Humility Toward God, Even in Victory

Va'et-hannan By :  Matthew Berkowitz Former Director of Israel Programs, JTS Posted On Jul 17, 2013 / 5773 | Prayer

Parashat Va’et-hannan, the second Torah reading of the book of Deuteronomy, places much of its emphasis on the loyal observance of mitzvot, God’s commandments. Asylum cities are established in Transjordan, the people are repeatedly warned against idolatry, the Covenant is established in Moab, the Decalogue is repeated, and the text of the Shema’ and its first paragraph appears. More than that, a line in the ‘aleinu prayer that is repeated by observant Jews three times daily makes its Toraitic debut: “Know therefore this day and keep in mind that the Lord alone is God in heaven above and on the earth below; there is no other” (Deut. 4:39). What is the original import of this particular verse, and how does it affect our religious behavior today?

Joseph ben Isaac B’khor Shor (the B’khor Shor) draws our attention to the juxtaposition of this verse and what comes immediately before this powerful declaration. He writes,

You inherited the land of Sihon and Og and therefore you must be careful not to transgress the will of God. When you transgress God’s will, God will be more strict with you than any other nation! And therefore, I [Moses] say to you, if your evil inclination gnaws at you asking, “why do I need all of this sorrow?,” then you will respond to your evil inclination that “the Lord alone is God,” and one may not escape from God—it is in God’s hands who will die and who will live.

The great miracle of the deliverance of the Israelites is emphasized, and in particular how they have defeated great nations along their journey to Israel. Though one may expect Moses to leverage these victories as a means of inflating the Israelite ego, he seems to do just the opposite. The B’khor Shor tempers their triumphalism.

Victory over other nations does not give the Israelites carte blanche to oppress their enemies and become prideful in their successes. Rather, they must never lose sight of the ultimate source of their blessing, God. Within its original biblical context, then, the verse recited in ‘aleinu thrice daily communicates a vital message of humility: the healthy contraction of the ego. God is above and below—representing the beginning as well as the end. Blessing and victory must become opportunities for holiness and sanctifying God’s Name. Only by moving forward with a sense of humility can we truly build ourselves once again from the rubble of Tish’ah Be’Av.

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