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August 13, 2022: Parashat Va’Etchanan – “Shema Israel”

This week’s parashah is taken from Deuteronomy 3:23—7:11. Join David this week as he unwraps the weekly Torah portion (Va'Etchanan) as Moses "implores" Hashem to reconsider His decree that Moses would not enter the Land. When Hashem denied Moses' "prayer petition", what did Moses do? He continued on, accomplishing what he had to accomplish mere weeks before his life would expire. He was faithful to the very end, because he knew his life was not his own. Just as he summed up in the most important Jewish prayer: the Shema.

Follow along in the AUDIO PODCAST, by clicking on the play button below, and reading along with the notes, as you listen to today's Parashat:

This week’s parashah is titled “Va’Etchanan”, meaning “I implored”, in which we see Moses continue the admonitions towards the nation of Israel from last week. The parashah opens up with Moses imploring Hashem to allow him to enter into the Land, which Hashem outright denies Moses’ request, telling Moses never to bring up the matter again; Moses reminds and reminds and reminds the Children of Israel about the decrees and ordinances taught to the nation throughout the 40 years in the Wilderness – that they are not to add or subtract from them, that they are to observe them and to safeguard them so as not to follow the ways of the other nations, and for Israel to be a great nation in the eyes of the world; Moses reminds them of their great and intimate encounter with Hashem at Mount Sinai; Moses foresees their future generations turning away from Hashem, of their scattering among the other nations, but that they will return back to the Land if they seek Hashem with all their heart and soul; Moses then rehearses the Ten Commandments for the people, and introduces the Shema declaration. All throughout, you find Moses almost like a broken record stressing to the people the importance of keeping their focus sharply directed towards Hashem, and that as a result, all will be well for them in the Land. Think about it, the great and fearless leader of the nation of Israel through the past 40 years – from Egypt through the Wilderness and now to the Jordan River – was not going to enter into the Land with the same people he led and taught, and advocated so dearly for. Moses knew what would happen – that the nation would eventually turn from Hashem, so he was doing his very best here to drive the message into their minds and hearts before they entered the Land without him.

The parashah opens with Moses speaking these words to the people in Deuteronomy 3:23-25:

וָאֶתְחַנַּ֖ן אֶל־יְהוָ֑ה בָּעֵ֥ת הַהִ֖וא לֵאמֹֽר׃

אֲדֹנָ֣י יְהוִ֗ה אַתָּ֤ה הַֽחִלּ֙וֹתָ֙ לְהַרְא֣וֹת אֶֽת־עַבְדְּךָ֔ אֶ֨ת־גָּדְלְךָ֔ וְאֶת־יָדְךָ֖ הַחֲזָקָ֑ה אֲשֶׁ֤ר מִי־אֵל֙ בַּשָּׁמַ֣יִם וּבָאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁר־יַעֲשֶׂ֥ה כְמַעֲשֶׂ֖יךָ וְכִגְבוּרֹתֶֽךָ׃ אֶעְבְּרָה־נָּ֗א וְאֶרְאֶה֙ אֶת־הָאָ֣רֶץ הַטּוֹבָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֖ר בְּעֵ֣בֶר הַיַּרְדֵּ֑ן הָהָ֥ר הַטּ֛וֹב הַזֶּ֖ה וְהַלְּבָנֽוֹן׃

I implored Hashem at that time, saying: “My Lord, Hashem/Elohim, You had begun to show Your servant Your greatness and Your strong hand, for what power is there in the heavens or on the earth that can perform according to Your deeds and according to Your mighty acts? Please let me cross and see the good land that is on the other side of the Jordan, this good mountain and the Lebanon.”

Remember, back in Parashat Chukat (Numbers 20:1-13), Hashem told Moses to speak to the rock to bring forth water for the people. Rather, Moses became angry with the people and struck the rock instead. As a result, Hashem prohibited Moses from entering the Land. So here, Moses was “imploring” Hashem to rescind His decree on him. What a harsh response from Hashem! Was it warranted? Did the penalty fit the crime? Of course it was warranted, and of course the penalty fit the crime if Hashem ruled so. As I said back then in Parashat Chukat, the fact of the matter is that Hashem determined that this decree was sufficient for Moses.

What is interesting here is the nature of Moses’ “imploring” (“va’etchanan”). In short, it is an expression of prayer. The word “va’etchanan” is a reflexive verb, and its root means “to ask for mercy”.

Rashi (R’ Shlomo Yitzhaki) comes along and comments: “This is one of the ten expressions which denote prayer.”

What are these ten expressions? We find the answer in the Midrash (Devarim Rabbah 2:1): “R’ Yochanan said: ‘There are ten terms by which prayer is called in Scripture, and they are these: “pleading” (“שַׁוְעָה” “shav’ah”), “crying out” (“צְעָקָה” “tse’akah”), “moaning” (“נְאָקָה” “ne’akah”), “singing out” (“רִנָּה” “rinah”), “entreating” (“פְּגִיעָה” “pegi’ah”), “self-fortification” (“בִּיצּוּר” “bi’tsur”), “calling out” (“קְרִיאָה” “keri’ah”), “falling down” (“נִיפּוּל” “nipul”) in prayer, “praying” (“פִילּוּל” “filul”), and “imploring” (“תַחֲנוּנִים” “tachanunim”).”

Moses recognized that he in no way deserved to have his prayer answered by Hashem, yet, he still prayed nonetheless. Oh how he desired to enter the Land, to see and walk the good Land flowing with milk and honey, the Land promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, their forefathers, and the same Land that he through great shedding of blood, sweat and tears led the Nation of Israel for 40 years to. As such, he came before Hashem as an impoverished man”, “imploring” Hashem to hear his humble petition.

Scriptures continue in Deuteronomy 3:26: “But Hashem became angry with me because of you, and He did not listen to me; Hashem said to me, “It is much for you! Do not continue to speak to Me further about this matter.”

Hashem did not even blink – He became angry with Moses and flat-out denied Moses’ request, and forbade Moses from broaching the matter ever again. The fact of the matter is this: Moses reached out in prayer with no certainty that Hashem would allow it – it was a bold act on his part before the Master of the Universe.

We learn of two seemingly contradictory elements of prayer here. That of humility – recognizing that we are insignificant and completely dependent on Hashem, coming before the Great Creator of this Universe. Yet, that of boldness – having the boldness to bring our small and insignificant selves with our mere petitions before the throne of the Great and Almighty King. Prayer is such an act of humility and boldness, coming before our Creator and King.

Prayer appears to be a seemingly pointless effort because we certainly aren't doing it with full confidence and absolute certainty that our prayers will be answered. Quite the contrary – we actually do not know, yet we hope and we believe… because of our dependence and faith in Hashem. We reach out to Hashem because we have come to the knowledge that our lives are not in our hands… that we are – each one of us – insignificant in the grand expanse of this universe, and we have learnt to rely completely and wholeheartedly on Hashem for everything in our lives. Everything!

Ask yourself the question, do you rely completely and wholeheartedly rely on Hashem for everything in your life? When your prayers don’t get answered, what do you do? Do you lose hope? Do you get frustrated? Does doubt, worry and fear begin to seep in? I think it’s safe to say that we have all been there. Yet, what do we do? We persevere in prayer! For some strange reason, we persevere… we continue to reach out each and every day to our Heavenly Father. Why? Because we believe in a power so much greater than we can accomplish on our own in this world. We learn to depend on our Heavenly Father. And this is precisely what He wants. This is what He desires. He wants to hear our prayers. Just because He doesn’t answer when we expect Him to answer doesn’t mean He isn’t listening.

With humility comes the realization that our lives are not our own – that the Master of the Universe is in control and we live by His will, and His will alone!

With humility, we learn to accept His answer – whether it is in accordance with our desires or not. Yet, it is that perseverance He desires, that reliance on Him is what He savours. Sure, Moses’ petition was not answered, but that’s not the point. Moses still reached out to Hashem in prayerful petition. And when Hashem outright refused to accept Moses’ supplication, Moses moved on. He finished his mission mere weeks before his ultimate death on the east side of the Jordan, reminding the people not to follow in their fathers’ footsteps, to remember the encounters of the Wilderness, to remember the decrees and ordinances of Hashem – all so that they would stay focused only on Hashem, and that their days in the Land would be prolonged.

Moses was obedient right up to the very end… even in his final days. Up to his very last day, Moses obediently served Hashem in shepherding the people in Hashem’s ways. And yet, if we go back to the beginning of this week’s parashah, remember that Moses “implored” Hashem to rescind his judgment on Moses not stepping foot into the Land. Didn’t Moses deserve a reconsideration? After all he had done for the Children of Israel? How many times did Moses stick out his neck to advocate on behalf of the people? Yet, he accepted Hashem’s final consensus – that Moses was not to enter the Land. Moses accepted it with humility. Moses accepted it because he knew his place before the Great and Mighty King of the Universe.

In Deuteronomy 4:35, Moses begins to sum this point up:

אַתָּה֙ הָרְאֵ֣תָ לָדַ֔עַת כִּ֥י יְהוָ֖ה ה֣וּא הָאֱלֹהִ֑ים אֵ֥ין ע֖וֹד מִלְבַדּֽוֹ׃

“You have been shown to know that Hashem, He is the God! There is none beside Him!

Moses goes on in Deuteronomy 4:39 to stress the point:

וְיָדַעְתָּ֣ הַיּ֗וֹם וַהֲשֵׁבֹתָ֮ אֶל־לְבָבֶךָ֒ כִּ֤י יְהוָה֙ ה֣וּא הָֽאֱלֹהִ֔ים בַּשָּׁמַ֣יִם מִמַּ֔עַל וְעַל־הָאָ֖רֶץ מִתָּ֑חַת אֵ֖ין עֽוֹד׃

“You shall know this day and take to your heart that Hashem, He is the God – in the heavens above and on the earth below – there is none other.

Here in these two verses, Moses was pointing out to the people the absolute Oneness of Hashem, that there is no other beside Him! These two verses also precursor the text that forms the most important prayer and declaration amongst the Jewish nation – the Shema, found in Deuteronomy 6:4-9: (though I will only be focusing on the first two verses only):

שְׁמַ֖ע יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵ֖ינוּ יְהוָ֥ה ׀ אֶחָֽד׃

“Hear, O Israel: Hashem our God, Hashem is One.”

וְאָ֣הַבְתָּ֔ אֵ֖ת יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֑יךָ בְּכָל־לְבָבְךָ֥ וּבְכָל־נַפְשְׁךָ֖ וּבְכָל־מְאֹדֶֽךָ׃

“[And] you shall love Hashem, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your possessions.”

The verses begin with an absolute declaration that Hashem is the God of Israel, and that He is the One and Only. He is all that is needed, and there is no other besides Him. This is a declaration of absoluteness and is the starting point to the verses that follow thereafter. The verses go on to reveal a commandment connected to that declaration – to love Hashem “with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your possessions.”

Or HaChaim (R’ Chaim ibn Attar) presents an interesting observation here: “There is an added vav (“וְ” “and”) to say that aside from the commandment of "Hear O Israel" – the commandment of accepting the authority of the Kingdom of Heaven upon ourselves, there is the additional commandment of loving Hashem. It also says that a person cannot reach the level of love of Hashem unless he first possesses fear of Hashem. This, then, is what it says, "and" you shall love; meaning, aside from the level of fear, which must come first, you shall also work to reach the level of love.

What he is saying is that the declaration: “Hear, O Israel: Hashem our God, Hashem is One.” – should invoke in the one declaring it a fear of Hashem, a sense of awe, humility and selflessness when conducting their lives in this worldas if one is always in the Presence of Hashem. From this fear of Hashem flows the love for Him.

Or HaChaim goes on to say: “Another thing the verse means to teach is that through a person's love of Hashem, he will attain the level where Hashem will designate His Name upon him individually, i.e., Hashem will identify Himself, as it were, with that individual… Our verse is saying that when you will love Hashem, Hashem will be "your" God.”

