"Moses Pleading With Israel" from a 1907 postcard
"Moses Pleading With Israel" from a 1907 postcard

All of Judaism in one tidy Torah portion

The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.


Deuteronomy 3:23–7:11

Looking to find all the fundamentals of Judaism in one place? You’ve come to the right parashah.

Vaetchanan is the section that I would recommend for someone to find all the core elements of Judaism in one place.

Not only do we find the Ten Commandments and the Shema (one of the only prayers in our liturgy that comes directly from the Torah itself), but there are so many theological principles contained in this reading.

One such fundamental is borrowed for a second reading during our calendar. We just finished commemorating the Fast of the 9th of Av. The public Torah reading for that day is found in this parashah, as well.

A closer look at those passages should make it clear why I contend that fundamental Jewish ideas ring so loudly from these verses.

The 9th of Av (Tisha B’Av in Hebrew) is a day that we mourn the perpetual losses of the Jewish people. It was the day that both Temples were destroyed in Jerusalem, along with a myriad of other disastrous experiences felt by the Jewish people in the thousands of years of our history. Fittingly, the Sages instituted that we should read about a promise that God makes to the Jewish people.

Exile is expected as a consequence of our rejection of God and monotheism. However, when we are at our darkest moment, God will never completely forsake us. How can we be assured of this unique relationship with the Creator of the Universe? Moses actually spells it out.

“Should you inquire regarding the early days that preceded you, from the day when God created man on the earth, and from one end of heaven to the other end of heaven. Has there ever been anything like this great thing or has anything been heard like it? Has a nation ever heard the voice of God speak to them from the midst of the fire as you have and lived? Or has any god ever miraculously come to take for himself a nation from amidst a nation, with tests, with signs and with wonders, and with war and with a strong hand, and with an outstretched arm, and with greatly awesome deeds, such as everything that HaShem, your God, did for you in Egypt before your eyes? You have been shown to know that God is the Almighty. There is none other.” (Deut. 4:32-35)

Moses is essentially giving the people two proofs that will demonstrate that there is one God and that He is their God.

The first is what is called national revelation. The Jewish people are the only nation on the planet that has ever claimed a collective experience in which they heard God speak to them directly. The giving of the Ten Commandments was so significant because it was a shared phenomenon.

What is even more astounding about Moses’ statement is that he does not just claim that we have a unifying experience that binds us, but he goes as far as declaring that no one else has such a claim. From one end of Heaven to the other, there is no other group that has made such a claim, and by implication, nor will make such a claim. That is true to this very day.

The second argument is that there is no people that claims to have had its origin within the confines of another people.

The anthropological reality that the Jewish people came from Egypt and then entered the Land of Canaan is so unique because the rituals and customs that characterize the nation are so foreign to the place of origin, as well as to the place that they currently reside.

The idea that a people with deep cultural expression could just appear on the world scene is another singular claim of the Jewish people. Moses is handing the people two features of what it means to be part of the Jewish experience as part of the consolation for the tragedy of exile in which they will find themselves.

It goes one step further. At the end of the passage, Moses states, “You have been shown to know that God is the Almighty.” (Deut. 4:35)

It does not say that you should therefore believe in God.

From Moses’ vantage point, these points are demonstrable proof of the existence of God.

As we move past the tragedies that mar our history and rise from the commemoration of Tisha B’Av, it is essential that we cling to the knowledge of the unique claims of the Jewish people.

Rabbi Joey Felsen
Rabbi Joey Felsen

Rabbi Joey Felsen is the founder and executive director of the Palo Alto-based Jewish Study Network. He teaches at JCCs in Palo Alto and Los Gatos, and is the founding board president of Meira Academy in Palo Alto.