Deuteronomy 7:12 – 11:
“Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God … Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery … You may say to yourself, ‘My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.’ … If you ever forget the Lord your God … I testify against you today that you will surely be destroyed.” [Deut. 8:11-19]
With these words, Moses throws a gauntlet down before the Israelites, in effect saying: ‘Do not think that the forty years of wandering is the hard part, that once you settle the land your problems will be solved. The hard part will come afterward, when you feel safe and secure in your land, and the memory of your wandering becomes distant. Only then will your real spiritual trial begin.’
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks observes: “The real challenge is not poverty but affluence, not insecurity but security, not slavery but freedom. Moses, for the first time in history, was hinting at a law of history.” What is this law? It is this: complacency and self-satisfaction are the beginning of the end of any civilization. What will this look like? Sacks continues:
“Inequalities will grow. The rich will become self-indulgent. The poor will feel excluded. There will be social divisions, resentments and injustices. Society will no longer cohere. People will not feel bound to one another by a bond of collective responsibility. Individualism will prevail. Trust will decline. Social capital will wane.”
It happened in ancient Babylonia and Persia, in Greece and Rome, in Renaissance Florence and monarchal France, and in the British and Russian Empires. It is happening now.
Moses saw it all, and with extraordinary audacity, taught that it is possible for us to succeed where everyone else has failed. While every great civilization throughout history has eventually followed the same arc of growth and decline, we can do better. The book of Deuteronomy dares and challenges us to build a nation strong enough to overcome the very laws of history.
This is the great spiritual challenge we face – not just reaching the Promised Land but keeping it.
Today we see the signs of decline in both the United States and in Israel. Yet none of this is inevitable. There is a way forward, which Moses delineates carefully throughout Deuteronomy.
First, we must remember the Source of our bounty and cultivate both humility and gratitude. When we remove God from our midst, when we assume that human agency the only power in the world, then it is a short leap indeed to societal decline. For we will worship something in place of God, we always do. Moses reminds us to stay connected with God, lest we do the unthinkable, and begin to think that we ourselves are gods.
Second, if we put ourselves in God’s place, and assume that we are the ultimate authorities, then we will no longer be accountable – ethically or otherwise. Torah exists to teach us that there is a higher authority, and a higher ethical standard. To beat the laws of history, we need to stay true to the ideals and values of Torah, we must hold ourselves accountable to that standard, and teach our children to do so as well – even when it means swimming against the current.
Finally, when we remember that God is God and we are not, and we collectively work to build our lives and communities with Torah, then we can pursue justice not only for ourselves, but for all people.
Make no mistake: Moses knew what he was teaching. Taken together, the practice of humility and gratitude, accountability to a higher standard of behavior, and the pursuit of justice, are the building blocks of an enduring and life-affirming culture, and a society built to withstand the ravages of history. Many nations have risen and fallen since Torah was first given and received at Sinai, yet our success as a people and a tradition is directly connected to those times when, despite every force in the world pushing us to do otherwise, we have kept faith: with ourselves, with Torah, and with our Creator.
Today is no different.
There is still time for us to act.
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras