In the opening of this week’s parasha, our ancestors the extraordinary expectation of our ancestors of us. Moses says: “The Lord your God commands you this day to observe these laws and rules; observe them faithfully with all your heart and soul. You have affirmed this day that the Lord is your God, that you will walk in God’s ways, that you will observe God’s laws and commandments and rules, and that you will hearken to God’s voice. And the Lord has affirmed this day that you are, as promised you, God’s treasured people who shall observe all God’s commandments, and that God will set you, in fame and renown and glory, high above all the nations that God has made; and that you shall be, as God promised, a holy people to the Lord.” (Deuteronomy 26: 16-19). This passage can be read in different ways, some problematic and some promising.
There are many potential problems with this teaching: 1) how do we know precisely what are God’s laws and rules? The notion of 613 mitzvot arose in Talmudic times; only in medieval times did the rabbinic sages known as the rishonim wrote the first books of mitzvot (with disagreements among them). Some of those mitzvot have harmful consequences, and with their lack of mitigation by generations of rabbis, how can we “observe [them] faithfully with all our heart and soul?” 2) Accordingly, just what does it mean to walk in God’s ways and to hearken to God’s voice? 3) Is it not a rather ostentatious lack of humility to seek fame and renown and glory above other nations? 4) And what does it mean to be a holy people?
Beginning with the last question first, to be holy means to be dedicated to God, to live life with religious purpose. If we open ourselves to knowing God as the ever-manifesting source of life that interconnects all, then we may be able to dedicate ourselves to that life of religious purpose.
What if we could really make a difference as part of a community, part of a nation, living with sacred purpose, that is as a holy nation? What if we chose to live life as if, as Immanuel Kant said, “the maxim of our actions were to become universal law?” What if each of us were to understand that because of the very life force that pulses through us we have obligations to all other manifestations of life? What if we as Jews were to say this notion, of serving the unity of creation with all our heart and soul and being, is an essential teaching of our ancestors, important more than ever for us to implement? What if we as Jews were to say that we receive this teaching of our tradition and therefore commit to live our lives with a sense of obligation to certain principles, the ultimate one being that all life is sacred? Should we not thereby approach every other human, all sentient beings, and the environment that sustains us all with more love, care, concern, attention, intention, humility and decency?
Our world cries out for this behaviour. In this Torah, Moses challenges us to live by a religious, moral compass, giving us direction for the New Year.
Rabbi Jeffery B. Kammins