Vaetchanan - The Faith of Israel
Updated: Aug 21, 2019
This parashah presents two passages that define Israel's faith: the Ten Commandments and the first paragraph of Keriat Shema, the prayer that should be recited at the beginning and at the end of each day. The first verse of it begins with the phrase that refers to the uniqueness of God (6:4): “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one [or “alone”].”
How should the word “one” be interpreted in this verse? Rashbam and Ibn Ezra understand that the word is more than a mere numeral concept. It refers to the fact that only God should be worshiped. Moreover, it is possible, according to the Torah, to be monotheistic and, nevertheless, to be pagan, as Israel Efros clarifies (HaFilosofia HaYehudit HaAtika, p. 9-10).
The biblical emphasis is not only on belief in a deity, but in a God with unique and special characteristics. Exodus 34:14 states, “You shall not prostrate yourself before a strange God.” One could believe that there is only one deity but think of God in such “strange” ways, foreign to the essential character of God, that they are effectively worshiping a false idol, even if it is “one.” The God revealed to the people of Israel on Mount Sinai is eternal and absolutely spiritual, creator of everything that exists starting from nothing, Who is present with mercy and compassion in the existence of each human being.
The very next verse (Dt 6:5) reveals how people should relate to the God of Israel: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul [better: “being”?] and all your might." The verb “to love” is frequently used in the Bible to describe the relationship between the people and God. Elsewhere in the Bible, this proper sentiment is compared to that of a couple deeply in love (Jeremiah 2: 2; 31: 2; Hosea 1; 2). That is, incidentally, why the Song of Songs was included in the biblical canon, because, in the words of Rabbi Akiva, it represents the love between God and the people of Israel (Yadaim 3: 5; Tanchuma, Tetzave, 1), as also explained and emphasized by Maimonides in Yad, Hilkhot Teshuvah 10.
Notice that it is only after having proclaimed the Ten Commandments to the people at Mount Sinai (chapter 5) and after having warned them about the need to fulfill the commandments (chapter 4), that Moses stresses divine love. As with the love we experience in human relationships, without righteousness, justice and mercy, love is reduced to a mere instinct that does not dignify the human condition. Nor can such instinctual love serve to draw human beings closer to their Father in Heaven.