My colleague, Cantor Sandy Horowitz, shared an old Peanuts cartoon she dug up which aptly illustrates the relationship between Moses and the Jewish people after 40 years of leading them. In the cartoon Linus shares with his big sister Lucy that he wants to be a doctor when he grows up. Lucy replies that Linus could never be a doctor. Linus asks why not? “Because you don’t love mankind,” replies Lucy, “That’s why”. To which Linus replies:
One cannot question Moses’ love, commitment, and dedication to the Jewish People – am yisrael. He has sacrificed everything to promote their welfare. It is the actual people he cannot stand! In the parasha for this week he bitterly rebukes them. He recounts their sins in detail – the sin of the Golden Calf, how they complained and had little faith in G-d, how they rebelled and wanted to return to Egypt. He tells them that they really do not deserve to inherit the Land of Canaan. They will only possess it, he says, because of the promise that G-d made to Abraham and Sarah, to Isaac and Rebecca, to Jacob, Rachel and Leah.
In evoking the names of our ancestors Moses is reminding the people that they are part of something greater than themselves. He is reminding them that they are but the latest link in a story that began well before they themselves walked the earth.
The Torah that G-d has given them through Moses will serve as a constitution of sorts by which they will govern themselves when they settle the Land of Canaan. Unlike our Constitution, there is no “Bill of Rights”. Rather, the Torah speaks in the language of “obligation”—our obligation to G-d and our obligation to one another. When the Torah speaks, as it does in our Parasha, of being rewarded for following the commandments and punished for violating them, it is not addressing the individual. It is addressing the community. It is the community that will prosper if the community follows the law, it is the community that will suffer if it does not. I would go so far as to say that in the Torah the individual exists only in the context of the community. There is no Jew without a Jewish community. The English poet John Donne expressed how inextricably we are bound to one another in his famous poem:
No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
John Donne’s message of our deep connection to one another, and Parasha Ekev’s message of collective responsibility, were never more relevant than in our own age of the Covid virus. If we ignore the laws of science, and instead choose to focus on our own autonomy, on our right to act as we please and reject the idea that we are but a part of a whole, that we have an obligation to others, then our immediate future looks bleak indeed. As G-d says in the Torah, “I set before you life and death, blessing and curse – choose life!”