V’Etchanan

Deuteronomy 3:23 – 7:11

(And I implored)
V’Etchanan tells the story of Moses’ plea to enter the Promised Land. It goes on to recount the Ten Commandments, and also gives us the Sh’ma, our central prayer that affirms the Unity of God.

THE BLESSING

THE DRAMA OF V’ETCHANAN recounts Moses’ plea for grace. As our story unfolds, Moses implores God to allow him to enter the Promised Land. God’s response is interpreted by Moses as an angry and terrible “NO!”… as a withholding of grace.

God says, “Rav lakh!” You have so much! Stop fixating on your idea of what you want! And then God instructs Moses to climb to the top of the mountain and get a clear view in all directions so that he might see and know that he has already arrived. The promise has already been fulfilled.

As we search for Grace in our own lives, we often come to that search with a preconceived notion of what our success must look like. We look towards the Promised Land — the right partner, perfect health, enough money, the right places to live and work. Our time and culture condition our goals; they drive us onward in our journeys, blinding us to the destination beneath our feet. As Grace pours into our lives from within or without, we will not recognize or receive its flow if we are fixated on a certain picture, on a particular outcome, a specific idea of success. Our expectations will blind us to the Promised Land that is before us and within us.

THE BLESSING of V’Etchanan is the opportunity to hear God’s words again, “Rav lakh!” You have so much! I am answering your request in this very moment, but you must open your eyes to receive it. You must lift your eyes beyond your own limited expectations. You must climb the mountain to take in the wide expanse. You don’t need to cross the Jordan. You are already Home.

We take this journey in order to be strengthened, purified, transformed, refined. We journey so that our eyes may be opened.

V’Etchanan blesses us with a map for that path of awakening in the form of the Ten Commandments and the Sh’ma.

THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, written on the tablets, represent the Covenant. This covenant is the Truth of our connection to the ultimate reality hidden beneath the apparent surface of things. V’Etchanan blesses us with a path of attunement to the essential truth of our existence. Ignoring or contradicting the guidelines carved on the tablets of covenant, will serve to keep us from knowing and experiencing that connection to God and to the whole of Life. If the line of connection to our Source is broken, then awakening becomes impossible and our relationship to Reality becomes distorted.

But what kind of blessing is this? Haven’t we already received the blessing of this gift earlier in our journey in the Book of Exodus? How can it be given again? Here is the secret of Deuteronomy; its earliest title being Mishneh Torah, the “repetition of the Torah.”

What looks like repetition is actually the journey spiraling to a deeper level. When the Ten Commandments are given a second time, they are not accompanied by fire and thunder as they were at first. Instead they are given in the quiet of our practice, and they open us to an even deeper mystery, which is the Sh’ma. “Listen God-wrestler, YHVH is your God, YHVH is One.” The words of the Sh’ma pierce through the veils of illusion. These words have the power to awaken us from our trance of separation that obscures the truth that there is Only God.

I FIRST EXPERIENCED the power of the Sh’ma in a Native American Sweat Lodge. This happened one moonlit night more than twenty years ago in a lush New York forest. The ceremony was being led by a very learned and devout man, Jewish by birth, who had been adopted into the Lakota tribe. He chanted in their holy language and followed their rules and traditions with respect and reverence.

Sweat Lodges are designed to facilitate our deepest prayer. Volcanic rocks are heated all day in a fire and then ceremoniously placed in to a hole at the center of the lodge. The door is closed and the circle sits in complete darkness except for the glow of the red-hot rocks. As sacred herbs touch the rocks, the lodge fills with smoke. As water is poured onto the rocks, the lodge fills with fragrant steam. As our artifice is burned away, the lodge fills up with prayer.

This particular lodge was hotter than any I had ever experienced before. The heat, smoke, and chanting seemed to strip away everything — ideas, memories, hopes, will, my very identity felt as if it was burning away. I felt like I was going to die. Suddenly we all cried out the Sh’ma. (In truth, I didn’t even know these people were Jewish.) As the sound of this ancient prayer poured through us, ten spiritual seekers — all born Jewish — none of us connected to a Jewish path, were all startled awake. Completely cleansed of fear, we were all suddenly open to a Love that was at once given and received.

