Torah portion: Even Nixon

This week’s Torah portion, Va’etchanan, is remarkable for so many reasons. It includes within its four chapters the first paragraph of the Shema (“Hear O Israel”) and the Ten Pronouncements (often mistranslated as the Ten Commandments). It includes one of the Four Questions asked annually at the seder table. And it reminds us that we are unique not because of the quantity of our numbers but because of the undiluted intense quality of our spirits.

When I was a kid, back in the 1970s, I had to miss a very special religious celebration — Simchat Torah in Boro Park, Brooklyn — because two siblings in my family had to stay home during the holiday and keep Mom company, as she wasn’t able to make the trip. Debbie and I had gone the previous year, so this year was a chance for Rhonda and Sharon to go. The next Shabbat, they were back home, regaling us with how great it had been and what we had missed. 

“Oh my gosh, Dov,” they exuded. “Everyone was there!”

That was all I could take. I shot back: “Everyone was there? Even President Nixon was there?”

They conceded that he was not there. Ever since, it has become a mantra in our family when someone asseverates that “everyone” has been somewhere: “Everyone? Even Nixon?”

Interestingly, a few years ago, I conducted a wedding and afterward mentioned at Shabbat table that “everyone was there.” My son, 16 years in training, retorted: “Everyone? Even Nixon?” I thought a moment and responded: “Yes, Aharon — even Nixon was there.” (The wedding had been in Yorba Linda at the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, where the 37th president is buried.)

We all love to be among “everyone.” We count success and importance by numbers: “Was everyone there?” “It was an amazing graduation — there must have been 10,000 people there.” “I go to the best temple in the city — we have 1,000 members. Everyone goes there.” And, indeed, we see and hear about these megaplex churches where Sunday services are attended in stadiums packed with 15,000 people. Everyone is there.

Is it not amazing that we Jews have continued vibrantly as a religious faith community for 3,300 years despite being so comparatively few in number? Maybe it shouldn’t be:

“For you are a holy people unto the Lord your God: the Lord your God has chosen you to be His own treasure, out of all peoples that are upon the face of the earth. The Lord did not set His love upon you, nor choose you, because you were more in number than any people — for you were the fewest of all peoples. [Rather,] because the Lord loved you, and because He would keep the oath that He swore to your Fathers, the Lord has brought you out [of Egypt] with a mighty hand and redeemed you out of the house of bondage, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 7:6-8).

At the core of our identity as a Jewish People is that focused, explicit definition that our relationship with God derives not from numbers and quantitative demographic expansion but from a spiritually integral core, undiluted. Others, during centuries past, forced people to convert to their target religions by threatening torture, instant death or torture followed by instant death. .

It never has been our Jewish way to spread through the countryside, even peacefully, with missionaries or to proselytize in China or the Philippines. Rather, we alone believe that people of all faiths who live righteous lives have a place for everlasting reward in the World to Come. We are not consumed with increasing our numbers. “The Lord did not set His love upon you, nor choose you, because you were more in number than any people — for you were the fewest of all peoples.”

Today, in the Middle East, we are the fewest of all nations. There are 22 members of the Arab League (counting suspended Syria). Then there is the new caliphate. And then the non-Arab countries whose populations are more than 90 percent Muslim, such as Iran, Afghanistan, Albania, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Gambia, Guinea, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Maldives, Mali, Niger, Pakistan, Senegal and Turkey. We are a speck on the global map, even as we Jews are but a speck on the American map. 

Our secret of survival — and our remarkable success of rising to Nobel prizes and influence beyond our numbers — is not found in “everyone” being Jewish. The empires of Assyria, Babylonia, Persia, Greece, Rome, the Holy Roman Empire — “everyone” — are tourist attractions in history museums. Rather, our strength lies within. 

Every Jew, wherever he or she may live, carries a responsibility to guard and protect the eternity of our people and our spirit by devoting time each day, even if only 15 minutes, to studying Torah, to studying Jewish history, to learning Hebrew, to getting acquainted with the prayers in the siddur (prayer book), to gaining an understanding of what it means to be a Jew and to transmitting the heritage, paying it forward to the next generation. 

A great place to begin is in this week’s remarkable Torah portion that touches on so many central themes in Jewish thought — even if there’s nothing about Nixon.

Rabbi Dov Fischer, a legal consultant and an adjunct professor of law, is a longtime member of the national executive committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and rav of Young Israel of Orange County. His website is

Guess how much I love you [Parashat Vaetchanan – Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11]

There is a well-known children’s book depicting a nut-brown hare and its child playing a game called “Guess How Much I Love You.” In it, the child stretches tall and wide, jumps high and reaches toward the horizon to show his affection for the parent. In response, the parent always seems to extend the love just a little further. “I love you to the moon!” the child ultimately says, expressing the largest quantifiable measure of love within his grasp. And with patient simplicity, the parent responds, “I love you to the moon … and back.” The book’s message isn’t about love without limits. It’s better than that. It is a genuine expression of love met with even more love.

The moments when we love completely, when we act fully, and when we are of singular mind amid a plurality of demands and needs are indeed precious. Those moments are the most sacred, the most meaningful because the loving response is equally, if not more powerfully, reciprocated. These moments are inspiring, even knowing that we will only experience them periodically.

This requited love is what we are meant to consider when we recite the words of the Shema and Ve-ahavta each morning and evening, the words of which are found in this week’s Torah portion, Vaetchanan. God commands us to love with all our heart, b’chol levavcha (with all your heart/mind). This is a rare construction of the word for heart, lamed bet bet, with an additional letter to define the limits of our love for God. Why does there need to be an extra bet to describe this love? Are the other forms of love described throughout the Torah somehow diminished by this doubling? Is there a possibility that if we don’t love enough, only one bet worth, that we aren’t fulfilling our duty to God, to others, to ourselves? Could our love, somehow incomplete, be unrequited by the One who demands whole hearts?

This unique construction of the word for heart (which appears here in the book of Deuteronomy and in later prophetic and historical writings) has been the subject of much interpretation over the years. Most famously, we read in the Babylonian Talmud explaining that the two “bets” of the word here refer to the commitment to love in totality — both the good and the bad. It even goes further to acknowledge the two bets are the two constructs of our ego, the yetzer harah and the yetzer hatov — the evil and good inclinations. We can play with the dichotomies between so many concepts of love — the real and the ideal, the past and the future, (maybe in our children’s book) the simple and the complex. All of these dichotomies are not meant to be parsed into isolation. We don’t only get to love the other for the qualities we like. We have to love them for all they possess. 

Love, like most emotional experiences, has limitless capacity but is manifest in particular, quantifiable moments. Love is experienced in the countless gestures of help and service to another, in friendship and companionship, and even in moments of chastisement and rebuke. And while love may have unlimited potential, it is only experienced in specific moments. To love b’chol levavcha means we aspire toward a growing expression of love for others, for ourselves, for God. Like the child and the parent playing the guessing game, b’chol levavcha is the caring response we hear from others and even from God when we love this way ourselves. It’s why the words of the Ve-ahavta continue beyond the heart as well. We love with all our souls and all our might because we crave more connection. It is God who desires to respond to every gesture and aspiration along the way. And with a love like this, no guessing in return is necessary. 

Joshua Hoffman is a rabbi with Valley Beth Shalom (, a Conservative congregation in Encino.

Temple Still Stands

“Yonah has a question and I thought that you would have the answer.” This was the father’s sentence that broke the silence of my learning in the empty beit midrash in Jerusalem some five summers ago.

Yonah and his father had wandered into the beit midrash a few moments before, seeking information about the community and the neighborhood, since they were potential olim. I was alone in the building and had no choice but to be welcoming and helpful to them. I answered their questions about rent, shopping, demographics and even kindergarten possibilities for Yonah (things every rabbi needs to know). I blessed them with safe travels and fruitful decisions and prepared to return to my learning.

