In our Torah portion this week Vaechtenan, we find the familiar line that we as a congregation say out loud in unison just prior to the Torah reading in Deuteronomy 4:4, “va’atem hadveikim ba’Adonai Eloheikhem chayim kulkhem hayom,” “You who cling to the Lord your God have been sustained to this day.” This idea of “clinging” to God is a favorite motif in Deuteronomy (where it appears seven times), but it is hardly a simple or obvious concept. In the Talmud (Ketubot 111b), the sages ask if it is indeed possible to cling to God—is God not a devouring fire (as said later in this very chapter, 4:24)?
The classical rabbis solve this dilemma by substitution—since you cannot really cling to fire, cling to those who cling to God, e.g. the sages. Specifically, support their students, marry into their families and help them however you can. The cynic in me says that this interpretation is a bit self-serving, but I think that the sages meant that the way to cling to God is by clinging to the Torah and its teachers. This is what the great JTS professor of mid-20th Century, Max Kaddushin, dubbed, “normal mysticism”. You cling to God by performing the routines of Judaism—Torah and mitzvot. So too did the great medieval commentators Maimonides (Hilkhot Deot 6:2) and Nachmanides (Torah commentary, Deut 6:13) explain the idea of “deveikut” as clinging to Torah scholars as well as other activities such as doing business on behalf of sages and associating with them in all possible ways.
Nevertheless, those with a more mystical inclination have sought to reclaim the more simple and powerful meaning of this verse—which after all establishes a mitzvah to “cling to God”. Some view this command as the core purpose of all of life -- to cling to God not by proxy, but in person. All of the methods such as performing mitzvot, serving sages, and so on are tools to prepare a person for union with God. Perhaps the most developed explanation of this view that I have read is found in the teachings of the Slonimer Rebbe, known as “Netivot Shalom.” In volume 1, the fifth discourse, he states:
In light of all these matters, the mitzvah of clinging is a core line in the service of God—that one must concentrate before every deed and even word and thought, whether of permission or prohibition, if by this he will come closer to God or grow distant from God. The human soul will teach him through this deep perception if he is distancing or drawing close.
The Slonimer writes that the only way actually to cling to God is to nullify one’s “self”, the ego that separates us from God and even other people. The study of Torah and practice of mitzvot and service of sages are all meant to loosen the grasp of the ego to the point that a person can actually cling to God. Shabbat in particular is a time to release our striving for physical gain and to try to live a life of union with God. This requires self-abnegation and great focus. He acknowledges in closing that it is not possible to live on this level constantly but says that we must cultivate our thirst for a connection to God, as the Psalmist says, “tzama nafshi leilohim, l’eil chai,” “My soul thirsts for God, for the living God”. The last clause connects us to the end of the verse in our parashah, that in clinging to God, “you will all truly be alive today”.
While the Slonimer focuses on the need to cultivate this sensation of clinging to God, I think he would also say that human beings have a predisposition to this type of yearning. As we have taken time this past week during the Olympics to remember the Munich 11, I hope we use them and this week’s parashah as a reminder that we must live our lives to their fullest so that we can truly cling to God.
I wish all of you a Shabbat of rest and joy, a Shabbat of sheleimut -- wholeness with God, the eternal source of life.
Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham