We turn from God when we turn inward

Maharat Rori Picker Neiss

By Maharat Rori Picker Neiss

What do you say to someone when all their dreams are about to be realized? 

This is the role that Moses faces as the people prepare to enter the land of Israel.  

In this week’s Torah portion, Moses instructs the Israelites:  “Take care lest you forget the Lord your God and fail to keep His commandments, His rules and His laws, which I enjoin upon you today.” 

Moses expounds that it is when the people are successful, when they have good food, comfortable homes, strong income, that they might forget God and all the miracles and wonders that  God had performed for them in Egypt and in the wilderness. 

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Worse yet, the people might begin to think that it was through their hands alone that they achieved all their accomplishments. 

This seems like a logical concern. While in the wilderness, as God fulfilled their every need directly and even supernaturally, it is clear to the people that they owe all that they have to the Divine. Yet once they enter the land and need to plant the seeds, cut the wood, cook the food, lay the roof, it is natural to assume that they would begin to think that all the pleasures they enjoy are the product of their own labor and not, ultimately, from God. 

What is surprising, however, is the part that follows. Moses continues on to say, “If you do forget the Lord your God, and follow other gods to serve them or bow down to them, I warn you this day that you shall certainly perish” (Deuteronomy 8:19). 

Why would the concern be that the people would worship other gods? It makes sense that the people might forget the one God. Even that they would assume that they owe their success to themselves alone. But to turn to alternative gods, especially after all that they had experienced in the wilderness? That seems difficult to imagine. Moses should be worried about the Israelites becoming atheists, but not idolaters. 

Moses continues: “And now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God demand of you? Only this: to revere the Lord your God, to walk only in God’s paths, to love God, and to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and soul, keeping the Lord‘s commandments and laws, which I enjoin upon you today, for your good. … For the Lord your God is God supreme and Lord supreme, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who shows no favor and takes no bribe, but upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and befriends the stranger, providing him with food and clothing. You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 10:12-19)

It is unlikely that the people might forget that there is one God. But they might forget what it is that God calls upon them to do. 

It is when we become comfortable in our lives and pleased with all that we have, that we think that it is ours to control, to keep,  and we store away our extra food, we pack away our extra clothes, and we attend services and worship a God who did not command us no less than a dozen times that we must uphold the cause of the stranger, the widow and the orphan. 

Although Moses issues this warning to the people before they enter the land of Israel, this warning is no less applicable to us today and, in fact, may be even more necessary for us to remember today.  

As the Kli Yakar, Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz, the 16th-century commentator from Prague, wrote: “You, too, must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. Because anyone who was never a stranger in his life cannot feel the pain of the stranger and does not suffer over the life of the stranger. But anyone who himself has been a stranger knows the pain of the stranger, and anything which is hateful to him he would never do to his friend.” (Kli Yakar on Genesis 47:21)

We in the Jewish community know what it means to be strangers. We know what it means to suffer and to be persecuted. And we know what it means to fear. 

The challenge for us as we enjoy the benefits of our modern day successes, and the results of thousands of years of seeking and hoping and striving, is whether we utilize our advantages to help others, as God so often commanded, or rather to hoard our power for our own use. 

Because it is in prioritizing our own needs over those of others that we turn away from God, as Moses warned, and choose instead to worship ourselves.

Maharat Rori Picker Neiss is executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of St. Louis and a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical and Cantorial Association, which coordinates the d’var Torah for the Light.