VaEtchanan – How Do You Spell Relief?

Do you like to make choices? Whether you do or not, it seems as though for each of us there is a never-ending stream of options that place demands upon our time and threaten the normal and easy flow of our lives. With the blessings of the information age, come even more options, more choices and a still greater demand upon our lives.

Some options are necessary and demand our immediate attention. We get hungry and eating becomes a necessary option. We are worn out and sleeping is our best option.

Most options though, are postponable, and we respond in kind. It would be nice to wash the car, change the oil, and tune the engine on a regular basis. But if push comes to shove, the car will run a long way with mud on the hood, dirt in the crankcase, a miss in the engine, and even wear on the tires. It is obvious, though, that even postponable options demand their due. We can put our taxes off for a time, yet doing them on April 16th could be a bad choice.

Some options are undoubtedly bad, and yet we argue that we are propelled into them beyond our control. The alarm goes off earlier than we expect so we shut it off and go back to sleep. We might wake up late and let everyone know we are a tad grouchy. We might speed to work and once we arrive, make promises predicated upon only the most perfect of conditions in order to quiet the incessant demands of clients, customers, coworkers or employers. All along excusing our behavior as necessary.

Of course good options can create as large a threat to our time. I love to read and there are extensive choices of books. Amazon is always offering a great sale, special discounts and free delivery for a “limited time” (I think this means my lifetime.). Unfortunately I find that I am the one with limited time and a limited budget. Life seems to offer abundantly good options, yet limited resources with which to take advantage. Therefore even a good choice can be a bad choice if made at the wrong time.

New technology and the information super highway, produce expanding choices in a heartbeat. Unfortunately expanding options often lead to deceptive options. A shiny new car hides the promise of a large payment book. “You deserve a break today” seems to suggest other than marginal food in a Styrofoam box; or… how about the concepts of “free love” or “retirement with nothing to do”. Madison Avenue and pop-culture assure that our choices are not always what they appear to be.

Every option motivates us. Our choices are neither passive nor neutral. They persuade us to respond. We live under pressure to conform, to perform, to create, and to commit. We are inundated by choices. So…how do we spell relief?


Many of us have tried a sequential approach. You know … God 1st, Family 2nd, Congregation 3rd, Work 4th, Country 5th, … clean the hall closet 6457th. If only that which demands our time and attention fit so neatly in hermetically sealed categories then such a linear approach to life might work.

Let’s try again. How do you spell relief?


Hashem gives us a short system of principles (Deut. 6:4-9) by which we can attempt to apply His commandments and sort out His highest values and top priorities. Within the Jewish liturgical system this portion has come to be known as the Sh’ma and the V’ahavta, but for mnemonic purposes I would like to refer to it as the 4D portion. Not only because it will help us to explore the height, width, depth and timeliness of life’s demands, but more importantly it affords us a helpful alliteration to remember. In the Sh’ma and V’ahavta Moses reveals the foundational Doctrine, Duty, Discipline, and Demonstration by which all of life’s demands might be ordered.

Doctrine v.4

Most often in modern parlance, doctrine or dogma is thought of negatively. It is often conceived of as a set of inflexible rules that are used by institutions to manipulate, control, and dominate those who are not free thinkers. In fact doctrine has been used historically by some groups to just that end. But it need not be so. The Shema is the foundational doctrine of Judaism and it simply expresses the essential nature of G-d and his relationship to us. “Hear O Israel, HaShem is God, HaShem alone.” Succinctly put, God is everywhere – G-d is here. A good friend of mine likes to say that when Hashem is on the throne, then we do not have to bear the weight of the world on our shoulders.” If you think you have time for no other prayer, say one Shema before bed and upon waking up. This simple prescription will change how you order your life, guaranteed!

Duty v.5

If the foundational prescription for a disordered life is recognition of Hashem’s love and protection over us, then the second dose is acceptance of the fundamental duty to love Him in return. We are instructed to do so with “all of your heart, with all of your soul and with all of your might.”