What a beautiful sense of “entitlement” and “attachment” to Hashem. Through your love for Hashem, He becomes your God. You are connected to Him and He is connected to you.

But what does it mean to love Hashem? How can we love a supernal entity that we can’t tangibly see, hear or touch? We can undoubtedly see, hear and touch each other, and love those with whom we have built established relationships with, namely family and close friends. Yet, how do we apply this same emotion of love for Hashem? Beyond that, we are commanded to love Him with all of our hearts, our souls and all of our possessions.

This is just as our Master Yeshua answered when asked by a scholar amongst the Pharisees what the greatest commandment in the Torah is in Mark 12:28-31:

“’What is the first of all of the commandments?’ Yeshua answered him: ‘The first of all the commandments is: Hear, O Israel! Hashem is our God; Hashem is One. Love Hashem your God with all of your heart and with all of your soul, with all of your knowledge, and with all of your strength. This is the first commandment. Now the second is similar to it: Love your fellow as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.’”

Yeshua went beyond the verse from the Shema to reinforce the point that our love for our Heavenly Father must be mirrored in our love for our fellow man, and vice versa. If we love our Heavenly Father, we learn to love our fellow man. And if we love our fellow man, we learn to love our Heavenly Father.

Or HaChaim adds: “The verse also wishes to teach us the way to accept and actually implement the words of the previous verse, in which we are commanded to love Hashem. Such direction is necessary because love is not a physical act like most commandments in the Torah, that a person can compel himself to do as an order of the King; it is, rather a matter of emotion, and as long as the heart does not experience a feeling that arouses yearning for Hashem, it will not be able to feel love, in spite of all attempts to force it. This verse thus means that when one constantly places the words upon his heart, and always remembers that even the all-encompassing aspirations for [the three needs in this world] –children, life and sustenance – are meaningless in comparison to the immeasurable joy of being close to Hashem, his heart will of its own accord begin to feel a yearning of spiritual desire to attach itself to Hashem, and his heart will surge with the love of Hashem, and he will seek to fulfill to the fullest all that Hashem commanded him. Thus, only by keeping such ideas "upon his heart," i.e., constantly upon his mind, will they eventually enter his heart and bear fruit, causing him to sense a love for Hashem.”

It is only through constantly keeping our focus on Hashem in all that we do that we attain a greater love for Hashem. We need to actively train ourselves to love our Heavenly Father through our fear of Him, through remembrance of his decrees and ordinances, by deploying our limited understanding of the emotion of love in this world and directing that emotion towards Hashem.

The verses go on to qualify that you must love Hashem with all of your heart, soul and possessions. In saying “with all of your heart”, it means that your desire to cleave to Hashem must be equal in intensity to the most powerful desire that exists in this world.

Or HaChaim uses the following example: “When a person feels a longing and desire for a beautiful woman [or a handsome man for you ladies] and all the more when his passion for her increases, his emotions will impact him so strongly that he will be unable to control himself and distract himself from it, and this passion will compel him to do that which he does not want to do.”

A perfect analogy that I believe we all can relate to. In saying “with all your soul”, it refers to the desire for things that are required for maintaining life in this world, such as eating, drinking and maintaining vitality. And by saying “with all your possessions”, it means you must love Hashem the same as you love all the money that you desire in this world.

Or HaChaim tells the story of a wealthy traveler to understand the matter of the yearning for Hashem:

“An important, extremely wealthy person wanted to travel to a faraway place because of the danger in the place where he was. He gathered all his belongings, sold them, and bought a large gem worth millions of golden dinars so that he could bring his entire fortune with him to his new location. He then started out on his journey to a faraway city where he could feel that his money and treasure would be secure. It happened, however, that before he arrived at the city where he had decided to go, his provisions ran out and there was not even on dinar coin left in his pouch, and, as a result of his lack of ready money, he had to subsist on meager rations, in great poverty and much humiliation. Now, although this person continued to travel in great poverty and suffering, nevertheless, he remained happy and joyful inside because despite his outward appearance, he knew that his power and wealth are great, and he will eventually leave this dangerous situation, and when he does, he will arrive exultant at his destination, bearing the large, precious stone, which will ensure his future of affluence and comfort.”

