Last week, the Torah portion included the Shema, the statement that is so central to Judaism, an injunction to pay attention: “Shema Yisrael, Listen, Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.”
This week’s Torah portion tells us – three times! – to walk in God’s paths. And in case we attempt to interpret the phrase metaphorically, the Bible makes itself abundantly clear: “And now Israel, what does the Lord your God demand of you? Only this: To revere the Lord your God, to walk only in his paths, to love him, and to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and soul, keeping the Lord’s commandments and laws…” (Deut. 10:12-13).
And the theme continues into next week, when we will begin with the word re’eh, see. And this time we’re presented with options, although the Torah is again quite clear about which it expects us to choose:
“See, this day I set before you blessing and curse: blessing, if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I [Moses] enjoin upon you this day; and curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord your God, but turn away from the path that I enjoin upon you this day and follow other gods, whom you have not experienced.” (Deut. 11:26-28)
Here, near the end of the Torah, we are inundated with commands to recognize God’s presence in our lives and adhere to God’s laws. We are told to listen, to see, to feel, to do. In short, the Torah wants us to put our whole selves into relationship with God.
Why the repetition? We know that the Torah is notoriously frugal with words. But here, as the Israelites pause before entering the Promised Land, they are told again and again to pay attention to God and God’s laws.
The answer lies in the last phrase of verse 28, warning the people to not “follow other gods whom you have not experienced.”
Because they’re not going to be alone. After 40 years of isolation from outside influences, they will suddenly find themselves in a place populated by people with different practices and beliefs. The pressure to adapt to the norms of the native culture will be immense.
Rabbi Brad Artson wrote of this: “Social pressure to conform is a steady and soul-deadening force. With relentless enticements, cultures seek ways to impose similarity of worldview, of behavior, even of thought upon their members. Even contemporary society, with its laudable commitment to individuality, imposes subtle mandates through the media, through the movies, through advertisements and in countless other ways.”
It’s hard being a minority. We American Jews understand this all too well, as do Sikhs, Muslims, and other non-Christians. The majority culture takes itself for granted, and assumes that everyone shares their beliefs. This is perhaps most evident when people blithely call America a Christian nation, but as Rabbi Artson points out, we are surrounded by subtle messages as well as overt ones.
And so the Torah reminds us that it takes our whole selves, all of our senses and our actions, to remain in relationship with the God of our ancestors, with the traditions, rituals, and practices that make us uniquely Jewish.
The benefit to society is the enrichment brought by different viewpoints, different ways of relating to the Divine, different ways of being. By holding to their own beliefs without denying others the right to theirs, Jews have the opportunity to model the very highest ideals of society – of meeting the needs of everyone equally, regardless of race, gender, culture, or religion.
Shabbat shalom, Rabbi Jennifer