Then they were back. “Yonah has a question and I thought that you would have the answer.”

For a brief second I tried to avoid what I heard. You can tell adults anything (we rarely hear what is really being said to us), but children can only be told the truth. Children and teenagers both listen and hear; anything less than the truth is sinful. My anxious face cracked a smile as Yonah looked up at me and said, “Mimi, every day we pray for the rebuilding of the Mikdash [the Temple], and this morning my father took me to the Kotel [the Western Wall] and the Mikdash isn’t there. Mimi, why isn’t it there?”

I stared at Yonah thinking to myself, “Ribbono Shel Olam [Master of the World]. I am sitting in front of a child who actually believes that You listen and answer prayers. Thank you for the gift of sitting in his presence.”

And to Yonah I said in dismay, “What? It’s not?!”

“No, it isn’t,” was his immediate response.

“Yonah, can you please do me a favor,” I said to him, while inside I begin to pray like never before. He nodded. “Can you please close your eyes for a moment?” I asked.

Yonah obediently closes his eyes.

“Can you see it now?” I asked/prayed. He stood motionless. I waited and prayed, not knowing what he was seeing and what he would say, not knowing what the next step we would share was.

He smiled: “Yes, I can see it now.”

“Now Yonah, I want you to open your eyes and I want to tell you a secret.”

He stared into my eyes with trust I have rarely seen. Truth and trust are related, so I have learned.

“There are some things, Yonah, that you can only see with your eyes open. When you walk in the street you need to keep your eyes open because it is very important that you see where the sidewalk ends and where the street with the cars begins. You have to keep your eyes open in the street. But then there are things that are very close to our heart and very important to us. If we want to see these things, we can see them, but only with our eyes closed. If you want to see the Mikdash you can see it, but only with your eyes closed, not with your eyes open.”

Yonah’s smile reappeared and I began to breathe again. Yonah had taught me what I had come to the beit midrash to learn that morning and had failed to find in the books.

Vaetchanan is one of the few Torah portions that have a fixed time in the year for it to be read. It is always read on Shabbat Nachamu (“to be consoled,” named after the opening words of the haftarah that we read this Shabbat) — the Shabbat after Tisha B’Av — after we have mourned the destruction of the Mikdash. Moshe beseeches God, endlessly, so much so that God has to tell him, “Enough!” Many sources work with the numeric value of the word “Vaetchanan” (515) saying that Moshe prayed 515 prayers or that he sang endless prayers to God (the Hebrew letters of the word shira, meaning song, also has the numerical value of 515). Moshe teaches us to never stop praying regardless of what our ears might or might not hear, regardless of what our eyes might see. Moshe reminds us that reality simultaneously includes and transcends facts when God is part of the equation of our life. And though Moshe was told that he would not enter into Eretz Yisrael so early on in the journey through the desert he truly understands that being in a relationship with God is about being able to stand in God’s presence and pray, and request and beseech, regardless to the Divine response. Being able to hear the One and Only say “No” every day, or even hearing the supernal silence is also a gift from God.

“Nachamu, nachamu ami yomar Hashem Elocheichem” (Y’sha’ayahu / Isaiah 40, 1) “Be consoled, be consoled my people says Hashem your God.” It is asked in the name of one of the Chasidic masters, why nachamu (be consoled) is repeated twice. He answers that the first nachamu reflects God consoling us, the second nachamu is us consoling God. The ability to be consoled by God and the ability to console God come from the wisdom that Moshe withheld while standing on the top of the mountain peeking into Eretz Yisrael and Yonah withheld while seeing the Mikdash as standing in that beit midrash.

Standing in the presence of God enables one to see oneself within a personal promised land — despite the objective physical distance. Standing in the presence of God enables us to believe that our prayers are heard and our personal Mikdash has never been destroyed — regardless of what our senses reveal.