This week’s Torah Parashah is called “Vaetchanan” which means “And I pleaded” – a reference to the first verse of the Parashah, Devarim 3:23: “And I (Mosheh) pleaded with Yahweh at that time, saying …” This plea of Mosheh is of course completed in the verses that follow and the important part of his plea or his prayer is contained in verse 25, where he asks: “I pray, let me pass over and see the good land beyond the Yarden …”, We know that this prayer was never granted. The old rabbis have counted and said that there are 515 prayers or petitions of Mosheh recorded for us in the Torah. Interestingly enough, the numerical value of the word “vaetchanan” (“and I pleaded”) at the beginning of this Parashah, is 515. So, too, is the numerical value of the word “tefillah” (“prayer”) also 515! Another interesting fact is that this Parashah begins with a prayer (which may be represented by the words “Hear O Yahweh”) but is almost certainly more famous for the fact that it contains the “Shema” (which begins with the words “Hear O Yisrael” – Deut 6:4). In this sense, therefore, it is fair to say that Parashah Vaetchanan is all about the connection between “Hear O Yahweh” and “Hear O Yisrael” or, if we may simplify it even more, the interaction between Yahweh’s capacity to listen to his people, and our capacity to listen to Him.
The expression “Hear O Yisrael” (“Shema Yisrael”) is never found in any of the first 4 books of the Torah, but it is found no less than SEVEN TIMES in the Book of Devarim, in some form or other. These seven verses may be summarized as follows:
5:1 – Hear O Yisrael … learn and guard the instructions of Yahweh!
6:3 – Hear O Yisrael … and it will be well with you!
6:4 – Hear O Yisrael … Yahweh is our Elohim and He is one!
9:1 – Hear O Yisrael … go in and conquer nations greater than yourself!
13:11 – Hear O Yisrael … and do no more wickedness!
20:3 – Hear O Yisrael … let your hearts not faint or tremble!
27:9 – Hear O Yisrael … this day you have become the people of Yahweh!
Even just a brief look at these seven verses will confirm that there is, indeed, a very real connection between “Hear O Yisrael” and our prayers, often starting with the words, “Hear O Yahweh”. Isn’t it true that when we get into trouble, generally speaking, we are quick to run to Yahweh in prayer, but when all goes well, we are not always that quick to learn and guard the instructions of Yahweh? And if we had only listened to Yahweh in the first place, many of the things that had happened to us, and that had forced us into prayer, may not have happened.
What about the Shema – the well-known Devarim 6:4: Hear O Yisrael … Yahweh is our Elohim and He is One? Is this also related to our prayers and our pleas for Yahweh to hear us? Yes it is! All we need to do during those times when it feels as though we had reached the end of the road and when we can hardly get enough of calling out “Hear O Yahweh, hear O Yahweh”, is to calm down for a while, listening instead of talking. Maybe, then, we’ll hear the voice of Yahweh, saying: Hear O Yisrael, hear o fearful one, Yahweh is your Elohim and He is one. There is no other one. There is no other helper. There is no other Mighty One. But He, Yahweh our Elohim, is there. He is here. And He is able. No one can do what He can do. When we’ve reached the end of the road, here on earth, there is always Yahweh, our Elohim. And the fact that He is One, means that there is only ONE solution for us when we find ourselves in trouble or in need: Listen to Him, trust in Him, hold onto Him – He will step up and come to your rescue! If only we would listen to what He has to say!
The last four appearances of the phrase “Hear O Yisrael” are not part of this week’s Parashah, but are worth looking into, briefly. Devarim 9:1 basically says: “Hear O Yisrael … go in and conquer nations greater than yourself!” How many times in the past have we not approached Yahweh in prayer and asked Him to help us to conquer in a certain situation? “Hear O Yahweh, and help me to conquer this difficult relationship, or this illness, or this problem at work.” If this sounds familiar, we should start listening to Devarim 9:1: “Hear O Yisrael … I will enable you to conquer nations greater than yourself.” Maybe the problem is that we are so focused on our own situation and on our own enemy that we need to conquer, that we are unable to hear the voice of Yahweh – not only telling us what to do, but also reminding us how powerful He is!
Devarim 13:11, in most translations, comes to us in the format “Yisrael shall hear” (and not in the format “Hear O Yisrael”) but in Hebrew it is exactly the same two words “shema” and “Yisrael” standing next to each other and they are connected to the command to do no more wickedness. Wickedness is at the root of everything that goes wrong in this world. And our prayers and petitions are usually about situations that came about, as a result of wickedness. Even though it is not always advisable to try to link or to trace back every form of sickness or tragedy to a specific sin or transgression, the inherent wickedness of mankind is where it all began. Our prayers are often just aimed at the secondary problem, but the question is once again: What happened to our listening to Yahweh, and more specifically, to our listening to the words: “Do no more wickedness”? The Hebrew word where this word “wickedness” is coming from, contains the idea of “breaking to pieces”. It is more important, and in the end, much better, for us to try to remove from our lives and from this world those practices that tend to break things into pieces, than to try afterwards to mend the pieces back together!
Devarim 20:3 addresses the one aspect that often motivates our prayers: FEAR: Hear O Yisrael … let your hearts not faint or tremble! And why should we not tremble? The reason is given in the next verse: For Yahweh your Elohim is the One who goes with you, to fight for you against your enemies, to save you. Once again, had we taken the time and listened to what Yahweh was saying, right from the beginning, we may not have found ourselves in a situation where we were covered in a cloud of fear. He has already promised that He will do the fighting. He has already assured us that He will save us – we just needed to listen and to hold onto that promise!
To me, Devarim 27:9 is the highlight of these seven “Hear O Yisrael” verses. “Hear O Yisrael … this day you have become the people of Yahweh!” This is the reason why we have the liberty of praying to Yahweh – because, at some stage, we have become part of the people of Yahweh. We all need a day in our lives where we hear these words: This day you have become the people of Yahweh. Outside of this context I don’t see much point in directing our prayers to Yahweh. Yes, He is compassionate and sends his rain to the righteous and unrighteous, but intimate and effective prayer is designed for those who can pray “Our Father who is in heaven, let Your Name be set-apart, let Your kingdom come, let Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” So when we pray and our prayers do not come out the way we have hoped they would, like Mosheh’s prayer in our Parashah did not come out the way he hoped it would, we need to stop saying “Hear O Yahweh” for a moment and think about those precious words that were once spoken to us: “Hear O Yisrael, hear my son, hear my daughter, this day you have become part of the people of Yahweh!” Let us never forget that – not even when things get so dark that it feels like we are going to miss out on the Promised Land, as was the case with Mosheh!
Mosheh must have been devastated when he heard that he was not going to enter the Promised Land and especially so when Yahweh said to him: “Enough of that! (Afr: “Dit is nou genoeg”) – Speak no more to Me about this matter.” There was, however, a bigger picture that even Mosheh, perhaps, did not understand when Yahweh spoke these words to him. The Hebrew words translated as “enough of that” (“rav-lach”) may also be understood to mean: “You have enough (or plenty) already!” Isn’t this exactly what Yahweh sometimes tells us, and what we fail to hear, or fail to accept, because we are so determined to receive exactly what we have asked for? Sometimes He tells us: You have plenty already. Sometimes He gives and provides on a different level. And most of the times when we feel that our prayers are not answered, we need a little less “Hear O Yahweh” in our lives and a little more “Hear O Yisrael”.