Torah from Around the World #344

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By: Rabbi Phil Cohen Ph.D, Rabbi of

Temple Israel

, West Lafayette, Indiana, USA

Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem lifnei Adonai Eloheichem

(Deuteronomy 29:9)/ Thus begins this week’s


. All of you, from all levels of society, stand here today at the river’s edge in the presence of God. All of you have been given the same gift, the same Torah, the same Law, with all of its entailments, and all of you can access it equally. This gift is not so difficult to understand that you need someone to interpret and implement it for you. True, this gift may have come from the heavens, but it is no longer there. It is here among us, among all of us. It resides in our very being. We are to carry it with us and live by it. And that is the brit, the covenant, the understanding between us and the Eternal. We will love the Eternal God, observe the entailments of the covenant, and in return, God will make us prosper. Failing that, we will suffer.

Deuteronomy is filled with these admonitions, rewards for obedience and punishments for straying from God and worshipping idols. There is a kind of starkness in these sentiments, but at the same time a certain disconnect between the Deuteronomic mindset and our contemporary world.

Where are these great rewards? Where are these grave punishments? Where is the presence of God entering into our history and treating us according to our behavior? This is hard for us to find credible.

How then are we to understand these passages assuring us that the Law is accessible and rewarding if followed?

I think one answer may be fairly easy. We are a people who have inherited a vast tradition, an enormous literature (it never fails to amaze me) composed over millennia. The countless words composed by our predecessors, all in their way confronting the revelation at Sinai and interpreting it; these interpreters dwell within the revelation, and pass the newer understandings into the future. We are the beneficiaries of that great effort, even as we modestly contribute to the library ourselves.

In the complexity of that intellectual and spiritual process, a world is built. This world is dense and complicated, and not all of it is necessarily acceptable to all of us. But the decision to dwell in that world leads to innumerable rewards.

I suppose the rewards can be understood as cultural, broadly speaking. The decision to explore the covenant and live by the covenant provides us with tools that enrich our lives. Certainly, we gain an ethics and a theology, but it’s far more than that, the sum of which forms that aforementioned world, which provides identity and community, language and continuity. Living in that world is its own reward. The shared culture offers guidance, but also familiarity and comfort, and a history that we call our own. The covenant does not assure one of riches or longevity, but it provides a depth of meaning without which we would be poorer.

All of us standing today on the edge of the river, inheriting what is accessible to us, leads us to a life shot through with multiple layers of meaning, without which we would be empty.

“Choose life” (Deuteronomy 30:19), the text says. Choose the depth of what is freely available; what enriches life in so many ways, though ultimately the greatest reward is an abiding closeness to the Eternal.

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