If you were to ask a non religious individual why they choose not to be “religious” there’s a good chance that I can guess their answer. Maybe not always, but often, they will say that they cannot ascribe to a system that doesn’t allow for free thinking and personal individuality. The world views God as an ogre that squelches your unique quirks and draws attention to your faults. But this week’s Torah portion seems to question this logic.
At the time Moses was pleading (va’etchanan means “and I sought favor”) with Elohim for another chance to enter into the land, the world wasn’t much different than it is today. You probably assume that that I have a punch line following that statement, but I don’t. Sure, there were vast differences in matters of technology, fashion, and culture, but at the core, Israel was in the same situation as we currently are: A mighty Elohim was in the process of rescuing a people from earthly and spiritual subjugation in an attempt to demonstrate His love for them while providing for their needs.
What was the catch though? He wanted to give them everything in return for what? To further clarify my initial statement, Israel was one nation surrounded by people who worshiped many gods, elevated themselves into larger than life roles, inflicted cruelty and harshness on strangers, encouraged extremely loose morals (if any), and so on. This list could go on further, but you get the picture. Not much has changed. But that’s the catch, Elohim wanted a people who would be willing to change the world. The only way to do that was by entering into a Covenant relationship with Him and learning His ways.
“But you who are clinging to Adonai your Elohim are alive today, every one of you. See, I have taught you laws and right-rulings, as Adonai my Elohim commanded me, to do thus in the land which you go to possess. And you shall guard and do them, for this is your wisdom and your understanding before the eyes of the peoples who hear all these laws, and they shall say, ‘Only a wise and understanding people is this great nation!’Deuteronomy 4:4-6
Moses opens this statement by contrasting the remnant with those who fell victim to the incident of Ba’al Pe’or. Those who adopted the mindset and practices of the Moabite ways were no longer standing with them. Only those who has resisted the outside influence were eligible for a claim on the land. He’s telling Israel, “You demonstrated your belief in the wilderness, away from the eyes of the nations, now continue in this when you enter into their midst.” And ultimately in doing so, these people who don’t know who Elohim is, will see that there’s something unique going on.
“For what great nation is there which has Elohim so near to it, as Adonai our Elohim is to us, whenever we call on Him? And what great nation is there that has such laws and righteous right-rulings like all this Torah which I set before you this day?”Deuteronomy 4:7-8
What nation could say that the man made gods of stone and self were capable of responding to their cries? What nation can say that their governing document calls for moral responsibility and accountability to their neighbor?
“Only, guard yourself, and guard your life diligently, lest you forget the Words your eyes have seen, and lest they turn aside from your heart all the days of your life. And you shall make them known to your children and your grandchildren.Deuteronomy 4:9
Moses was telling them that the ability to continue as a nation existed as a sole responsibility of the individual. If this Word did not carry on through their children, the hope for a changed world would die off in the desert with them. The nations surrounding them all shared in the revelry of greed, lust, and dominion through violence. There was nothing special about them. Sure, the names of their gods differed from their neighbor’s, but the objects of veneration were the same.
Has the world really changed? Despite the challenges, Israel’s mission was to remain dedicated to integrity, compassion, humility and selflessness as defined in the framework of their relationship with the Holy One. Is your mission any different?