A verse in this week’s Torah portion Va-etḥanan reads, Ve-atem ha-deveikim badonai eloheikhem, ḥayyim kulkhem ha-yom, “[But] you, who held fast to your God, are all alive today” (Deut. 4:4). The context for this verse is an event described in Numbers when some Israelite men lusted after foreign women who lured them into worship of their deity, Baal-peor. The rabbis lifted the verse from its original context and adopted it for liturgical purposes for recitation immediately before the first person is called up to the Torah. This verse will, of course, be familiar to many of you. We tend to gabble these words, which is unfortunate, since they are quite beautiful. Even though Siddur Sim Shalom renders these words as, “You who remain steadfastto Adonai your God have been sustained to this day,” the literal meaning of deveikim is “are clinging [to].” If the function of these words is to affirm that we are truly alive when we cleave to, and fulfill, God’s teachings, they surely serve as a fitting preface to the reading of the Torah.
We first encounter this verb in the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis where we read, “Hence a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife (ve-davak be-ishto), so that they become one flesh (Genesis 2:24). (“Devek” is the Modern Hebrew word for “glue.” If I had access to my Even Shoshan dictionary I would be able to learn whether this word is a modern invention of the Zionists.)
On the idea of holding fast or cleaving to God Etz Hayim thus comments, “It is not enough to believe in God intellectually—to conclude that there is a God and that it would be prudent and proper to follow God’s teachings. We must cleave to God as one cleaves to a spouse, to a lover, in response to our soul’s deepest needs. Only then will our relationship to God be a source of life” (p. 1007).
The Jewish mystics developed the concept of deveikut, derived from the word in our verse, ha-deveikim. This is a state of mind when God is always present. Deveikut plays an important role in Hassidic thought even though some more realistic teachers taught that deveikut at all times was only possible for the greatest of saints. Testimony to the place of Deveikut in Hassidic thought in general is that a whole genre of Hassidic niggunim is known as deveikut niggunim. The Mitnagdim, the opponents of the Hassidim tended to doubt that deveikut, the intense cleaving to God was really possible at all, at least in this world. We need be neither mystics nor Hassidim to see value and beauty in this concept of deveikut. It can serve as reminder that what is possible if we take prayer seriously. Deveikut carries us beyond a rational and intellectual understanding of the words of our prayers towards an emotion attachment to God to whom we direct our prayers.
Rabbi Geoffrey Goldberg