This name comes from the first lines of the Haftarah (prophetic portion) read on this day, which begins, “Comfort, oh comfort My people, says your God.” It is traditionally considered to be a day of comfort for Israel in history.
“Then I pleaded [va’etchanan] with the Lord at that time, saying: ‘O Lord God, You have begun to show Your servant Your greatness and Your mighty hand, for what god is there in heaven or on earth who can do anything like Your works and Your mighty deeds?” (Deuteronomy 3:23–24)
In last week’s Torah portion, Devarim, the Israelites stood poised at the edge of the Promised Land, on the east side of the Jordan, ready to cross over and possess the Land. Before they crossed, Moses summarizes for the people their 40-year history of wandering in the wilderness.
Several of the best known and fundamental passages of Scripture in the entire Tanakh (Old Testament) are in this week’s Torah Portion, including the Ten Commandments and the Shema (Listen! or Hear and Do!)—a call in Deuteronomy 6:4–9 to love the one true God with all our being.
This passage also exhorts us to pass on our faith to the next generation by faithfully teaching the Torah to our children.
“Shema, Yisra’el! Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai echad [Hear, Isra’el! Adonai our God, Adonai is one]; and you are to love Adonai your God with all your heart, all your soul and all your strength.” (Deuteronomy 6:4–5)
This is the first prayer spoken in the morning and the last said in the evening before sleep. It is often the final prayer on the lips of a Jewish person on their deathbed, and it has been uttered by many Jewish martyrs as they gave up their spirits to the Lord.
These verses of Scriptures are so central to Judaism that they are written on a parchment and placed in a small box worn on the forehead called tefillin (phylacteries) and also in small, decorated boxes called mezuzot (plural of mezuzah) on the doorposts of Jewish homes. This is done in literal fulfillment of commands found in this week’s Parasha:
“Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the door frames of your houses and on your gates.” (Deuteronomy 6:8–9)
Preparing the Next Generation
This week’s Torah portion begins with Moses reminding the people of how he pleaded with God for the privilege of entering the Promised Land, but God refused to grant his request.
Moses would not enter the Promised Land because he disobediently struck the rock twice in the wilderness of Zin, instead of speaking to it as God had commanded. (Numbers 20)
This happened when the nation’s water well dried up after his sister Miriam died. Moses and Aaron prayed about the situation, and God told Moses to give the people water by speaking to the rock.
But Moses, who was angry with the people for their whining, called the people rebels and implied that it was he and Aaron who were providing for them.
Some have suggested that speaking to the rock might have symbolized speaking God’s Word (as given to Moses), and striking the rock may have represented Moses’ effort.
Though Moses and Aaron were called to lead the Israelites, performing many signs and wonders, it was God who was providing for them, miraculously supplying life-giving water when necessary.
As a result, God told Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust in Me enough to honor Me as holy in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this community into the land I give them.” (Numbers 20:12)
Rabbinic tradition says that Moses begged God 515 times, (taken from the gematria or numerical value of the word va’etchanan). Moses tells the people how he asked God,
“‘Let me go over and see the good land beyond the Jordan — that fine hill country and Lebanon.’ But because of you the Lord was angry with me and would not listen to me. ‘That is enough,’ the Lord said. ‘Do not speak to Me anymore about this matter.’” (Deuteronomy 3:25–26)
God said, “No.”
Although Moses would get a glimpse of the Land of Promise, he would be among those of his generation who would die in the wilderness because of their sins. His successor, Joshua, would cross over the Jordan with the new generation of Israelites who would conquer the Land.
“But commission Joshua, and encourage and strengthen him, for he will lead this people across and will cause them to inherit the land that you will see.” (Deuteronomy 3:28)
Joshua, whose Hebrew name is Yehoshua (the Lord is Salvation), takes the people into the Promised Land, where they will take hold of all that God has promised.
He is a type of the Messiah. Yeshua (which is a form of the name Yehoshua) will one day take His people into the true Promised Land of Heaven where we will not perish but inherit eternal life.
We can learn a lesson from Moses remaining on the other side of the Jordan.
There are times when, despite our earnest begging and pleading, God in His perfect wisdom, justice, and mercy simply says “no,” and that is the end of the matter. God may even ask us to encourage someone in the next generation who will carry the torch further than we have, and we need to accept this decision with a grace born of humility.
El Kanah: The Jealous God
Before Moses surrenders the leadership of Israel to Joshua, he exhorts the people to keep God’s Torah and to live in obedience to God’s ways so that they may take possession of the Land. He tells them:
“Now, Israel, listen to the laws and rulings I am teaching you, in order to follow them, so that you will live; then you will go in and take possession of the land that Adonai, the God of your fathers, is giving you.” (Deuteronomy 4:1)
Moses reminds the children of Israel how they stood at the foot of Mount Sinai and received the Ten Commandments. He warns them not to forget the Torah of God and to diligently teach God’s commandments to their children and grandchildren.
