Here, Moses commands all Israel to remain faithful to the sacred covenant with God, always and forevermore. To whom exactly is he speaking? The text reels through time, beginning with the Dor Haye’tsiah/Exodus Generation, which escaped Egypt and died in the wilderness, and shifting to the Dor HaMidbar/Wilderness Generation, born after the sin of the Golden Calf, and grown up, free, in the Wilderness, knowing Egyptian slavery only from their parents’ stories (as we, too, learn, on Pesach), and faithful only to Moses and Joshua.
Moses’s exhortations move both backward and forward in Jewish Time, from all Jews who were ever born in the past, into the as-yet-unknown future history of our people, far beyond our lives today, as we strive to keep our people active, faithful, and dedicated to our special heritage and responsibilities, both tribal and universal.
O my people, Jews everywhere! Realize that we are not just descended from a wandering mob of desert-dwellers; no. We are always and forever a People who dwell, not only within, but outside of human history. Moses’s speech is most appropriate for this time of year, as we approach the High Holy Days, whose very theme is Time and its effect on our lives. Consider the daily schedules we follow, often slavishly, the cellphones we carry and covet, the computers we depend on, and the machines which we believe we control, yet which inexorably dominate our lives.
These timeless words of Moses—“You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your God” (Deut. 29:9),—speak, not only to tribespeople living in a cloudy, distant Past, but to all of us, Today. We cannot be bound only to cellphones or the “mind-forg’d manacles” of schedules; we are truly bound only by the holy laws of Torah and God.
Beyond the warnings of prophecy—“If you fulfill God’s will, then God will ensure your prosperity”—we find an idea fundamental to Jewish thought, especially around this time of year: that of teshuva, doing repentance, and returning to God. When Israel crosses over the Jordan and abandons God for the idolatrous, but attractive, cults of the Canaanites, He may punish them for backsliding, but will never totally abandon them. God always hopes that they will rediscover how much He loves them and desires their return. In a world of materialistic tawdriness and gimcrackery, let us always make time to bring the lasting and sacred into our lives. Is our life’s purpose to buy a bigger TV, fancier car, grander house—or is it to walk humbly, practice mercy, and speak justly?
“I have never lived a Godly life before,” you may say, “How can I begin now? How can I make keeping Shabbat, lighting candles, coming to temple, part of my life? I have gone too far in the opposite direction; I am lost….”
No: there is always Hope. Indeed, our tradition teaches that a repentant sinner is more precious to God than someone who has always lived a religious life, because the former has succeeded in taking the evil of his previous existence and converting it to spiritual light.
Moses then addresses his disciple, Joshua, who will lead Israel after Moses’s death. The aged prophet despairs: God has granted him a vision of the Israelites falling away from the Covenant in the future. Are we therefore always doomed to fall short of God’s expectations?
I believe with all my heart that the Jewish relationship with God today continues as strongly as it has ever been in the past, iron-plated and copper-sheathed, despite our tendency to doubt and quibble about the details. God may well question our behavior, but loves us, nonetheless, as a parent does an erring child. “If you come towards me even one hand’s-breadth,” says God, “I will come from miles away, and cover the remainder of the distance between us. I am as close to you as your heart and soul.”
Remember this. Always remember—and Shana Tova—a Happy and Healthy New Year, from Anbeth, me, and our Family, as you plan to join with your Temple Sholom Family for the High Holy Days. May you all, all of God’s Children, be written and sealed in the Book of Life, Health, and Prosperity for the New Year 5776. Amen!