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Drash on Va’etchanan 2023

Rabbi Kim Ettlinger

Temple David

Consider the alternatives

Parashat Va’etchanan is well known because it has the Aseret Hadibrot.  We are reminded of these Utterances, not commandments, for they are not mitzvot, but dibrot, things, words, and mentioned, albeit slightly different, a second time.  Some believe that Devarim, or Deuteronomy is the summary of Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers, while others believe it is there for a higher purpose, that it is a natural continuation of the Torah.  Regardless, it is Torah, our five books, our Chumash, from Bereishit to Devarim.  It tells our story.  But it is not the Ten Commandments that I wish to focus on, but another verse that I find extremely important and is just as relevant today as in generations past.  The beginning of Devarim 4:9 states.

רַ֡ק הִשָּׁ֣מֶר לְךָ֩ וּשְׁמֹ֨ר נַפְשְׁךָ֜ מְאֹ֗ד

But take utmost care and watch yourselves scrupulously…

This verse is read in a variety of ways, it is about self preservation, that the rabbis believe that the real intention lies in not simply how we treat through the middah of Shmirat haguf, or Protecting our bodies, but also in how we live our lives – watch yourselves scrupulously.  What does it mean to watch yourself, and so thoroughly and in detail?

Many commentaries from ancient to contemporary are quite clear this is about self protection.  A Talmudic story relates to a traveller who is so engrossed in prayer and completing his prayer that he doesn’t greet a fellow traveller.  The fellow traveller berates him for not stopping his prayer as he insists that he could have been a villain and taken his life.  Therefore the pray-er put himself in what the Talmud believes was danger, and unnecessary danger (Berakhot 32b:30).

There are other examples given.  But always trying to relate it to our contemporary era, what can we equate this situation to?  How do we care for ourselves scrupulously?  While it is about protecting and taking care of our bodies by eating well, and not smoking or vaping or putting illicit drugs into our system, or not tanning too long.

It goes to risk taking too.  How many times, if at all, do we roll the dice on sky diving?  Is there such a thing as a safe skydive?  We may say that Air Travel isn’t safe but neither is driving a car and anything can happen at any time, but we also look at what makes sense…

We wouldn’t put our child in a car without a car seat, or put seat belts on ourselves.  We don’t drive under the influence of anything.

Risk is defined as the exposure of someone or something valued to danger, harm, or loss.  We wouldn’t do it to our loved ones, so why do it to ourselves?

Do we take unnecessary financial risk, and don’t seek advice from professionals?

Watching ourselves isn’t about not having fun, it is about ensuring we are around to have fun, to enjoy our family, and our friends and our community – it is recognising that our bodies, our beings, our nefesh, are not only ours, but we belong to a means, beyond ourselves, to God.  Consider to whom we are responsible when contemplating risk filled behaviours… the impact of the consequences may be beyond ourselves.  The consequences could be unfathomable, so my friends, I urge you to watch yourselves, your minds, your bodies, your nefesh, scrupulously.

Ken yehi ratzon.

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