In Parashat Eikev in the book of Deuteronomy, before the Israelites enter the Land of Israel, Moses presents them with a fairly simple formula:
“If you obey these rules and observe them carefully, the LORD your God will maintain faithfully for you the covenant that He made on oath with your fathers. If you forget the LORD your God and follow other gods to serve them or bow down to them, I warn you this day that you shall certainly perish.” (Deuteronomy 7:12-13)
In other words: If you follow God’s path, things will be good, and if you do not follow God’s path, things will not. This appears to be a simple covenant between ourselves and God, right? Not necessarily. It isn’t always easy to know what God’s path is, and sometimes even when we do walk God’s path, God doesn't necessarily bless us as the biblical formula promises.
I teach my students in BINA’s Secular Yeshiva that God's path is a path of morality, love of humankind, and acceptance of others. God is in the power that motivates us to do good in the world, or, in the biblical language from the Parasha ״Remember that it is the LORD your God who gives you the power to be successful.” (Deut 8:18) Using violence against innocent people simply because they are different from us, even if their differences scare us, is not God’s path. On the contrary, God condemns these acts as they diminish the good in the world. Acts of violence committed in the name of God are idolatry and abominations.
The decision of the Ministry of Education this week to grant a prestigious award to Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh – a rabbi who spreads hatred against women, LGBTQ people and Arabs – is not an example of walking in God's path. Rather, it is an abomination. We can only hope that the formula in this week’s Parasha will indeed ring true in this case, and that those responsible for this egregious decision will face consequences for their actions.
The covenant between ourselves and God demands external signifiers from us. Circumcision is one of these physical symbols of the covenant, a symbol of the uniqueness of our relationship with God and with ourselves. In the Parasha there is another demand – a demand for an internal signifier: "Circumcise, therefore, the foreskin of your hearts and stiffen your necks no more." (Deut 10:16)
That is, external signifiers are insufficient – the covenant also demands internal signifiers, internal changes. We must “circumcise our hearts”, in other words, remove the fear and hatred and xenophobia that prevent us from loving purely. We most “soften our necks”, that is to say, be less stubborn and become more flexible and open. Our covenant with God is a covenant of the body and soul. It is an alliance that requires the repairing of humanity – deep within the heart.
In this week's Parasha, before the People of Israel enter the Promised Land, Moses also recounts the story of Mount Sinai, the sin of the golden calf, and the receiving of the ten commandments. Moses reminds the Israelites that he is the one who pleaded with God to save them despite their sins.
“I prayed to the LORD and said, ‘O Lord God, do not annihilate Your very own people, whom You redeemed in Your majesty and whom You freed from Egypt with a mighty hand. Give thought to Your servants, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and pay no heed to the stubbornness of this people, its wickedness, and its sinfulness.’” (Deut. 9:26)
I wonder what Moses would say if he came down from Mount Sinai this week and saw the golden calves of today – xenophobia, violence against Ethiopian youth, deportation of refugees – would he still be praying for the Israelites? Would we have deserved his prayer? Would God have answered his prayer?
According to the Jewish tradition, God continually recalls the good deeds of our ancestors and continues to love and ‘choose’ the People Israel because out of love and respect for our ancestors: “Yet it was to your fathers that the LORD was drawn in His love for them, so that He chose you, their lineal descendants, from among all peoples—as is now the case.” (Deut. 10:15)
Would God have also chosen us today having seen our contemporary deeds? God did not destroy us for the sin of the golden calf but the temples were destroyed because of baseless hatred and bloodshed. What will our fate be for our baseless violence rampant among us in Israel today? And what about the hardness of our hearts and the stiffness of our necks – our stubbornness and refusal to accept and love those who are different?
In a week, we will welcome in the month of Elul. We’ll begin to sound the shofar and seek forgiveness for our transgressions.This Elul, let us truly strive to “circumcise our hearts” and “unstiffen our necks” – to remove the fear and hatred and closed-mindedness that surround us. Let us begin a year of loving our fellows like ourselves, even – and especially – when our fellows may seem or appear different from ourselves.
Noga Brenner Samia is Deputy Director of BINA.