A week ago on Shabbat, I was honored to present the drash ( דְרַשׁ ) (a commentary on the week’s Torah portion) at my synagogue. The week’s portion was Va’etchananan, which is found in De’evarim (Deuteronomy) 3:23 – 7:11. It is the (second) recounting of the events at Sinai, and it just goes to prove that what was old is new again. Or that what is new is old again. One or the other. Or something else entirely. I reprint the text of the drash here. Perhaps you can figure it out.
Drash for Va’etchanan Devarim / Deuteronomy 3:23 – 7:11
Va’etchanan is a loaded, powerful Torah portion. It is the high point of transition and growth – the historical transition from tribe to community, as well as the individual’s psychological transition from slave to free agent. Both the Jewish community and the individual Jew are defined here, each emerging from the rigidity, certainty, and circumscription of slavery into a new world of free will, covenant, and promise.
It is a legal and moral treatise, an argument on behalf of intellect, but it is wrapped in a vivid narrative of physical sense and sensation that elicits a physical, visceral response.
It contains passages that are fundamental to Jewish liturgy and religious thought, non-negotiable bedrocks of Judaism – The Shema, the Ten Commandments, the Aleinu, the V’ahavta – yet the text is awash with contradictions whose reasoned reconciliation demands intellectual flexibility.
It imparts lessons that were as essential to Jewish culture then as they are to world culture today.
The narrative, through its use of strong sensory imagery and contradiction, delivers a story that we cannot forget and defines an agenda for human growth in a manner that is consistent with current advances in the fields of learning and human potential.
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Science has shown us that physiology and psychology are intimately and inexorably connected in ways that we did not previously understand.
Our understanding of the human brain has evolved.
Once, we understood that three pound mass of gray matter as finite and fixed,
its circuitry and wiring alive with potential at birth, but nonetheless limited by genetics and the particulars of individual physiology.
Damage to any one part of the brain resulted in loss of the corresponding function.
Learning – the learning that begins in infancy – resulted, not from the creation of neural connections, but rather from their elimination.
And this elimination was thought to be permanent and progressive, the contours of the brain and mind permanently carved and etched by the intersection of genetics, experience, and the luck of the draw.
This thinking resulted from the best that reason and science had to offer at the time: from a paradigm that separated mind and body, that separated brain from body.
From a paradigm that regarded the five senses as passive receptors, separate and distinct from one another, useful only for the raw information that they collected and deposited into their respective regions of the brain, whose structures and functions were as separate and distinct as the senses themselves.
The information collected by our senses was suspect – it was only valid once it had survived the intellectual scrutiny delivered by our rational and disciplined minds.
This approach stripped the vagaries of human emotion from the equation. Emotion, hope, belief – all quite ephemeral and unscientific – were to be trusted even less than our senses were. They were nice ideas, but not a part of substantive reality and certainly not agents for change and growth.
What we were left with was a mechanistic and constricted view of the human mind, the human brain, and human potential.
Hope for the future, be it individual or societal, was bound by the reality of the present.
Bound by physiology, bound by our brains, bound by genetics, bound by history, bound by experience.
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We now know that none of that need be true.
We now know that the senses, that emotion, are all essential to accelerated and lasting learning.
We now know that we need the belief and vision, as well as logic, reason, and an honest assessment of reality, in order to effect personal change and growth.
We now know that the brain is neither rigid nor compartmentalized, that it is quite plastic.
That one sense can stand in for another sense that is lacking.
That one hemisphere of the brain can perform the functions of the missing hemisphere.
That perception, response, action, and thought changes both the structure and the function – the “hardwiring” – of the brain.
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In many ways the authors of this week’s portion knew this long ago.
They used strong sensory language and outsized narrative to impart the most important lessons of our tradition.
They included ambiguity and contradiction, and insisted upon the truthfulness of that totality.
They provided us with rules – mishpatim – “prescribed boundaries” – definite, resolute, inarguable reality, and in the same sentence provided us with chukim – case law, individually determined justice, nuance, human-defined reality.
They insisted upon the primacy and interconnection of the physical and the intellectual.
In this key, transitional passage, they engaged our physical senses to demonstrate the ineffable – to prove meaning, to create meaning, to open up and expand meaning – to create that which is essential to growth and survival – boundaries and freedom, exclusivity and universality.
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One of the beauties and mysteries of the text is the Shema.
I offer my take on it, in an effort to support and summarize the theme of this drash.
And I do so free-form, in a manner approaching the poetic, as that is what comes most naturally to me.
“Hear, Oh Israel, The LORD our God, the LORD is One.”
The Shema – that simple, fundamental, basic statement, with the mystery of the emboldened letters – Ayin ( ע ) and Daled (ד ).
Ayin at the close of the first word, “Shema”, and Daled at the close of the last word, “Echad.”
Ayin – a letter that produces the sound of silence, the elevated letter at the end of the first word of what is Judaism’s primary, fundamental statement.
Ayin – the letter that originated from the hieroglyph for the word “eye,” consummating the word that is the beginning of it all, “Shema” – “Hear.”
Ayin – creating, with its silence, “hearing.”
Ayin – silence essential to hearing.
Ayin – originating from sight, creating hearing, and then, once hearing is established, bringing forth vision and sight from that hearing.
Two seemingly distinct and separate senses, interdependent, and far from separate.
Hearing, vision, silence leading to and culminating in Echad – “One.”
Echad – Judaism’s fundamental truth delivered in a single word.
Echad – a unity of all disparate things, a concept that insists upon the dissolution of distinction.
Echad – the principle of “no beginning and no end.”
Echad – a word of unity that ends with a letter that stands separate from all others in that word.
Ending with a visually advancing Daled – the hieroglyphic symbol for “door.”
A passage in and a passage out.
Neither beginning, nor end,
merely passage and transition.
©3 August 2012 Isabella Darling. All rights reserved. Images as attributed.