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Jewish Journal

This Is the Torah

Parashat Va'Etchanan (Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11)

by Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom

August 2, 2001 | 8:00 pm

In most of our synagogues, upon conclusion of the public reading of the Torah, the scroll is lifted for all to see, and the congregation recites: "And this is the Torah that Moses placed before the Children of Israel. " (In the Sephardic tradition, the scroll is lifted before reading.)

This short verse, found in the middle of this week's Torah portion (Deuteronomy 4:44), seems a fitting praise of the Torah. Judaism is founded upon the belief that this Torah, the one we study and read, kiss and embrace, has been transmitted from Moses, teacher to student, for more than 3,000 years.

Yet, in a Torah portion replete with heavy topics, including the declaration of God's Unity ("Shema"), the Ten Commandments and theological statements, this verse appears in a curious context. And so, I'd like to leave those big topics aside and focus some attention on this little verse and its very big meaning.

In the middle of Moses' speech, outlining the basic beliefs of God's people, the text interjects a brief narrative:

"Then Moses set apart three cities..."(4:41).

The cities which Moses designated would become cities of refuge, where someone who unintentionally killed a fellow could flee and find safety from the avenging blood relative. After delineating the location of these three cities, the Torah presents us with our little verse:

"And this is the Torah that Moses placed before the Children of Israel."

Of all the noble and inspiring ideas mentioned in this week's portion (not to mention the rest of the Torah), why is this "summary" verse stated here? What is it about the cities of refuge that allows us to say "This is the Torah...?"

A number of years ago, I attended a meeting with fellow Jews amongst whom I was the only observant one. After the meeting, I was surrounded by many of the attendees who were reviving ancient memories from Hebrew School: "Is it true that we're not supposed to eat meat cooked in dairy pots?", "Do you really pray three times a day?" etc.

One person asked about touching a pencil on Shabbat. I began to detail the finer, technical points of Muktzeh, those items which are "out-of-bounds" on the Sabbath. In the middle of my explanation, a fellow passed by our circle, cocked an ear for a minute and then, realization dawning on his face, exclaimed for all to hear: "Oh yeah, that's why I'm not religious."

Indeed, anyone who encounters the Torah as an endless list of laws, regulations and restrictions with no attention paid to the inner meaning of actions and the development of the inner person would have little reason to commit to Torah observance. If being a frum Jew is summed up in not moving pencils on Shabbat and avoiding meat cooked in a dairy pot, very few people would willingly choose to embrace the Torah.

The law of the cities of refuge carries with it a novel teaching in the Torah. Most of the laws of the Torah, as they are presented in the text, make no mention of intention. Whatever the person may be thinking when he or she fulfills a mitzvah plays no role in the Torah's formulation of the law -- this area is developed in the oral tradition. If someone were to simply read through the Torah, he would have no reason to think that the law has any concern for what we think or feel -- just what we do.

Suddenly we encounter the cities of refuge, where the entire structure of the law depends on intention. Did the person plan the murder, or was it an accident? Was he lying in wait, hoping to ambush his adversary, or was the death the result of a work-related accident? Instead of not paying attention to what we think, the law puts all of its emphasis on deliberation, purpose and intention.

This is my very belated response to the fellow who was reminded, by a discussion about pencils on Shabbat, about why he wasn't religious. Without the pencils, the best intentions remain unanchored and soon drift away; our history has shown, time and again, that allegiance to the practice of Jewish law is our only guarantee of continuity. The pencils alone, however, aren't the Torah. The cities of refuge, the concern for justice and the significance given to Man's inner world -- that is the Torah.

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