Sign In Forgot Password

Vaetchanan 5780 ~ July 31, 2020

Civil rights leader, John Lewis, desired that his legacy live on not only through remembering his life and his work, but also through his words. I wonder if he knew that we would be reading parashat V’aetchanan as this week’s Torah reading when he penned his ethical will with a request that it appear in the Opinion Section of the NY Times on the day of his funeral. His words parallel Moses’s final life teachings when he urged Americans to continue in his footsteps. “Though I am gone, I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe.” As Moshe prepares for his end of days, he too pens an ethical will. We know the words quite well, since they include the Ten Commandments and the words of the Shema. Moshe addsv’asita hayashar v’hatov b’einei Adon-ai,” that “one should do what is right and what is good in the eyes of the Lord.”

Why was it necessary for Moshe to add this statement to the words of God? Weren’t the laws enough of a statement to teach what was right and just? Clearly honoring parents, not stealing, not murdering, not committing immoral acts, not coveting, observing a day of rest for oneself, and a faith in belief in God cover what are quintessential in values that instruct us how to treat others and ourselves as well.

When we read the words of the Decalogue, beyond their literal meaning, we find the valuable message of what Moses was teaching when he said: “one should do what is right and what is good in the eyes of the Lord.”

It is the juxtaposition of the laws of the Ten Commandments that enhance the lessons, values and morals to live by. We are reminded, for example, that stealing someone’s honor and their dignity by persecuting them, humiliating them, and treating them with less than the respect that every individual is entitled to is tantamount to murder of that individual’s soul. When one does not provide respect to the worker, but only provides a sabbath for oneself, that violates the laws of observing one’s own Sabbath. To honor a parent takes much more effort when one gets older and their needs are much greater and our time becomes more limited. The rabbis in the Talmud teach that in our older ages, when we still provide kavod to our parents and do not expect anything in return (such as an inheritance), that is doing what is “upright and right in the eyes of God.” We should not denigrate them or shirk our obligation to them. Back in their time, the rabbis even understood dementia, and the adult child’s obligations to a parent to provide them with honor, care and respect. That is what it means to do “what is right and good in the eyes of God.”

John Lewis also followed Moshe’s suggestion to continue to inquire about “bygone days.” History is the greatest teacher of past injustices, hatred and ways in which others protected their own rights, at the expense of others. It is also a grand teacher of the possibilities for a new messianic age in our world. Pharaoh’s inability to understand is the Biblical version of misguided leadership. Job’s understanding of his own sad predicament is instructive on the wisdom of understanding our own life’s difficulties. Korach teaches us about the dangers of organized rebellion. Joshua’s apprenticeship inspires future leaders to gain from mentors. The concept of the Promised Land is one that teaches us how to reach for a day which could be as beautiful as the first days of Creation. When we recognize the injustices in our own history, then we understand the injustices that still exist in our world today. As anti-Semitism is on the rise again today, we must not only work to eradicate the hatred targeted in our path, but to help those who are experiencing a similar hatred in their worlds.

The Ramban teaches through the words of Moshe: “it is possible to keep the letter of the Torah and yet violate its spirit….Often in everyday life there are cases to which no direct and explicit injunction of the Torah applies. But we are called upon to act in these circumstances in accordance with the general principle of holiness and righteousness.” (Nechama Leibowitz).

That is the legacy of Moses. It is his ethical will. It is ours to learn from and to hear in its different forms from others who followed in his footsteps.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi K

Fri, June 24 2022 25 Sivan 5782