to appreciate how crucial it is to have easy access to powerful images of God's love.

As a result of these encounters, I needed to re-examine for myself who God is in the Hebrew Bible. Where are the images of God's love for which Jews can reach in time of need? How often does the Torah describe God as vengeful, capricious and even violent? How are we to understand biblical images of the dark side of the Divine?

Parashat Va'etchanan brings us powerful images of both God's wrath and God's love. It also tells us clearly how we can best stay close to God's love and protected from divine anger.

The fourth chapter of Deuteronomy contains an impassioned speech in which Moses elaborates on the essential commandment to refrain from creating physical likenesses of the ineffable God. Why? "For the Lord your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God" (Deut. 4:24).

Here and elsewhere in the portion, God is described as a jealous and threatening God. The message is absolutely clear: "Be faithful to Me, or else." The consequences for faithlessness: "…You shall soon utterly perish from the land…you shall not prolong your days upon it; you shall be utterly destroyed. And God will scatter you among the nations…" (4:26-8).

One can readily see the historical truth in the Torah's prediction. The Jewish people, without strong commitment to God, grows scattered and directionless, vulnerable to confused priorities, loss of meaning, even delusion or idolatry. And yet, who could pray to a God who is "a consuming fire, a jealous God"?

But this portion brings us as well some of the most beautiful images of God as a loving presence to those who reach out from the heart. "When you are in distress…if you turn to the Lord your God and hear God's voice, God will not hurt you or destroy you, for God the Lord your God is a God of mercy" (4:30-1). And, later in the portion, a most beautiful statement of God's love, "God did not desire you or choose you because of your great numbers, for you are the smallest among the nations. It is because of God's love for you…" (7:7-8).

Unquestionably, the Torah gives us contrasting images of the way God works in the world. Sometimes God is loving, present — the essence of love and compassion. At other times, God is enraged, unpredictable and violent. It is much easier to reach out to God as love. But life is made of more than love. Life is sometimes harsh, violent, incomprehensible.

How do we stay safe from the violence and unpredictability of life, and how do we stay close to the loving presence of the Divine? Deuteronomy tells us again and again: The answer is a life suffused with the wisdom of Torah and the beauty of mitzvot. Nothing can make us immune to the harshness of life. A life of devotion and connection to our people's path can help. May it be so for us and for all we love.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg
Rabbi Amy Eilberg

Rabbi Amy Eilberg serves as a spiritual director, peace educator and justice activist, and teacher of Mussar. More information on her work can be found at