He goes on: “This matter is the same: a person who has merited to feel the sweetness of attachment to Hashem, and love for Him, and has accumulated all his money and wealth, i.e., he focused all his energies and resources in His service, would despise the idea of acquiring anything in this world both due to the danger that exists in the place, in addition to its trivial worth. Instead, he has taken Hashem for himself as a God, and there is no acquisition in the world as valuable as this acquisition, above and beyond the precious stone in the parable, for what can the great value of closeness to Hashem be compared to or equated with in this world? Therefore, just like the wealthy man in the parable, such a person, even if he will be in a state of privation and suffering during the short time he has in this world, his heart is firm, confident in Hashem, the Source of Eternal Light, and through all his troubles, his heart rejoices and his soul is elated, for he knows that he has something of incomparable value, and when he reaches his longed-for destination, the Everlasting World, which is secure from all troubles, he will enjoy his reward.”

This is likened to Yeshua’s parable on the hidden treasure and the pearl in Matthew 13:44-46: “The kingdom of Heaven can be compared to a treasure that a man found stashed in a field. He stashed it again, then joyfully went and sold everything he had and bought that field. Again, the kingdom of Heaven can be compared to a trader seeking good pearls. When he found a very precious pearl, he went and sold everything he had and bought it.”

In this latter parable by Yeshua, our love for Hashem is equivalent to the kingdom of Heaven. If we love Hashem, we will inherit the kingdom of Heaven. Our love for Hashem becomes far more clear for us as believers in Messiah Yeshua who came down to earth, and only taught the essence of the Torah – how to love Hashem with all of our hearts, with all of our souls, and with all of our possessions, and to love our fellows as ourselves. When those Pharisees asked Yeshua what the greatest commandment is, it was a no-brainer for him. He didn’t have to go evaluating each of the 613 commandments in the Torah. No, he knew it was all summed up in the Shema… that if one learns the essence of the Shema, that is all one needs. All the rest of the commandments are bound up in the Shema, or alternatively, are extensions of the Shema.

This is the beauty of the Shema – the simplicity of the declaration and commandment: “Hear O Israel, Hashem our God, Hashem is One. And you shall love Hashem your God with all of your heart, with all of your soul, and with all of your possessions.” It is not just about simply saying these words though, it is about living them – as Yeshua taught through his life, his actions, and his teachings. Yeshua’s love for his Heavenly Father ultimately led him to give his life on the cross – a selfless act out of love for Hashem and for the world.

A century after Yeshua had come and gone, one of Israel’s great teachers – Rabbi Akiva – following the Bar Kochba revolt, was arrested by Rome for practicing his beliefs, and was similarly crucified. It is recorded (Berakhot 61b): “When they took R’ Akiva out to be killed it was the time for reading Shema, and they were flaying his flesh with ironcombs [cat o’ nine tails], while he was accepting the yoke of the kingdom of Heaven. His disciples said to him: “Our master, to this extent?” He said to them: “All my life I was sorry about this verse – ‘with all your soul,’ even if He takes your soul. I said, when will I be able to fulfill it. Now that it has come to me, shall I not fulfill it?” He prolonged the word “Echad” until he expired.”

May we take the words of the Shema to heart each and every day that we live and breathe in this world, just as Moses and Yeshua after him lived through their humble and obedient lives before Hashem. May we say the words of the Shema with absolute intent and purpose, focusing on Hashem as the One and Only in our lives and in this world. May we acknowledge that our lives are not our own, but rather that our lives belong completely to Hashem. May the Shema serve as the basis for all of our prayers to Hashem, as we “implore” Hashem for all that we need with the intended purpose to serve Him with all of our beings. May our every breath be to the glory of His Name. May all of our hearts and souls and possessions all be for His Kingdom, His Glory and His Honour.


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