According to Jewish tradition, and the well-known Debbie Friedman song, there are 613 commandments that Moses handed to us in the Jewish Bible. Our earliest record of this tradition is in the Babylonian Talmud (Tractate Makkot 23b), where Rabbi Simlai is quoted as saying:
“There were 613 mitzvot stated to Moses in the Torah, consisting of 365 prohibitions corresponding to the number of days in the solar year, and 248 positive mitzvot corresponding to the number of a person’s limbs.”
Rabbi Simlai didn’t lay all 613 of them out for us, and I don’t know where he got the 248 limbs (or parts) in the human body. But the great philosopher Maimonides, who was also a renowned physician, must have been down with it. Because in the law code he wrote in the 12th century, he outlined every single one of them. And his list is the one that we pretty much follow even today.
These mitzvot guide Jewish living in every way: How we marry, raise children, and bury our dead. How we conduct business. How we pray and when we pray. How we build community structures that respect our neighbors and support the needy and the most vulnerable.
The mitzvot are scattered throughout the Torah. But many of the key elements appear in this week’s Torah portion.
Moses is now into the meat of his farewell address to the people. After getting a few frustrations off his chest and re-telling the tale of the past forty years, he’s now teaching the people how to behave when the get to the land where – as we talked about last week – they will be on their own to take Torah into their hearts and their lives. So now he gives the Israelites – the first generation born in freedom — as much hard information as he can.
This week’s portion contains what one of my colleagues calls Torah’s greatest hits: The Shema (Deut. 6:4-9), which binds us to God eternally and exclusively. The reiteration of the Ten Commandments (Deut. 5:6-18), the big categories from which all of the mitzvot flow.
And Moses ties them to the past and to the future, with a reminder to the people of their parents’ divine redemption from Egypt (Deut. 6:20-25), and a command to the people to teach their children of their history and the heritage of Torah (Deut. 6:7).
But tucked into all of this is also a call from Moses to the Israelites to pay heed to their present (Deut 4:9), to the here and now:
רַק הִשָּׁמֶר לְךָ וּשְׁמֹר נַפְשְׁךָ מְאֹד פֶּן־תִּשְׁכַּח אֶת־הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר־רָאוּ עֵינֶיךָ וּפֶן־יָסוּרוּ מִלְּבָבְךָ כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ וְהוֹדַעְתָּם לְבָנֶיךָ וְלִבְנֵי בָנֶיךָ
Only take utmost care and watch yourselves scrupulously, so that you do not forget the things that you saw with your own eyes and so that they do not fade from your mind as long as you live. And make them known to your children and to your children’s children.
It’s crucial, God is telling the people, that you operate in reality – the reality of being the generation responsible for decisions that will shape not only your destiny, but the destiny of your children and the generations who will follow them.
Nothing is more important than dealing in reality and doing it together – not the mythology of history, not the parochial disputes among the tribes, and not the petty squabbles that may arise among families. Keep your eyes on the prize, he tells them – and the prize is crossing the Jordan River, together and united, into the Promised Land.
Reality, truth-telling, facts, cooperation, collaboration, and caring for one another. These are the tools that the Israelites will need to succeed.
The truth is: It’s no different for us today than it was over three thousand years ago. And when we forget, or neglect, what’s most important – that’s when we get into trouble.
Back in March, when we had to suddenly shut down our Religious School and move worship and study out of our beloved Temple building, many of us hoped and believed we’d be back by mid-summer. It didn’t really occur to us that we might need to shelter at home, avoiding contact with anyone but immediate family, for months on end.
It’s quite possible that if everyone – or at least the vast majority of everyones – had dealt in reality, facts, cooperation and caring for one another from the beginning, we wouldn’t be in the position we are now, with High Holy Days on Zoom, long quarantines for people like us who travel from one state to another, and so many parents and teachers terrified at the prospects of live schooling. But that’s not what happened. And look where we are.
A week ago, the number of people in our country known to have been infected with the virus passed four million, with hospitalization rates rising as well. This week, we passed 150-thousand deaths.
There are still no national mandates for masking and distancing. There’s still no national program for acquiring protective gear and distributing it where front-line workers need it most. There’s still no national program helping state and local government to open schools safely, or to do the testing and tracing that everyone has known for months has to happen.
But there sure are a lot of Americans who think that masks are for sissies and social distancing is for losers. Who reject the scientists and medical professionals who are giving us the facts and dealing in reality, but accept the claims of quack physicians assuring them they need do nothing at all, if those claims appear in the right social-media accounts.
People who refuse to cooperate and do the right thing for the sake of anyone else. Who verbally abuse, physically accost, and occasionally pull a gun on retail workers making minimum wage, when they ask them to follow the rules and put on a mask for everyone’s safety.
There are people who’ve contracted COVID who spend weeks on ventilators. Five minutes in a mask to get your latte and sandwich at Sheetz isn’t an infringement of your constitutional rights. It’s common sense, and common decency.
It’s also inherently Jewish.
The first five of the ten commandments reiterated this week speak to our direct relationship with God. The second half of the list directs us on our treatment of one another. So the way we show just how much we care about each other is a reflection of how much we care about God. Now, with Torah in our hands, it’s all on us. But we have to understand how our choices – to follow God’s path or not – impact everyone around us.
As my colleague Rabbi Max Chaiken wrote in this week’s Reform Judaism commentary:
“Perhaps most importantly, Va-et’chanan reinforces the idea of our own free will: While we cannot always control our circumstances, we are responsible for the ethical and spiritual choices we make as we walk our path through life.”
We cannot control the fact of the pandemic. But we can and must control our response to it. Deal in facts and truth and reality and common sense and kindness – and follow the best advice that the scientific community has to give us.
That, too, is Moses’s message to us in the parashah: O Israel, give heed to the laws and rules that I am instructing you to observe, so that you may live.
Moses uses the plural here – and not just because he’s speaking to the entire Israelite nation. He uses it as a clear message that our lives are dependent on one another. And that the life of the community – of the nation – depends on what each of us is willing to do for us all.
Ken yehi ratson. Let this be the message we take into our hearts and our lives every day. And let us say: Amen.
©2020 Audrey R. Korotkin