Think of our ancestors, the children of Israel, as 40 years in the desert come to an end and they wait to enter the promised land. Here they are, second generation slaves: their parents worked for the Egyptians in Egypt and they worked for God in the desert: 40 years of learning to become a nation, under a strict God.
But here’s the paradox. The Israelites experienced miracles galore during their 40 years, with miraculous food and water, clothing and shoes that defied wear and tear. Yet, many of these people did not believe wholeheartedly in the God who had freed them and showered all of these blessings upon them. They seemed unable to believe that someone up there was working FOR them!
How do we know? Because that is one of the main topics of Moshe’s discourses to the people, his last will and testament if you will. In our parsha he sets out the basics of what is demanded of the people,
as if they were as easy as sinking into the sand in the desert. “And now, Israel, what does God demand of you?” he asks. “To fear your Lord God, walk in His paths, and love Him and serve your Lord God with all your heart and all your soul.” Fear. Walk. Love. Serve.
Easy-peasy. For John Lennon “all you need is love.” Preachers put the fear of God into us with images of a fire and brimstone hell. Others demand that we serve God and walk with Him by paying them.
But there’s a problem. Commanding us to FEEL something specific is counterintuitive and just plain difficult. How do you force a person to love? And if you love because you must, is it true love?
Psychologist Rivka Naaman views this dilemma from another point of view. She says that the problem is not love but trust. She bases this assertion on the statement “and you shall circumcise the foreskin of your hearts.” (to which the men among us will say, “one circumcision is more than enough, thank you.”) But what Naaman is referring to is the heart as the seat of the soul and of feelings, emotions. The Israelites, Moshe is saying, have an extra layer of protection around the heart, keeping it from feeling what would almost inevitably develop – love – if only the Israelites would let their hearts do what comes naturally. If you don’t trust someone, you can’t love him.
So what is keeping the people from trusting God and thus learning to love Him? Today, we can visit Naaman and she will probe our background and feelings, and help us to remove the protective seal around our hearts, the one that perhaps formed in childhood, or early adulthood, or as the result of insecurity. Whatever the cause, with enough sessions and time (and money), we could come out ready to love and live.
But what happens when it’s a whole people, as it seems to be here? Moshe doesn’t have time for an open-ended series of one-on-a-million sessions. He has a few weeks left to live before his people, his babies, enter the land. What will happen to them if they don’t have the necessary trust to believe in the God that has brought them to this point? Don’t they realize that they wouldn’t have survived without Him?
Moshe’s approach is the carrot and the stick. Look at what you’ve gone through successfully. There’s more of that where you’re going. Just accept, trust! And if that doesn’t work, remember, you are at God’s mercy. Remember His temper tantrums. So, get your act together.
We like to think that the period before us, or the one before that, was the best. In the Woody Allen movie “Midnight in Paris,” an advertising guy from California of today enters the world of 1920s Paris with Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Picasso, Noel Coward and others. He thinks that is the best of all periods. A woman he meets in the 1920s believes that the belle epoche (the 1890s) was the best period. We once asked a friend who grew up here, “When was Israel the way we visualized it?” She said, “Never.”
But the truth is that the political climate (meaning how we view what goes on in the country) is really not improving. For many, those running for office are a passel of liars whose interests are in the seat of their pants and not in the good of the country.
Ironically, the situation has been made worse by our expanded ability to know “everything” as soon as it happens. For example, we don’t have to wait for a judge to know whether a driver was a terrorist or a drunk who lost control. Hundreds of cellphone pictures and surveillance cameras tell us the story in real time. And here’s the kicker. When we see an event, we don’t even know if it’s true. A new app can cook up a video where a figure says whatever the blogger wants him to say with no connection to what he really said, if he said anything at all.
That’s what we call progress. The result is that our trust level is way down. Our belief level, in our leaders, our organizations, our cultural heroes, even our mission on earth, is hovering around zero. But in this case, we don’t need someone to remove the protective seal around our heart of belief but rather someone to add another three layers.
What goes around comes around. What would Moshe have done?