VA’ETCHANAN (Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11): Inspiration for the Jews and All of Humanity


by Rabbi Corinne Copnick


If you only read one chapter of the Torah, read Va’etchanan. If you missed the Ten Commandments first time round in Exodus, Moses repeats them here (5:6a-18). The Shema prayer, the core affirmation of Judaism, is also here (6:4-9), included in the re-teaching of the laws and regulations that Judaism requires. So, just in this one chapter, you learn the nuts and bolts of how to be a Jew. You learn about Moses’ autobiographical experience, and about why God chose the Jews to impart his wisdom. “It is not because you are the most numerous of peoples that the Lord set his heart on you and chose you – indeed, you are the smallest of peoples” (7:7).

In fact, there is an old folktale (a whimsical story not in the Torah) that says God first offered the Torah to all the powerful nations of the earth in turn, but all of them rejected his offer. It was too much trouble to observe all the rules and regulations, and, anyway they were too busy conquering nations, amassing riches, and building pyramids. So then God offered the Torah to Israel, and this little nation felt honored to accept living in accordance with its precepts.

Why did Jews really agree to live by the Torah? Was it because they had an inspirational leader? According to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the word “why” is the most powerful question one can ask. “In Va-etchanan,” he writes in ‘The Power of Why,’ (an online article excerpted from one of my favorite books, Covenant and Conversation) “Moses says some of the most inspiring words ever uttered about the why of Jewish existence. That is what made him the great transformational leader he was, and it has consequences for us, here, now.”

As every mother of a three-year-old toddler knows, the insistence of “why” begins early. We start to look around our environment, the world around us, and our sense of wonder is stimulated. It is the repeated question “why” that leads us to God. All too often we forget that question as we grow older. It is easier just to accept things as they are.

But, referring to the history of the world, and, especially to the history of the Jews as God led them from bondage in Egypt toward the Promised Land, the Torah has an answer to this particular question: “You have but to inquire about bygone ages that came before you, ever since God created man on earth; has anything as grand as this ever happened, or has its like ever been known?” (4:32).

And there is another, essential, reason for our Jewish history. We are meant to inspire, Rabbi Sacks says, to be a light to the rest of humanity by example. Our ancient history and teachings have been recorded in the Torah for centuries – but our story is not only for Jews, but also for everyone who finds value in it. People often forget that the Hebrew Bible is a vital part of Christianity, known as the Old Testament. What Jesus originally taught his followers was to return to the values of Torah, pure and simple. In addition to the Torah, the first five books, the Hebrew Bible includes the books of the Prophets and the Writings (such as Psalms and Proverbs).

One of the most essential things the Hebrew Bible teaches us is resilience, how to regain our strength and purpose after disaster. On this Sabbath we read Va’etchanan from the Torah because it is the Sabbath of Comfort. This reading comes right after Tisha B’Av, the holy day commemorating many collective Jewish disasters ( the destruction of the First (586 BCE) and Second (70 CE) Temples as well as the fortress of Shimon Bar Kochba (135 CE); and much later, the Edict of Expulsion of the Jews from England (1290 CE) and a century later, the Edict of Expulsion by the Spanish Inquisition (1492 CE). These cruelties were deliberately initiated on Tisha B’Av; so were some heinous crimes initiated by the Nazis in the twentieth century.

After the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans, Jews were prohibited from reading aloud from the Torah. Instead they followed the law by substituting similar messages from the Prophets. These became known as the Haftarah. There is one to accompany each Torah portion.

On the Sabbath of Comfort, Va’etchanan, a selection from the Haftarah is also read. It is the first (Nachamu, nachamu) of four Haftarahs of Consolation that are read preceding Rosh Hashanah. So on this special Sabbath when the inspiring Va’etchanan is read first, we are offered both comfort and consolation.


“Comfort, oh comfort My people,

Says your God.

Speak tenderly to Jerusalem…” (Isaiah 40:1-2).