25 Elul 5773 / Aug 30-31, 2013
In this week’s double portion, Moses wraps up his recapitulation speech to the Israelites and reminds them that if they forsake the covenant with God, that God will be furious and punish them accordingly. Obviously, Moses was under the impression that threats were the best way to inspire action. And yet, later in the portion, Moses says to the elders of the nation that he knows that once he’s gone (because he’s not permitted to enter the Promised Land and is going to die soon) the Israelites will act wickedly and stray from their Divine instructions.
If Moses knows the Israelites are going to stray, why even bother harping on the punishment for failure to follow the instructions in the first place? Is he trying to motivate the Israelites to prove him wrong? Is he consciously (or subconsciously) setting the Israelites up for failure by making them believe that no matter what they do, they’re going to fail?
The irony of all of this is that the Torah is meant to be digestible and accessible.
“Surely this Instruction, which I enjoin upon you this day, is not too baffling for you; nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens… Neither is it beyond the sea…”
If the Torah is ours here on earth and is easily comprehendible (there’s a bit of room for argument on that point to be sure…), why would Moses be so sure that the Israelites would stray from their intended course?
Ultimately, it’s because to be human is to make mistakes. Regardless of our intentions, we inevitably mess up things that we perceive as simple. From honoring our parents, to loving our neighbors as ourselves, to having homes completely free of chametz on Passover, we all come up short sometimes of where we’d like to be. Fortunately, Judaism not only anticipates, but also embraces this lack of perfection. Our daily traditional prayers offer an opportunity to express our regret for our shortcomings. The High Holiday season, just around the corner, offers us the chance to do so as well as part of a community – reminding us that just as we have shortcomings, so too does everyone else.
In the portion, Moses also makes known that after going astray, when the Israelites decide to “return,” that they’ll be greeted with open, loving arms.
This Shabbat, may we all – as individuals and collectively as a community – reflect on our areas of desired growth, and position ourselves such that our arms are open and loving to all.