Divrei Torah

PARSHAS VAESCHANAN 5779

Priorities is a frequent dilemma that we face in life and this week’s Parsha speaks to the idea of priorities in several ways. At the end of the first Aliya, we read “And those of you who stick to G-d your G-d are all alive today.” The Yalkut Shimoni interprets this verse as referring to clinging to a righteous and holy person because that is the means through which we attach ourselves to G-d.

The Yalkut Shimoni says, “One who walks with the wise will become wise and a shepherd of fools will become evil.” We are affected by the people with whom we associate. The Yalkut explains that the cover of a Sefer Torah can be saved on Shabbos from a fire along with the Sefer Torah because the cover is attached to the Torah. Lot became wealthy because he was attached to Avraham. Joshua merited G-d’s protection because he was attached to Moshe. Rachel and Leah were protected in Lavan’s house because they wanted to attach themselves to Ya’akov . . .  Tzipora merited protection in Yisro’s home because she was going to be attached to Moshe.

With whom do we – as individuals – choose to associate? Who are our acquaintances . . . our friends . . . our business partners? A chevra can make or break a person. Some people have it easy. They fall into the right group of friends, they have a good class in school, they end up with a good teacher or they have a good business partner who can positively affect them. Others must work at it. Either way, we still must make the proper choices. G-d has given each of us knowledge and requires us to look closely with whom we associate - with whom we should seek influence. These choices impact our lives. The Torah provides a solution for us – stick to G-d – attach ourselves to people who follow the ways of G-d and the Torah.

Later in the Parsha, the Torah continues with the idea of priorities and sticking to G-d.  There are two famous verses that teach us the centrality to Judaism of the belief in G-d. One of these verses is the first of the Ten Commandments – “I am the L-rd your G-d who took you out from the Land of Egypt.” The other verse is the first of the Shema, “Listen Israel, the L-rd our G-d, the L-rd is One.” The Rambam’s first words in his famous halachik work the Mishna Torah are, “the foundation of all foundations and the pillar of all wisdom is to know that there is a G-d and He is the source of everything in the universe.” Our recital of the Shema every morning and evening demonstrates that belief in G-d is the basis of Judaism.

The Talmud in Brachos discusses the mitzva of saying Shema twice daily. We say three paragraphs when fulfilling the Mitzva of Shema. The first paragraph we say is “Shema”, the 2nd paragraph is “V’haya” and the 3rd paragraph is “Yayidabeir”, which mainly speaks about the mitzva of tzitzis. Now, if you look closely in the Chumash, you notice that we do not say the three paragraphs in the order that they appear in the Torah.

In the Torah, the paragraph about tzitzis is 1st, yet, we say it last. Shema is 2nd and we say it 1st. “V’haya” is 3rd and we say it 2nd. Why do we say the three paragraphs in a different order than they appear in the Torah?

The answer is that the paragraph of Shema deals with the idea of belief in one G-d and the obligation upon us to accept the yoke of Heaven. The paragraph of “V’haya” deals with our acceptance of the Mitzvos. The paragraph of “Vayidabeir” deals mainly with the mitzva of tzitzis. The Mishna explains that first one must accept G-d and the yoke of Heaven. Only then, can a person accept upon themselves to perform the mitzvos. Therefore, Shema precedes “V’haya”. 

We see from this that Shema must be first because without considering G-d, the mitzvos are just a bunch of nice things to do, but they would not be essential to life. We could make them optional . . . we could change them. They would not make us a special people. Many people don’t steal . . . many people are moral . . . many people don’t murder. Why should I keep Shabbos? Why should I keep kosher? Why can’t I wear clothing that has Sha’atnez – wool and linen? If I take G-d out of the picture, all the Mitzvos have no meaning. 

And that is true whether one is observant or not. One can be observant – “frum” – but not religious. Unfortunately, we see such people. Several years ago there was a “frum” person who punched a Gabbai in shul, Unfortunately, we have seen “frum” people behave rather poorly in grocery stores and elsewhere in public. We have seen “frum” people desecrate the name of G-d. They dress the part and act the part, but it is not in their hearts. For them, it is all a show. Eventually, it catches up with them – unless the law gets to them first. Their lack of religiosity will come out. People will see right through them and they won’t be able to hide it. If a person is religious – not frum, but religious – he/she makes G-d a priority – keeps G-d in mind and these things would not happen. 

That is the point that the Rabbis of the Talmud are trying to get across to us now in the 21st century just as they did in the 1st, 2nd, 3rd,, 4th and 5th centuries regarding the Shema. G-d is the priority. He must be first in our minds. After that, I can start to worry about the Mitzvos. I must do the Mitzvos, but they must be done with the proper mindset. Then, one will have a strong backbone to carry the yoke of the Torah.