Dvar Torah prepared by Mike Garmise for Shabbat, 23rd Av 5776, 27th August 2016
What kind of deity is the God of Israel, as compared to other gods of ancient times? We know from our history lessons that the gods were basically reflections of mankind, with all our foibles and eccentricities, taken to an extreme. When you owed a god something, or wanted something from him, you brought a sacrifice (meaning a life) or some other ante much higher than any human might demand (except perhaps for the Mafia of old or ISIS today).
Yet because we are human, and sometimes a bit childish, we still tend to think that our God can be manipulated the way people can, that we can do what we want and pay a ransom – a sacrifice or a prayer – and the slate will be wiped clean.
Until we read today’s parsha, with this statement: our God will not show favoritism and will not take bribes. Which is a bit ridiculous at first sight, as Rabbi Ari Kahn points out. After all, if you are serving the God who created the universe and all that is in it, what could we, puny beings that we are, possibly give God as a bribe? Money? Ha.
So some of the commentaries, including Maimonides and Nachmanides, say that someone might think we could pay in a currency that our deity would understand. Mitzvoth. Except that it says, he will not take bribes. You can’t eat a ham sandwich and then say, OK, I’ll say 200 brachot today instead of 100 and it’ll be ok. You can’t not pay a worker his wages (which is a violation of a mitzvah) and say, OK, I’ll offer up a couple of birds.
Mark Twain, who deflated more holy cows than almost anyone else, in talking about his visit to the Sandwich Islands (now Hawaii), says he was told (whether tongue in cheek or not I don’t know) that if a person sinned, he could receive atonement by bringing a relative as a sacrifice. As long as his relatives held out, Twain said, the person could keep on sinning.
This way of thinking is childish. Jean Piaget, the Swiss developmental psychologist wrote that little children believe that they have to be punished for what they have done or the ledger remains open. The punishment must come or the child feels stressed. The stimulus-response cycle is not complete. Of course, most people allegedly outgrow this tit-for-tat mentality – but it’s my impression that deep down, many of us often feel like children who want to be chastised and punished for violating a no-no.
But that is only one small aspect of our parsha. Another motif that is repeated several times, and that is often a familiar reaction in daily life – is complacency. We are told, you’ll eat and be satisfied, you’ll build pretty homes to live in, your cattle will multiply and you’ll have gold and silver – the yuppie dream come true – and you will think, “I did it by myself. I am great.” And you will forget where it all came from. Complacency.
We are told, eat and be satiated, and THEN bless the Lord for the bountiful land he has given you. Why after? Because when you’re full all you think about is how good it all is and how good you’ll feel if you could take a nap. No, that is the time to remember where is all comes from, the Torah says.
What is the bottom line? There are no shortcuts and no post-facto remedies. You do what you are supposed to do, which is to follow the mitzvoth, and your reward will be that you keep the land and prosper on it. In other words, we are given here the carrot and the stick, the reward for good and punishment for bad – exactly what was described a few minutes ago as childish. So what’s different here?
We could say that this is simplistic writing for a more simplistic time and more simplistic people. And that would be correct, to a degree. We can read it as Moshe’s way to hammer home a message in a way that the people can internalize. So he speaks in terms that the simple folk can grasp and remember.
But it’s deeper than that. Much deeper. We do not have to take the text literally, that the people will be punished for not upholding the mitzvoth. Instead, we can understand the message as: not following the precepts of the Torah will inevitably lead to a decline in morality and mutual responsibility among the people. Why? Because 66% of the mitzvoth are social and economic in nature and only 33% are ritualistic and God-oriented. If you wear tsitsit and eat kosher and are shomer Shabbat to the extreme – but at the same time mistreat your workers, cheat in business, evade taxes, charge exorbitant interest and beat your wife – you are worse than a non-religious person. You are a desecrater of the religion and God’s name.
Such actions lead to oppressive measures against the weak and poor. It leads to the abuse of wealth and political power which ultimately weakens the nation. And as we have read, we are not the largest or strongest of nations. So that without moral strength and a bit of humility about who we are and what we can do – we may find ourselves in dire straits with no one to blame but ourselves. Not even Moshe, who warned us.
But if we can get and keep our act together, we have hope.