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So far, the book of Devarim has been remarkably inspiring.
Each parsha is another argument in the great pump-up speech Israel needs before entering the land. And this parsha should be no different. Toward the beginning, instead of Moses focusing on just one episode, Moses prepares to sum up the lesson of the entire 40 years. Almost as if all of the desert stories boil down to one larger idea, that the nation should remember. This is going to be epic. So what does Moses say? וְזָכַרְתָּ אֶת-כָּל-הַדֶּרֶךְ - Israel, remember the whole journey, אֲשֶׁר הוֹלִיכְךָ יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ זֶה ,אַרְבָּעִים שָׁנָה בַּמִּדְבָּר - that God took you on, for 40 years in the desert. Why did God take you through the desert for 40 years? לְמַעַן עַנֹּתְךָ לְנַסֹּתְךָ - So that He could afflict you in order to test you, לָדַעַת אֶת-אֲשֶׁר בִּלְבָבְךָ הֲתִשְׁמֹר מִצְוֹתָו--אִם-לֹא - to know what’s in your heart, whether you’ll keep God’s laws or not. וַיְעַנְּךָ וַיַּרְעִבֶךָ - God afflicted you by starving you, וַיַּאֲכִלְךָ אֶת-הַמָּן - and only after you were starving, He fed you the manna.
Whoa whoa whoa...hold on... First of all, Moses basically just admitted that God afflicted the nation of Israel through the past 40 years of the desert, withholding food and water from them...on purpose? That is so cruel. This is a God we’re supposed to have a relationship with? And second of all, why is Moses telling them any of this? This is hardly inspiring. Surely Moses has some speechwriters who could have counseled him to leave it out of his epic speech. “Yes, Moses, I understand that it’s all true, theologically speaking, but why focus on it? Meeting God at Sinai, sure. Shema? Perfect. Leave out the part about how the all-powerful God starved us and afflicted us in order to test us. I think you lose more than you gain.”
Join us, as we try to make sense of Moshe's bizarre statements, this week, on The Parsha Experiment.
Hi, I’m Imu Shalev, and welcome to the Parshat Experiment.
We all have that skeptical friend...the one who has serious problems with “The God of the Hebrew Bible.” He’s just so angry and vengeful. This would probably not be the week to invite him to your local Torah reading. But let’s be brave. Let’s ask our skeptical friend to read the rest of the passage with us. What would he say?
Well, right after Moses says that God tested them, He continues, and tells us why: לְמַעַן הוֹדִיעֲךָ - in order to make it known to Israel, כִּי לֹא עַל-הַלֶּחֶם לְבַדּוֹ יִחְיֶה הָאָדָם - that mankind doesn’t only live on bread; He needs God. And remember God, because he fed you in the desert, and made it so your clothes didn’t wear our and your feet didn’t swell.
Okay, so is this answer good enough to satisfy your skeptical friend?
“NO!” he says. God doesn’t deserve to be praised because He eventually fed us and clothed us - He is the one who withheld all those things from us in the first place!
So you continue reading: God’s going to bring you to a good land - and you’ll be really successful, you’re going to have everything you want - just remember, you’re going to work really hard, and build beautiful homes, and build up your flocks - but be careful, lest you say, כֹּחִי וְעֹצֶם יָדִי, עָשָׂה לִי אֶת-הַחַיִל הַזֶּה - that it was my strength and hard work that generated this success. Remember God.
And so your friend retorts: Who is this God? Why is He so needy? He reminds you that HE took you out of Egypt, He protected you in the desert, He gave you food and water. Don’t you for a second say that you accomplished anything yourself. He’s the one who did it all. How is that fair?
So, this week’s parsha is upsetting. Maybe some of us are like that friend, who reads this and says, it’s just what I suspected. God isn’t so nice, and I want nothing to do with a God who is capable of such cruelty. But I think that we’re actually fundamentally misreading this story. We, as humankind, have a fatal flaw - and because of that flaw, we misunderstand God’s actions, and His choice to afflict us in the desert. If we understand this flaw, and correct for it, this passage will take on an entirely different light.
Let’s say I have a teenage son. Every day, when he comes home from school, he’s hungry. So, he opens the fridge and looks around. ‘Hmm, what do I want? Chicken? Rice? Ooh, is that steak? Don’t mind if I do!’ Then, when I come home, all ready to savor the steak I’ve been saving - it’s gone. My son says, oh, yeah, I was hungry, so, you know…I took it. And off he goes.
And...I’m not upset that he took food from the fridge. He’s my son, I buy him food so that he can enjoy it. But...something about this is off. And I think that it’s this - the fatal flaw - mindlessly taking things for granted. When he opened the fridge that afternoon, he thought, oh good, food. He didn’t think, wow, that food looks good, it’s so sweet of my dad that he went shopping this morning, and that he always keeps the fridge stocked, so I can always eat when I want to. In fact, I should text him. “Hey Dad, thanks for always keeping my favorite foods around, you’re the best! I love you sooooo much! And by the way, can I grab that steak? Smiley emoji! Steak emoji!” In fact, if I asked him, hey, how’d you get that steak?, he would probably be confused by the question. He’d say something like, “Umm, I opened the fridge...and I got it...” My son is forgetting two very important things: 1) steaks don’t just grow in the fridge. Someone put them there. And 2) That someone is me. His food comes from his father.
Of course, I want my son to have food to eat, but I also want him to understand that behind his food is a labor of love. I work to provide food for him, because I care about him. When he takes what he has for granted... when he takes me for granted - that hurts our relationship.
So how do I parent a little better? I have an idea. The next day, when my son comes home from school, and mindlessly opens the fridge for a snack… it's empty. Next day, same thing, nothing. And he is annoyed. Dad, he says to me, what’s going on?? Where’s the food? I’m starving!
So he understands Step 1 - food doesn’t come magically from the fridge. And now, I want him to understand where it does come from, Step 2, he has a loving father, a provider. So we’re off to the supermarket. We pick out food, we compare prices, we pay, we stock the car with groceries, and when we get home, we put everything away. And as we do all this, together, it sinks in for him. There is a series of actions, choices, sometimes, blood sweat and tears, that are not his own, that go into stocking that fridge. And maybe that means something to him, to know that his father, out of love for him, makes sure that it’s always full.
I could have taken this further - I could have taken him to the bank, to deposit my paycheck; to my office, to see how hard I work to provide for him. But at this point, the idea is there.
But how did he learn all this? What is the mechanism by which he understood that lesson? ...It was the lack before the gain. Those days with the empty fridge made him understand, everything has a source and that even something as mundane as pulling food out of a fridge can be a tool to strengthen the relationship between parent and child.
Now that we understand this great flaw of humanity, let’s take a second look at Moshe's speech:וְזָכַרְתָּ אֶת-כָּל-הַדֶּרֶךְ - Israel. You’re vulnerable to forgetting. You might take things for granted. So remember this forty year journey in the desert. לְמַעַן עַנֹּתְךָ לְנַסֹּתְךָ - God afflicted you, to test you, to teach you. לָדַעַת אֶת-אֲשֶׁר בִּלְבָבְךָ הֲתִשְׁמֹר מִצְוֹתָו--אִם-לֹא - to know what’s in your heart, whether you’ll keep God’s laws or not. וַיְעַנְּךָ וַיַּרְעִבֶךָ - וַיַּאֲכִלְךָ אֶת-הַמָּן - He caused you to perceive a lack, and then He fed you with food from the heavens.
God had no interest in torturing you. He provided for you. שִׂמְלָתְךָ לֹא בָלְתָה, מֵעָלֶיךָ - your clothing didn’t wear out, וְרַגְלְךָ, לֹא בָצֵקָה--זֶה, אַרְבָּעִים שָׁנָה and your legs didnt swell, for all these 40 years. And therefore, וְיָדַעְתָּ, עִם-לְבָבֶךָ - know in your hearts, כִּי, כַּאֲשֶׁר יְיַסֵּר אִישׁ אֶת-בְּנוֹ, - that just as a parent sometimes must chastise his child in order to teach a crucial lesson, יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, מְיַסְּרֶךָּ - God does the same to you, to His child. This analogy that we gave about the teenager? That’s not ours. It’s Moshe's. Our God is a loving parent, who chastises us...because it’s good for us.
Moses explains why: כִּי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, מְבִיאֲךָ אֶל-אֶרֶץ טוֹבָה - God is about to bring you to an amazing land, a land of streams of water, deep fountains from valleys and hills. A land of wheat, barley, grapes, dates, pomegranates, olive oil, honey. אֶרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר לֹא בְמִסְכֵּנֻת תֹּאכַל-בָּהּ לֶחֶם - a land in which you’ll eat bread without scarcity! לֹא-תֶחְסַר כֹּל, בָּהּ - you’ll lack nothing.
