Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Parashat Eikev: On Repetition

The book of Deuteronomy, which we began to read a few weeks ago, is a retelling by Moshe of earlier parts of the Torah. The name Deuteronomy, like the rabbinic name for the book, Mishneh Torah, means “the second law.” Why do we need a “second” Torah? My oldest son said to me the other day: “The book of Devarim doesn’t have anything new in it.” That’s true, in a way. So why do we have it?

Its very existence tells us something about the Torah’s attitude toward life and learning -- that repetition is essential. Human beings don’t generally understand things the first time they hear them. We are slow learners. Hence in the first paragraph of the Shma, read in last week’s parsha, we say, Veshinantam levanekha – “you should repeat them [these words] to your children.”

We were slow learners back in the days of the desert, too, Moshe tells us, or as he says, am keshei oref, a people with a hard neck, a stubborn people who need to be shown and taught multiple times the same lesson.

Even the giving of the Torah happened twice. The first time, we were too busy with other things, too busy worshipping our gold idol to really listen, so Moshe went back up for another 40 days and brought back down a second set of tablets. Sometimes people can’t do things right the first time round. God doesn’t give up on us but merely tries again.

The same thing happens when it comes to entering the land of Israel. The first time we screw it up. We are scared and unbelieving. We need to practice our faith skills so that the second time, this time, we can really enter.

Getting the Torah and entering the land are two of the most important things that happen to us as a nation. And they both happen twice. The message is that these things are not really one-time events at all, but works in progress. We are strivers, learners, always receiving the Torah and always on the cusp of entering the land.

In this week’s parsha, we read the second paragraph of the Shma, another instance of doubling, as is the command to recite the Shma “when one goes to sleep and when one awakes,” twice a day. The second paragraph of the Shma begins with its own linguistic doubling, Vehaya im shamo’a tishme’u, “If, then, you surely hear [or obey].” Rashi comments that the first shamo’a refers to old Torah, and the second tishme’u to new Torah. “If you listen to the old, you will be able to hear the new.” If on the other hand, you forget part of the Torah, says Rashi, interpreting another doubled verb, then you will end up forgetting the entire Torah. Each repeated action reinforces itself and creates a path for the future.

The Torah is continually unfolding, says the Sefat Emet about Rashi’s comment here. That is part of what it means to have a “second Torah.” The implication is that we are never finished receiving, never finished learning the Torah. We are to take the stance toward Torah which the book of Deuteronomy takes, a stance of shamo’a tishme’u, of repetition and novelty, understanding that we are part of the process of continued revelation through our repetition or retelling of the Torah.

1 comment:

  1. The Torah is not just doubled; it's very non-linear, and very repetitive. The result is that you walk away with less a sense of a coherent storybook than with an experience -- perhaps even more lifelike and "real" than a novel or history book, where stuff happens once, in an organized fashion. In life, it's breakfast with the family, or walks to shul, that form the fabric of life.