Judaism commands us to seek truth. This week’s Torah reading, Va’etchanan, informs this search for truth.
The acquisition of knowledge and truth is the most important and fundamental activity any person can undertake. The Mishnah from Talmud Shabbat, 127 A lists many significant mitzvot, but it concludes “and the study of Torah outweighs them all.” Every aspect, every facet of Judaism, its philosophy of life, its intricate system of required dos and don’ts, even its primary historical event, the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai, are anchored in truth and understanding. It is thus antithetical for Judaism to ask or to expect a person to blindly follow its edicts based solely on faith.
It is in this week’s Torah portion, Va’etchanan that we see the honesty and openness to intellectual investigation that is and has always been at the core of the Jewish religion. Moshe Rabbenu in his final address to the entire nation warns and challenges the people. He admonishes them not to forget the things that their own eyes saw and to teach them to their children. (Devarim 4:9) Here Moshe is referring to the once-on-Earth event, the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. To the host of eye witnesses still living 40 years afterwards (only the males 20 and older at the time of the spies incident died in the desert), the truth of revelation is part of their first-hand knowledge.
It was these eye witnesses who were to teach the historical truth of this event to their children. Those children, soon to enter Canaan, were now, in parshat Va’etchanan, being addressed by Moshe. They too had to know that this event really occurred. They too had the obligation to study and learn the truth of Judaism’s origins. In turn it was their responsibility to pass that truth on to their children and so on for all future generations. While we call this knowledge second-hand knowledge, it is no less knowable, truthful, or accurate.
But Moshe continues his address and challenges the people in their search for the truth. He gave them and every succeeding generation a homework assignment. “Ask (inquire) now regarding the early days that preceded you, from the day when God created man on earth, and from one end of heaven to the other end of heaven: Has there ever been anything like this great event or has anything like it been heard?! Has a people ever heard the voice of God speaking from the midst of a fire as you have heard, and survived?!” (Devarim 4:32-33)
This Shabbat, as we segue from tragedy to hopeful redemption, let us play our part in God’s plan revealed to us at Mt. Sinai. Let us renew our commitment to the veracity of our God-given way of life, Judaism. In this merit may Hashem continue His protecting care over the nation of Israel, Jews, and peace loving people the world over.
Rabbi Robert Kaplan