For the past few months we’ve been reading in Deuteronomy the final words of Moses to the Jewish people. His days are numbered, so he gathers his flock for one last, long sermon before his ascent up Mount Nebo. In this final discourse, he covers everything of the previous forty years. He reminds the Israelites of their tumultuous history, of the miracles that saved them and the laws given on Sinai.
What I find interesting, however, is that Moses, in the name of God, slips in over and over a bit of specious theology. It is powerfully presented, eloquently told and yet, we moderns would say, “Wait a minute. That’s a pretty risky position to take. Moses, in the name of God, is really sticking his neck out.” Repeatedly, our ancestors are told that if they follow the Torah and the mitzvot, all will be well. There will be prosperity and fertility and peace and never-ending joy on earth. But, if they ignore the divine will and sacred teachings, there are abundant curses awaiting them. Life will be unceasingly miserable.
With a basic knowledge of how life works, this doesn’t make sense. It’s a dangerous promise, because we know that goodness does not always result in reward, and evil-doing does not always land the criminal in jail. But, as I reflected on this dubious cause and effect, I came to understand a deeper meaning that is a truthful prescription, not a primitive, simplistic promise. What the Torah is saying is that if we do the right thing, then chances are pretty good that good things will happen. If we exercise and watch what we ingest, we will lose weight and be healthy. If we are careful with how we spend and invest wisely, we will have money for the future. If we work hard and are diligent, we will keep our job and get a raise. If we pour respect and love into a marriage, we will live happily ever after.
It’s not perfect, and there will be cracks in the system, but it’s a pretty safe bet to make that by doing what we should, there will be a reward and by not doing what we should, there will be unpleasant consequences. It is not such a farfetched theology and it is, indeed, how the world works. So before we chuckle and dismiss the lessons of Torah as dusty silliness, let’s understand that Moses was a pretty smart guy, and his mentor even smarter.
Doing the right thing today is not so easy, is it?
Rabbi Shalom Lewis