The second telling of the Ten Commandments as well as the Shema and its accompanying first paragraph make an appearance in this week’s reading from the Torah Parashat Vaetchanan. But what is more striking is the events that lead to these declarations from Moses.
As we may recall, a few weeks ago while reading the book of Numbers, we came across a scene (Parashat Chukat – Numbers 20) where the Israelites had gathered in the wilderness thirsting for water. God commanded Moses to speak to a rock, ordering the rock to issue water that the people might drink. Moses, angered by the grumbling Israelites’ relentless requests, struck the rock twice, and copious water came forth. For his anger and for his apparent lack of faith, Moses was informed that he would never lead the people into the Promised Land; he would only be able to see the land from a distance.
Fast-forwarding to this week’s parashah, we find Moses making one final request before God. He asks that God might grant him the permission to set foot in the land of what will become Israel. He pleads with God, hoping that God’s decree might be rescinded. God’s response is anything but favorable. God tells Moses, “Enough! Never speak of this matter again!” At this point, Moses could have packed his bags and walked in the opposite direction. Here was a man who had followed God’s commands to the letter. Sure, there were occasions when his emotions got the best of him, when he accused the people of being a bitter, stiff-necked mass. Sure, there were times when he became brutally angry, even smashing the first set of the tablets of the Law. But even given these harrowing circumstances, Moses never turned his back on the people and did not turn his back toward God and the events of his life. Not now, and not ever.
What is even more remarkable about the inclusion of the Ten Commandments and the Shema in this week’s parashah is that both texts come on the heels of a dramatic episode for Moses, the Israelites’ leader. To be able to acclaim one’s faith in God after challenging and trying life experiences is absolutely remarkable. Instead of fighting the events of the world, instead of pursuing a cause with no positive end, Moses resigns himself to his fate and recognizes the ultimate good that can come out of his lifelong work. Moses may not achieve his goal of setting foot in the Promised Land, but he can continue to help guide others to that destination, and the realization of God’s presence even in moments of pain and transition.