By: Cantor David Reinwald:
At the tail end of this week’s portion, we find the second paragraph of the text which makes up the full section of the V’ahavta as found in our prayerbook. This is a section that may be semi-unfamiliar to you, as we often skip this section during services, reading only the first and fourth paragraphs of the V’ahavta (the first paragraph being the section beginning with “V’ahavta” through “u’veesharekha” and the fourth paragraph being the section that begins with “L’ma’an Tizk’ru.”)
The second paragraph of the V’ahavta (Deut. 11:13-17) has often been one of troubling interpretation, and for this very reason, it has often been left out of Reform prayerbooks of the past and remained out of Reform ideology. It was, however, reintroduced as an optional reading in the Reform Movement’s newest prayerbook, Mishkan Tefillah, and is a part of our Tefilat Shalom. The paragraph is included in the V’ahavta as each of the three paragraphs following the initial opening paragraph (Deut. 6:5-9, which immediately followed the Sh’ma) echoes descriptions from the original. Usually, the repetition of the phrasing of placing these words and commandments as a sign on one’s hand and eyes, teaching them to one’s children, etc. remains a prominent theme. The third paragraph, from Numbers, differs from this only in that it describes the meaning of the tzitzit, the fringes of our tallit, as a remembrance and reminder of the mitzvot.
But, alas, what is the troublesome part of this second paragraph? It is the idea that our lives are somehow solely dependent on doing mitzvot, which could be successfully argued, yet it creates a system of reward and punishment tied to doing (or, not doing) mitzvot. While, from a literal understanding of the text, punishment seems to be directly tied to idolatry, as it describes: “Beware lest your heart goes astray and you serve other gods and bow down to them.” So, perhaps, this is the only caveat and pitfall, and following in the way of the commandments can be a mostly positive pursuit.
The V’ahavta does not utilize the last paragraph (maftir) of this week’s portion, immediately following the aforementioned paragraph. In Deut. 11:22-25, perhaps the most triumphant paragraph of this chapter, it is then described that God will empower us so much in reward that we “will dispossess nations greater and more numerous” (23), “every spot on which your foot treads shall be yours” (24), and “No one shall stand up to you: the Eternal your God will put the dread and the fear of you over the whole land in which you set foot” (25). Sounds like a good deal to me!
Perhaps, this is too promising a way to include in a set of paragraphs which are to be read twice each day. And, for a reading which is so collective in its mentality, I do find it to be rather striking that the paragraphs of the V’ahavta are traditionally private prayers to be read silently to oneself, even when amongst a minyan. Perhaps, this is one great reason that we have made this prayer much more public in Reform tradition—not only reading it, but chanting two of the four sections as one community. I hope we are reaping its rewards.