Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 17 August 2019 / 16 Av 5779

Parshat Va'etchanan

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
Library Library Kaddish

Keep up the Guard

Before the recounting of the Sinai Event and the Ten Commandments, Moshe cautions the people: Only take heed, and guard your soul exceedingly, so that you do not forget the facts that your own eyes have seen, and so that they do not depart from your heart all the days of your life…” The Hebrew root for “take heed” and “guard” — shamar — primarily means to keep away from damage. “Take heed” (hishamer) means to keep away from influences that are antithetical to a certain purpose. Grammatically, the construction is usually hishamer lecha — “take heed for yourself” — i.e. for your own sake.

Here, Moshe instructs on the fundamental divergence in the Jewish worldview from the non-Jewish one. Non-Jews develop their approach to history and nature without these two facts that were perceived by Israel: the existence of One, Supernatural G-d, and the giving of the Torah.

The Jew is instructed to evaluate nature and history through the lens of this experience. The revelation of G-d and His Torah to the entire people is to be a point of departure for all study. In the midst of a world caught up in notions whose foundations are shaky, the Jew is to maintain his own intellectual independence. Take heed! If you pay heed to those erroneous notions, you run the risk of forgetting the realities attested to by your experience, realities from which alone the truths of life and existence can be derived.

And moreover, Guard your soul exceedingly! The un-Jewish view of nature and history may all too easily gain a dangerous advocate within your own heart. Once G-d has vanished from natural life, the natural life in man — his passions and natural urges — dominates him and is worshiped by him as a god. And once the Torah is banished from historical life, sovereign man — self-seeking and brutal — presumes to rule the world. These notions will readily appeal to man’s sensual and intellectual nature, tempting him to discard the yoke or moral sanctity on the one hand and the demands of justice on the other. Therefore, just as you must guard against un-Jewish influences from without, so you must guard your own inner being, and never lose sight of the great facts that your own eyes have beheld.

  • Sources: Commentary, Devarim 4:9

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