Parashat Va’etchannan 5776

Rabbi Rebecca Birk, 19 August 2016


One of the best things in life, for me, are second chances. The ability to re- watch, re-experience, re-do moments in our life. Often because of something as casual as not paying attention the first time round.  And when we return to these experiences, they are the better for what we’ve learned and gone through. Apologising to a friend with the gift of hindsight. Re-reading Anna Karenina again, (and again). Learning at the second infant nursery concert that recording the action means we are not there to watch it truly in the moment. By child number three I rarely got my phone out. The fine teaching I received as a student at Leo Baeck College, which I may well have frittered at times, unaware of how precious and useful it would be. I now return to many of teachers and ask their counsel with the experience of those years in between that make my questions, conversation and ability to hear so different.

The opportunity to return and pay more attention a second time is a gift.

So this extraordinary parasha of V’etchannan has the rather happy task of repeating the ten commandants again for the Israelites. They are mostly the same, a neat duplication, but on closer attention, they are not and the nuanced changes transforms the whole thing. The Israelites have now completed their journey, they have the familiarity of living as a community guided by Moses (and God). They memory of the Exodus carried now by those who won’t have experienced it continues to inform who they are. They have endured the fierceness of God’s anger on numerous occasions vayichar af adonaithrough the book of numbers as they have continued their journeys. The second version in Deuteronomy adds a new reason to keep Shabbat, it is no longer to be like God who rested on the seventh day1 rather to remember you were a slave in the land of Egypt and the Eternal your God freed you…2. The weight of that redemption will be used forever as a threat, or an aide memoir for the gratitude and fragility they’ve endured.

Moses precedes the second giving with this poignant reminder of the ease of amnesia, the likelihood of the haze of history blurring the intensity of these covenant making moments of Sinai.

But take utmost care and watch yourselves scrupulously, so that you do not forget the things that you saw with your own eyes and so that they do not fade from your mind as long as you live. And make them known to your children and to your children’s children.3

Because it is so easy to let things fade.

Beloved life President of Finchley Progressive Synagogue, and Chairman of Liberal Judaism (1981-1983), Clive Winston, died 6 days ago. Clive was a man of constant re-learning, he brought a coherence to his life with the opportunities he had to return to new and familiar experiences. He brought grace and openness to all he encountered, be it new friendships in his eighties, his beloved daughters, rekindled intimacy with his brother and niece, ameliorating his bridge skills and loving his new cat and companion Georgie. And always sage observations of his synagogue. He relished second chances and renewed opportunities for paying attention and feeling grateful.

The rabbi Milton Steinberg returned to the pulpit after a long grave illness, compelled as he wrote to say to everyone… ‘How precious is your lot… Do not be, even for a moment, casual with your good fortune. We human beings, we frail reeds…how precious are our endowments—mind to know, eyes to see, ears to listen, hearts to stir with pity, and to dream of justice and of a perfected world. How often are we indifferent to all of these.”4

For those that don’t manage that heightened appreciation. there is always the second chance and opportunity to hear things again.

In short, va’etchanan is the second chance to hear these words and reminds and cajoles us to pay attention, to care about what has passed and to bring that vitality to each encounter with tradition and our contemporary lives. Clive taught me that. As did Arnold Wesker’s play Chicken Soup and Barley it ends with Ronnie’s mother begging him, You have to care Ronnie, you just have to care…5

And so we do as well.

1 Exodus 20: 11 modified from JPS translation 1967
2 Deuteronomy 5:15 modified from JPS translation 1967
3 Deuteronomy 4:9 modified from JPS translation 1967
4 Steinberg, Milton Sermon 1943-45 To Hold With Open Arms
5 Wesker, Arnold Chicken Soup with Barley 1958

Share this Thought for the Week