In telling them this, he reminds them three times that God spoke from the fire at Sinai in which He did not have a form. Therefore, because they saw no image of God, they are not to carve for themselves images of God, which is detrimental to faith, nor of other gods, which is idolatry.
This prohibition of the making of carved images is accompanied by the warning that God is a consuming fire:
“Watch out for yourselves, so that you won’t forget the covenant of Adonai your God, which He made with you, and make yourself a carved image, a representation of anything forbidden to you by Adonai your God. For Adonai your God is a consuming fire, a Jealous God [El Kanah].” (Deuteronomy 4:23–24)
The name of God used in this verse is El Kanah (Jealous God). This name is also mentioned elsewhere in this Parasha in Deuteronomy 5:9, 6:15 and in Exodus 34:14 (see also 1 Kings 19:10 and 14 in which kanah is often translated as zealous).
The names and titles of God declare to the world who He is. They also answer our deepest questions regarding our relationship to God.
The name El Kanah reveals that God is protective of His people and His relationship with them. In the same way that the relationship between a husband and a wife is sacred, He will not share our praise and devotion with other gods.
In fact, the covenant God made with Israel at Mount Sinai is likened to a marriage ceremony, complete with the cloud covering symbolizing the chuppah (marriage canopy) and the ketubah (marriage contract), outlining the responsibilities and privileges of both bride and bridegroom and the agreed-upon vows.
God is, therefore, asking His people to be faithful unto Him, forsaking all other gods. All forms of idolatry and worship of false gods is “spiritual adultery” and can be likened to an unfaithful spouse.
The Lord lovingly and faithfully watches over His Bride, and jealously guards her, like a passionate husband protecting His bride.
Unfaithfulness and Exile
“Adonai will scatter you among the peoples; and among the nations to which Adonai will lead you away, you will be left few in number.” (Deuteronomy 4:27)
In this Parasha, Moses prophesies the tragic consequence of Israel straying from their devotion to God and turning to idols: they would be sent into exile (galut) and scattered to the four corners of the earth.
This is exactly what happened when the Babylonians and the Romans destroyed the Holy Temple and Jerusalem.
However, God is merciful; He promised that if the people would repent and turn back to Him with all of their heart and soul, then He would relent and bring them back to the Land.
Indeed, in fulfillment of a great number of prophecies, including those of Moses, the Lord did bring His people home from Babylon. And in these last days, He is once again bringing His people home.
“In your distress, when all these things have come upon you, in the last days [acharit-hayamim], you will return to Adonai your God and listen to what He says; for ADONAI your God is a merciful God. He will not fail you, destroy you, or forget the covenant with your ancestors which He swore to them.” (Deuteronomy 4:30–31)
This miracle has happened in our very generation as Jewish people are returning to the Land of our forefathers from the north, south, east, and west. It is not because of our righteousness that we have come back to the Land, but because of the covenant God made with our ancestors.
Haftarah Va’etchanan: Comfort My People
This week’s Haftarah (prophetic portion) is the first of a series of seven special Haftarot of Consolation that begin on the Shabbat following Tisha B’Av and continue until Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year).
These seven Haftarot follow three special Haftarot called the “Three of Rebuke,” which were read from Tammuz 17 to Av 9, the three weeks during which we mourn the destruction of the Temple and the onset of the exile of the Jewish People.
Isaiah 40 opens with a word of comfort to those who are in exile in Babylon and to the destroyed city of Jerusalem:
“Comfort, comfort My people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.” (Isaiah 40:1–2)
“A voice cries: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.’” (Isaiah 40:3–5)
This prophecy of Isaiah would likely have been understood by the Israelites as an allusion to the ancient practice of eastern monarchs sending harbingers before them to prepare the way, leveling roads and removing impediments for the king.
Just as these monarchs prepared the way before themselves, God prepared the way before the Jewish slaves in Egypt, leading them to their Promised Land. He would prepare the way again before the Jewish exiles in Babylon, leading them home.
And He has prepared the way again, leading the Jews scattered throughout the nations (the Diaspora) back to a restored Land of Israel.
This passage also speaks of the future manifestation of the Lord before the world, in which people would be led out of bondage to sin and into the Kingdom of Heaven.
God confirms the trustworthiness of this promise, stating that while all flesh is like grass, God’s Word stands firm forever. God is watching over His Word to perform it, and His promise to restore and save Israel is reliable and can be trusted by all.