  • The heart (lev) is the seat of our emotions. But in biblical Hebrew it is also understood as the place of our minds or intellect. We cannot be disengaged objectors in life, rather as we feel so we think, and as we think so we do. To truly love God, others and ourselves requires a committed engagement of our mind and hearts.
  • The soul (nefesh) represents our holistic being. Even more than our emotions and our intellect, our soul is our mysterious life force, which cannot be measured or studied. The soul is the fullness of humanity that comes upon mankind when God breathes life into His creation. Our love of God should include a willingness to offer our lives back to God.
  • Might (m’od) is not constituted solely by physical strength or military might, rather by all of our entire physicality, that which is innate and that which is acquired alike. This would include our physical sustenance, all of which should be acknowledged as coming from our benevolent creator. The Wisdom of Ben Sirach, comments on this “ Love him who made you with all your strength, and do not forsake his ministers.” (7:30-31)

According to Rabbinical tradition, the patriarchs loved God in this way – Abraham with the fullness of his emotions and his intellect, Isaac by willingly offering up his very life, and Jacob by pledging all that he possessed back to God by the banks of the Jabbok River. Certainly there is no better example of this full-orbed love of the father than in the life of Yeshua.

Discipline v.6-7

If our fundamental duty is to respond to God’s love in kind, then we should develop disciplines to infuse our lives and the lives of our children with the love of God and a love for God. Here we are taught to impress these ideas upon our children and ourselves. So often we wish to compartmentalize our lives, separating our religious convictions from our everyday lives. Ask yourself throughout the day, “How am I doing?” Remember neither your money, nor your time, nor even your thoughts belong solely to you! Are you wasting your time on the trivial? Are your choices serving Hashem and others, or merely satisfying your animal nature? Who is watching and what do they see, a spiritual giant or an emotional midget?

For this reason the sage’s first determination in Mishnah Berachot is that we should repeat the Shema in the evening preferably before midnight, and in the morning during the first quarter of the day (Ber.1: 1-2). I would throw in a few midday doses. It’s not traditional but surely you will not OD! Trulyour words concretize our priorities.

Demonstration v.8-9


If our words can influence what we do, then certainly what we do influences what we become. According to the famous poet W. H. Auden, “Human beings are by nature actors, who cannot become something until they have pretended to be it. They are therefore to be divided, not into the hypocritical and the sincere, but the sane, who know they are acting; and the mad who do not.” I believe that is why we are given so much ritual instruction in Torah. The human body and soul has an incredible memory. Give the nefesh goodpatterns and it will stay on that path. Just think how many hours Kobe Bryant spent in the gym shooting jumpers before he became KOBE.

We are instructed to “Bind them (the teachings) as a sign on your hand and as a symbol on your forehead; inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” Tzitit and mezuzot are like the string on the finger of Judaism. They are reminders to ourselves of what our highest priorities should be. The t’fillin are bound to the left arm and are worn next to the heart. The yare also worn between our eyes which are the “gateway to the soul”. Figuratively they should remind us to love HaShem with all our heart, soul and might. It should also serve as a reminder that all that we put our head and our hands to should be dedicated to our God. While the t’fillin are acts of personal commitment, the mezuzah is a public declaration of commitment. Once it is placed on the doorpost the world knows who we are and whom we serve. Yet, it is also the gateway to our homes, to the most private and often secretive sanctum of our lives. So we commit to endeavor to make all of our life, public and private dedicated to HaShem. In the midst of the hustle and bustle of life, these outward demonstrations can be welcome interruptions that hopefully serve to reorient our priorities and encourage us to restructure our lives.

I believe that if we diligently practice the 4D’s then the love of Hashem and our love for Him will naturally order our priorities, rather than the demands of our lives ordering them. Perfect love makes us complete, but practice makes perfect.


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