This is the full fridge! I can have anything I want, whenever I want! And Moses says, when that happens, וְאָכַלְתָּ, וְשָׂבָעְתָּ - eat and be satiated! God wants you to have food. He wants to provide for you, always. But, וּבֵרַכְתָּ אֶת-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, עַל-הָאָרֶץ הַטֹּבָה אֲשֶׁר נָתַן-לָךְ - you must also bless God for the great land that He’s given you. Not because God is needy, Moses says. Because this bounty from God, your heavenly parent, is a tool, for building a relationship. God gives you everything to be enjoyed, in love, and in love, you acknowledge what He’s given you. If you merely eat and be full, וְאָכַלְתָּ, וְשָׂבָעְתָּ, you are a teenager. If you acknowledge the source of your food, if you eat together with your beloved, וְאָכַלְתָּ, וְשָׂבָעְתָּ--וּבֵרַכְתָּ, then you’ve built a relationship.
But…there’s a grave danger. This fatal flaw of taking things for granted? There’s a time where we are particularly vulnerable: Moses continues. הִשָּׁמֶר לְךָ - be careful, פֶּן-תִּשְׁכַּח אֶת-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ - lest you forget God. פֶּן-תֹּאכַל, וְשָׂבָעְתָּ - lest you eat and be satiated. וּבָתִּים טֹבִים תִּבְנֶה, וְיָשָׁבְתָּ - you’ll build good homes and settle down. וּבְקָרְךָ וְצֹאנְךָ יִרְבְּיֻן; - and your livestock will increase, ,וְכֶסֶף וְזָהָב יִרְבֶּה-לָּךְ - and your wealth will increase, וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר-לְךָ, יִרְבֶּה - everything you have will multiply! ...There’s a grave danger to having everything, a danger when plenty becomes the natural state of everyday life. וְרָם, לְבָבֶךָ; - your heart can become haughty, וְשָׁכַחְתָּ אֶת-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, הַמּוֹצִיאֲךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם מִבֵּית עֲבָדִים you’ll forget God, who took you out of Egypt. וְאָמַרְתָּ, בִּלְבָבֶךָ: And you’ll say in your heart, כֹּחִי וְעֹצֶם יָדִי, עָשָׂה לִי אֶת-הַחַיִל הַזֶּה - my own strength and power provided me with all this wealth. It’s all from ME!
What happens when your teenager goes off to college? He settles into his own place. A Now, he stocks his own fridge, he prepares his own meal, he feels so proud about that delicious steak he just cooked….all by himself. All by himself? Is that really true? How did he stock that fridge? He was using mommy and daddy’s credit card. Once we start doing some of the effort, and it can be a lot of effort, we tend to forget the earlier steps, the things that made our successes possible.
Our experience in the land of Israel would be vastly different than in the desert. We’d plow, seed, tend crops, raise cattle and bake bread. And we’d be proud! כֹּחִי וְעֹצֶם יָדִי, עָשָׂה לִי אֶת-הַחַיִל הַזֶּה - My own efforts and my own strength are what caused my success - it feels sort of true! I built this home I live in, I raised this livestock, I accumulated this wealth, from my hard work!
So what is the antidote to this delusion? It is an inspiring lesson that Moshe teaches us:
וְזָכַרְתָּ, אֶת-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ - Remember God. כִּי הוּא הַנֹּתֵן לְךָ כֹּחַ, לַעֲשׂוֹת חָיִל - Because it’s God who gave you the strength to be successful. Yes, your strength allowed you to accomplish things - you should be proud of everything you do. But God gave you that strength. In the desert, God gave you bread, directly from the heavens. But when you pull bread out of the earth, remember that you do so by the strength given to you from God. And when you eat, וְאָכַלְתָּ, וְשָׂבָעְתָּ--וּבֵרַכְתָּ - recognize and appreciate that the same God of the desert is the one who facilitates your accomplishments in life, the one who gives you the strength to earn your daily bread.