I still call on the memory of that Sh’ma in the Sweat Lodge to inspire me in my prayers. It inspired in us the power to transcend our fear of Death — a fear that is rooted in our identification with Duality — the mistaken conception that anything is separate from God.

WHEN GOD TELLS MOSES to climb the mountain and lift his eyes, we are being invited to receive a glimpse of Unity. From the summit of this mountain, everything that we thought separate, all of the opposites that have warred within us, are suddenly united. It is all Echad — “One.” Then the fullness of Love can flow. Then, “You shall love God with all your heart and all your soul and all your might.” When we experience the knowledge of the Unity beyond Duality, it takes root inside us, and we become lovers of the highest order.

THE SPIRITUAL CHALLENGE

V’ETCHANAN OFFERS US the challenge of transforming the power of Desire from a potential prison into a vehicle for Enlightenment. Each of us must climb the mountain of our own desires and lift our eyes to see beyond what we have come to expect or imagine.

Sometimes our spiritual challenge comes to us in the form of a koan. In the tradition of Zen Buddhism, a koan is a question that can’t be answered by linear thinking. Instead we must embrace the question itself, by taking it into our meditation and into our lives. The apparent contradictions that emerge on the path of our Torah Journey require that we open ourselves to living with and being with the Mystery until the answer breaks forth from a place beyond rational thought, a place of knowing and experience.

V’Etchanan teaches us that our very lives depend upon developing the practice of D’vekut, cleaving to God through the fullness of loving desire. (Deuteronomy 4:4) Twenty verses later, God defines Herself as “a consuming fire.” (Deuteronomy 4:24)

The Talmud asks: “How do we cleave to a God who is
a consuming fire?” (Talmud Bavli, Ketubot 111b)

This koan leads us to the edge of a great abyss. Every step of our journey has been fueled by a profound longing for D’vekut, the experience of Oneness. Yet the self who desires must be annihilated in the process. “How do we cleave to a God who is a consuming fire?”

GUIDANCE FOR PRACTICE

Our Holiday cycle celebrates the steps along the way of the Journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. Passover commemorates the Exodus from Egypt; Shavuot remembers the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai; Sukkot celebrates our journey through the wilderness. So it was perplexing to me that there is no holiday that celebrates the longed-for arrival in the Promised Land. After all, that was the point of the journey, wasn’t it? A celebration would seem to be in order. When do we celebrate the completion of our journey?

I put this question to Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, and he suggested that Shabbat was our holiday of arrival in the Promised Land.

Shabbat is the time of experiencing the truth of “coming home.” We expand our consciousness wide enough to embrace the paradox that our lives are a difficult and harrowing journey filled with struggle, tragic loss and suffering… AND YET, we have already arrived, and each moment offers us its absolute perfection. All week long we may long for Messiah — an era of Freedom — when we come to Shabbat we know that we are already redeemed.

Our Holiday of Fulfillment

AFTER LIGHTING THE SHABBAT CANDLES this week of V’Etchanan, take some time to gaze into the flames.

RECEIVE THE DIVINE WORDS, “Rav lakh” (You have SO much!) Stop fixating on your idea of what you want.

THEN SEND YOUR STORIES, your tragedy, your questions, your unquenchable desire into the flame. Let the power of God-Who-Is-a-Consuming-Fire burn away regrets and pride for the past; let it burn away worries and hopes for the future.

LET GOD-WHO-IS-A-CONSUMING-FIRE reveal this present expanded moment of Shabbat. Let these Shabbat flames illuminate the expanse of the Promised Land within you.

REST IN THE KNOWLEDGE and pleasure of coming Home at last.

I used to perceive Judaism as enormously depressing, always remembering the destruction of the Temple, mourning a terrible history of oppression, and yearning for an impossible future. Yet now I see that Shabbat, the holiday of arrival and fulfillment, is our most nurturing, most accessible, most important holiday. And it happens every week!


Torah Journeys: The Inner Path to the Promised Land
©2006 Shefa Gold. All rights reserved.