The Power of Why
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The Parsha in a Nutshell
This summary is adapted from this week’s main Covenant & Conversation essay by Rabbi Sacks, available to read in full via the left sidebar (or below, if you are viewing this on your phone)
This week Moshe says some of the most inspiring words ever uttered about the why of Jewish existence. Moshe communicates an unshakeable certainty that what had happened to Bnai Yisrael would eventually change and inspire the world. This is what made him the great transformational leader he was, and his message has consequences for us, here, now.
First, Moshe was convinced that Jewish history was – and would remain – unique. In an age of powerful empires, a small, defenceless group had been liberated from the greatest empire of all by a power not their own, by God Himself. That was Moshe’s first point: the singularity of Jewish history as a narrative of redemption.
Second, he gave us the unique gift of revelation. Other nations had gods to whom they prayed and offered sacrifices. They too attributed their military successes to their deities. But no other nation saw God as their sovereign, legislator, and lawgiver. Elsewhere law represented the decree of the king or, in more recent centuries, the will of the people. In Israel, uniquely, even when there was a king, he never had legislative power. Only in Israel was God seen not just as a power but as the architect of society, the orchestrator of its music of justice and mercy, liberty and dignity.
The question is why. “See, I have taught you decrees and laws as the Lord my God commanded me…. Observe them carefully, for this is your wisdom and understanding in the eyes of the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’” (Devarim 4:5–6)
Why did Moshe, or God, care whether or not other nations saw Israel’s laws as wise and understanding? Judaism was and is a love story between God and a particular people, often tempestuous, sometimes serene, frequently joyous, but close, intimate, even inward-looking. What has the rest of the world to do with it?
But the rest of the world does have something to do with it. Judaism was never meant for Jews alone. God is the God of all humanity. Therefore what we do as Jews makes a difference to humanity, not just in a mystical sense, but as role-models of what it means to love and be loved by God. Other nations would look at Jews and sense that some larger power was at work in their history.
We were not called on to convert the world. We were called on to inspire the world. Our vocation is to be God’s ambassadors to the world, giving testimony through the way we live that it is possible for a small people to survive and thrive under the most adverse conditions, to construct a society of law-governed liberty for which we all bear collective responsibility, and to “act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly” (Micha 6:8) with our God. And this week’s parsha – Va’etchanan – is the mission statement of the Jewish people. We are not just another ethnic minority. We are the people who predicated freedom on teaching our children to love, not hate. Ours is the faith that consecrated marriage and the family, and spoke of responsibilities long before it spoke of rights. Ours is the vision that sees solving world of poverty as a religious task. Much is written these days about the what and how of Judaism, but all too little about the why. Moshe, in the last month of his life, taught the why. That is how the greatest of leaders inspired action from his day to ours.
- Why does Moshe choose to explain the ‘why’ of Judaism here, at this point in the Torah?
- If you had to sum up all of Judaism into a brief mission statement, what would you say?
- Do you think Judaism and the Jewish people are making an impact on the world today? How?
What Are You Doing?
Rabbi Doron Perez
The following personal story, that I once heard in a shiur from Rabbi Sacks, deeply impacted my life. It is a most powerful lesson of leadership and a critical question of the ‘why’ that Rabbi Sacks speaks about in this week’s parsha.
Rabbi Sacks recounted how he was once a young philosophy student at Cambridge who decided to spend a summer in the US. He mentioned how two people greatly impacted him in particular- Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik of Yeshiva University and the Lubavitcher Rebbe. In his discussion with the Rebbe, the Rebbe asked him what he was doing. Rabbi Sacks responded that he was studying philosophy at Cambridge. The Rebbe asked him once again, what it was that he was doing there and he responded again that he was studying philosophy at Cambridge. The Rebbe then, astonishingly, said “Jonathan, I did not ask you what you are studying in Cambridge, I asked you what you are doing in Cambridge?” Why did Hashem put you in Cambridge; what is your mission on behalf of the Jewish people in Cambridge; whose lives are changed for the better because Jonathan Sacks is in Cambridge?!
This interaction had a deep impact on Rabbi Sacks’ life, and thereafter on mine, as it highlights the question of the ‘why’ in life. It is absolutely critical not only to ask how we should do things and what we are doing but also why we are doing them. The question of why is a much deeper existential deeper question. It touches on the core of who we are and on our deepest motives and intentions. We must aim to make the biggest impact that we can, using all of our God-given qualities and talents to make a positive difference to all around us. Rabbi Sacks was a living example of this – we too should aspire to live in this way.
The new series of Covenant & Conversation: Family Editions features one new voice each week. We hope that this will further illuminate the ideas of Rabbi Sacks and encourage others to continue these conversations with the next generation, as we share the stories and ideas of Rabbi Sacks scholars.
Rabbi Doron Perez is the Executive Chairman of World Mizrachi, the global Religious Zionist movement currently in 32 countries.
A Closer Look
Rabbi Perez now shares some of the deeper ideas he learnt from Rabbi Sacks.
Which idea expressed in this week’s sedra is the most important for the next generation?
This week Rabbi Sacks writes, “The conclusion I have drawn from a lifetime lived in the public square is that non-Jews respect Jews who respect Judaism.”
This quote is so powerful, because it reminds us that we are most respected when we are true to our genuine selves and authentic to who we are as Jews. It’s a lesson for life.
What influence did Rabbi Sacks have on your own life, and on your Judaism?
Rabbi Sacks is a powerful example of the importance of integrated Judaism. For him there was no contradiction between Torah Judaism and modernity, between secular studies and spiritual life, between humanism and Jewish nationalism- Zionism. His teachings inspired me to be a deeply committed Jew and yet to also aim to have a global impact for all of humanity.
Can you share something you learnt from Rabbi Sacks himself?
The personal story that I shared about Rabbi Sacks and his encounter with the Lubavitcher Rebbe had a powerful impact on my understanding of leadership. Rabbi Sacks would often say, “Good leaders create followers, great leaders create leaders.”
Question: Parshat Va’etchanan begins with the prayer of Moshe. In Yiddish, to pray is to “daven” What is the origin of the word “daven”?
This question has been adapted from Torah IQ by David Woolf, a collection of 1500 Torah riddles, available worldwide on Amazon. For the answer, please head to the Education Companion section (directly below, in grey).
Torah Trivia: this week’s answer
The Ta’amei Haminhagim (161) explains that since the daily prayers were established by Avraham (Shacharit), Yitzchak (Minchah), and Yaacov (Ma’ariv), they are considered “d’avuhon” – “from our fathers,” and this became the word “davening”.
Written as an accompaniment to Rabbi Sacks’ weekly Covenant & Conversation essay, the Family Edition is aimed at connecting teenagers with his ideas and thoughts on the parsha.
With thanks to the Schimmel Family for their generous sponsorship of Covenant & Conversation, dedicated in loving memory of Harry (Chaim) Schimmel.
“I have loved the Torah of R’ Chaim Schimmel ever since I first encountered it. It strives to be not just about truth on the surface but also its connection to a deeper truth beneath. Together with Anna, his remarkable wife of 60 years, they built a life dedicated to love of family, community, and Torah. An extraordinary couple who have moved me beyond measure by the example of their lives.” — Rabbi Sacks