We are the generation even more vulnerable than those who entered the land. They looked to the heavens for rain so they could grow their crops and bake their bread. For us? Bread grows in supermarkets. Earning our daily bread is a metaphor for most of us. We are much further disconnected from the source of our nourishment than any generation that preceded us. And yet, we must enjoy our great bounty and appreciate the source of our strength. וּבֵרַכְתָּ, we must bless God, and realize that all we have and all we have achieved is merely a tool for achieving the highest of relationships.
1. The Parsha Experiment - Bereishit: Is The Torah One Big Story?
2. The Parsha Experiment - Noach: The Failure of Humanity
3. The Parsha Experiment - Lech Lecha: Was Abraham The First Wandering Jew?
4. The Parsha Experiment - Vayeira: the Power of Abraham's Influence
5. The Parsha Experiment - Chayei Sarah: Find Me A Find, Catch Me A Catch!
6. The Parsha Experiment - Toldot: All's Well That Ends Well
7. The Parsha Experiment - Vayeitzei: To Deceive Or Not To Deceive, That Is The Question
8. The Parsha Experiment - Vayishlach: Difficult Conversations
9. The Parsha Experiment - Vayeishev: Harlots & Coats & Goats, Oh My!
10. The Parsha Experiment - Miketz: Hello From The Other Side
11. The Parsha Experiment - Vayigash: A Speech That Turns The Tide
12. The Parsha Experiment - Vayechi: We Are Family - Culmination of Abrahamic Legacy
13. The Parsha Experiment - Shmot - Every Saga Has A Beginning: Meeting Moses
14. The Parsha Experiment - Va'era: The Exodus and Babe Ruth
15. The Parsha Experiment - Bo: The Flight of the Firstborn Nation
16. The Parsha Experiment - Beshalach: Are We An Ungrateful Nation?
17. The Parsha Experiment - Yitro: Does God Care About ME?
18. The Parsha Experiment - Mishpatim: Can Laws Be Meaningful?
19. The Parsha Experiment - Terumah: Is God Talking To Me Through The Laws of the Mishkan?
20. The Parsha Experiment - Tetzaveh: The Hidden Secrets In The Walls Of The Mishkan
21. The Parsha Experiment - Ki Tisa: Will God Always Forgive Me?
22. The Parsha Experiment - Vayakhel: How Can I Take A Step Towards God?
23. The Parsha Experiment - Pekudei: God Choosing Man, Man Choosing God
24. The Parsha Experiment - Vayikra: How To Read the Book of Vayikra
25. The Parsha Experiment - Shemini: Is There Meaning Behind The Laws of Kashrut?
26. The Parsha Experiment - Tzav: How Can I Confront Sacrifices?
27. The Parsha Experiment - Tazria: What do Tumah and Tahara Mean Today? Part I
28. The Parsha Experiment - Metzora: What Do Tumah And Tahara Mean Today? Part II
29. The Parsha Experiment - Kedoshim: How Can We Achieve Holiness?
30. The Parsha Experiment - Emor: Holiness In Space and Time
31. The Parsha Experiment - Behar: A Spiritual Economy
32. The Parsha Experiment - Bechukotai: The Epic Conclusion To Leviticus
33. The Parsha Experiment - Bamidbar: How Can We Transmit God's Values?
34. The Parsha Experiment - Naso: Adding Godliness To Our Lives
35. The Parsha Experiment - Beha'alotecha: Can I Be Vulnerable With God?
36. The Parsha Experiment - Shelach: How Can I Trust God When I Don't See Him?
37. The Parsha Experiment - Korach: Rejecting Israel's Leaders
38. The Parsha Experiment - Chukat: A Turning Point In Israel's Relationship With God
39. The Parsha Experiment - Balak: What Is Israel's National Mission?
40. The Parsha Experiment - Pinchas: Intimacy and Holiness
41. The Parsha Experiment - Matot-Masei: Israel's Psychological Journey
42. The Parsha Experiment - Devarim: Finding Inspiration From Our Past
43. The Parsha Experiment - Va'etchanan: Building An Intimate Relationship With God
44. The Parsha Experiment - Eikev: Appreciating Our Creators
45. The Parsha Experiment - Re'eh: Why Would Anyone Want to Worship Idols?
46. The Parsha Experiment - Shoftim: Is This Just A Boring Parsha?
47. The Parsha Experiment - Ki Teitzei: Is There Spiritual Guidance Within Our Legal System?
48. The Parsha Experiment - Ki Tavo: How To Make Sense Of The Terrible Curses
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