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A tree of life to all who hold fast
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A tree of life to all who hold fast

Vaetchanan — Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11

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Parashat Vaetchanan contains some of the most familiar passages in the Torah. Moses reminds the people how their forebears had stood at Sinai and heard the voice of God. He then repeats the Aseret HaDibrot, the Ten Statements, which we first read in parashat Yitro.

Our parasha also contains the first paragraph of the Shema, beginning “Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad,” the one Hebrew sentence known to virtually every Jew.

And there’s one more verse you should recognize, because it is what the congregation says after the gabbai calls the first person to the Torah, just before the Torah is read: “V’atem ha-d’veikim bAdonai eloheikhem chayim kulkhem hayom,” you who hold fast to the Lord your God are all alive today.

In context, these words are part of Moses’ review of history, a simple statement of fact. After Moses recalls the episode of Baal Peor, when the Israelite men were tempted by the Moabite and Midianite women and engaged in immorality and idolatry, so that 24,000 died in a plague sent by God, he then continues, “but you, who didn’t turn away from God, remain alive.”

We recite this verse before the Torah reading because the person who comes up for an aliyah holds on to the Torah roller, known as an etz chayim, tree of life. By holding on to the Torah he or she also holds on to God.

The Midrash Tanchuma notes: “This is like a person thrown into the water. A pilot throws a rope and says, ‘Hold on to this rope and do not let go of it. If you let go, you will lose your life.’ So too, the Holy One said to Israel, ‘As long as you hold on to the mitzvot, the words “You who hold fast to the Lord your God are all alive today” apply to you.’”

The Talmud records many stories about Rabbi Akiva, the greatest scholar of the first part of the second century. This is one I particularly like:

Our Rabbis taught: The wicked government once issued a decree forbidding the Jews to study the Torah. But Pappus ben Judah found Rabbi Akiva teaching Torah to public assemblies. Pappus said to him, “Akiva, are you not afraid of the government?”

Akiva replied: “I will answer you with a parable. A fox was once walking alongside a river, and he saw fishes anxiously swimming from place to place. He said to them, ‘From what are you fleeing?’ The fishes answered, ‘From the nets cast for us by men.’ The fox said, ‘Why do you not come up and find safety on land, so that you and I can live together [in peace]…?’ But the fishes replied, ‘Are you the one they call the most clever of animals? You are not clever, but foolish. If we are afraid in the one element in which we can live, how much more would we have to be afraid in the element in which we would certainly die?’

“So it is with us. If we are in such danger when we sit and study the Torah, of which it is written, ‘For thereby shall you have life and shall long endure’ (Deuteronomy 30:20), how much worse our situation will be if we were to neglect the Torah!” (Berakhot 61b)

Rabbi Joyce Newmark, a resident of River Vale, is a former religious leader of congregations in Leonia and Lancaster, Pa.

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