“When you have eaten and satisfied your appetites, and built fine homes to live in, and your cattle and sheep have increased, and your silver and gold has grown, as have all of your possessions, be careful not to let your hearts become haughty and forget the Lord your God, who took you out of Egypt, who led you through the great and terrible wilderness with its burning serpents and scorpions, a dry land without water, who brought you forth water from the flinty rock…lest you say in your hearts, ‘My own strength has wrought these deeds for me.’…If you forget the Lord your God and follow idols, I warn you that you shall surely perish…because you did not hear the Lord your God.” –Moses to Israelites, Deut. 8: 11-20, adapted
One of the first things prospective teachers learn in Education classes is the concept of Positive Reinforcement. Children’s egos are so delicate—isn’t it better to accentuate the positive, rather than point out their multitude of mistakes? (“You did a great job with most of those math problems, Sarah—now, let’s just try and smooth out the ones where you went wrong!”) When teaching, lecturing, or speaking about Judaism, I like to remind my listeners how they may not remember everything they learned in school, but they can easily and quickly make a list of their Most Embarrassing Moments, as well as the name of the teacher who caused them.
And yet, here are the Israelites in the wilderness, being led by Moses, who should know better—after all, he’s been leading them for nearly forty years—and all he has to say about them, it seems, is negative. I’ve been chanting, studying, and reading Torah for decades, and I always feel uncomfortable about this part of the Torah.
The traditional excuse for why Moses and God are so hard on the Israelites is that the tribespeople had a slave mentality; they were used to being told what to do, and when to do it. Therefore, it was necessary for Moses to crack the whip, and for God to be as exacting and definite as possible when giving directions, mitzvote, and prohibitions. Unfortunately, that excuse just won’t cut it at this point in the Torah, simply because this is a new group of Israelites: rather than the Dor Ha’Yetsiah, the “Generation of the Exodus,” who have, presumably, all died off for their sin of worshipping the Golden Calf, this is the Dor Ha-Midbar, the bright-and-shiny Wilderness Generation, born into freedom, and loyal only to God, Moses, and Joshua. So, why was God so quick to doubt their faithfulness to Him?
Blame it on human nature and temptation. People can forget that God is watching, and will often risk their good name and reputations, just for material gain. Ever since Adam, Eve, and the Serpent (and Jewish tradition holds that it was simply a serpent, not Satan in reptilian form), human beings have wilfully pranced down the primrose path toward Instant Gratification, even when it is surely dangerous, illegal, or habit-forming.
There’s the old story of the rabbi who hires the wagon-driver, a balagoola, to ferry him from Minsk to Pinsk, back in the days before car services. There was no great love between the balagoolas and the scholars in the Old Country; teamsters were forced to go out to work at a tender age, were often illiterate, and could not understand how men with sound bodies and minds could seemingly waste their lives, sitting around all day and reading books. As for the scholars, they considered the balagoolas to be ahmay ha-ahretz, ignoramuses. Still, they relied upon one another, and accorded each other a grudging tolerance, if not respect.
It was a beautiful day in mid-autumn. As horse, teamster, and rabbi trotted along, they happened to pass a beautiful apple orchard, its trees laden heavily with scarlet fruit. The teamster’s nose smelled the heady scent and his mouth watered, thinking of the tasty apples dangling there, ripe for the picking—or stealing. He pulled his horse to a halt, and turned to his passenger, who was engrossed in a sefer, a holy book.
“There’s no one on the road but you and me, Rabbi,” said the balagoola, “I’m going to take some apples. Keep guard and call out to me if someone is watching.”
The rabbi opened his mouth and closed it again, speechless. Too late—the sturdy peasant had sprung off the wagon seat, and was running toward the field. He dashed quickly from tree to tree, stuffing fat apples into his shirt and pockets.
Then, the rabbi found his voice: “Someone is watching! Someone is watching!” he shouted.
The balagoola panicked; he raced back to the wagon, shedding apples with every step. Leaping onto the seat, he whipped up the horse, and the wagon flew down the road. Miles later, the driver pulled up the lathered, winded horse, wiped his brow, turned to the rabbi and demanded, “Who was watching? I didn’t see a soul!”
Silently, the rabbi pointed up to heaven.
That is the attitude we should cultivate: Someone is, indeed watching, and we should always be careful of our actions. Princes and presidents, candidates and commoners, Fortune 500 CEOs and theA humbler folks who scrub their offices—wouldn’t the world be a finer and more honest place? Don’t tell me; ask God.