Rabbi Stephen Fuchs
The Union for Reform Judaism’s Shabbat Manual contains one of my favorite prayers: “Help us O God to distinguish between that which is real and enduring and that which is fleeting and vain!”
Parashat Va-etchanan contains both the Sh’ma and the deuteronomic reiteration of the Ten Commandments, two of the most “real and enduring” gifts of our people to human thought. Emphasized in the sedrah is God’s solemn warning to the people as they stood at the foot of Mount Sinai: Do not make a sculptured image or any material form as an object of worship but seek to do the will of the invisible God with all your heart and soul (DT 4:29).
Many years ago I heard Eli Wiesel quote the famous passage from Pirke Avot (3:1 in the name of Akavaya ben Mehallelel): “Know from where you came, where you are going, and before whom you are destined to give account.”
“Now, which of these,” Wiesel asked rhetorically, “is the most important? The most important,” he asserted, “is ‘from where you came!’ Every Jew should always remember that he/she came from Sinai.”
Our tradition teaches that all unborn generations of our people stood with our ancestors at the foot of that mountain. There they heard God command us not to worship things we can see and touch.
How vital and how unheeded that lesson remains! So many of us make money and fame our gods. We measure our success by our salaries and press clippings. We worship the athletes and entertainers who make mega-millions. We covet the lifestyles of CEOs who make in an hour what minimum wage earners take home in a year!
This is the idolatry the Torah condemns. In our worship of material things we ignore the immense debt we to the Almighty.
Before God intervened, we were lost in a world of oppression and meaningless drudgery. We worked unceasingly to build store cities and pyramids to the glory of the Egyptian pharaoh-god. Day after day we endured the same mind-numbing routine.
But God went to war with pharaoh to get us out of there! In so doing the Eternal One gave us the possibility of a life of purpose and meaning. Redeemed from service to Pharaoh, we pledged to serve God by working to replace the hatred and violence in this world with tzedakah, mishpat, and chesed – righteousness, justice and lovingkindness.
When I think of the debt we owe God for redeeming us from Egypt, I think of a small child, who somehow wandered out into the street. The mother looks up to see a truck speeding toward her little one, and she realizes with horror that she cannot save the child herself. At the very last second a person runs into the street, swoops up her child and rolls to the other side, just in time to avoid the truck. Clearly, there is nothing the mother can do to adequately repay the one who saved her child.
That is the debt we owe the Eternal One for pulling us – just in time – out of “the iron blast furnace” of Egypt! (DT 4:20). We can never fully recompense the Eternal One for bringing us from Egypt to Sinai, but we should try unceasingly to do so.
At Sinai we renewed with our invisible, untouchable and in many ways unfathomable God, the covenant that God first made with Abraham and Sarah. In exchange for our freedom, a meaningful Jewish future and the Promised Land, we pledged to use our talents and abilities to seek meaning and purpose in our lives beyond our own success. It is a covenant that requires us to “distinguish between that which is real and enduring and that which is fleeting and vain!”
Rabbi Stephen Fuchs is the author of What’s in It for Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives. He is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel in West Hartford and former president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism.