Good times can lead Jews astray


Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25

Isaiah 49:14 – 51:3

An important theme of Moses' final sermon to his people can be found in this week's parashah. It is "Remember…forget not." These words appear repeatedly as the Jewish nation prepares to enter the Promised Land. Moses predicts two different scenarios that would necessitate remembering and not forgetting, because the people's fate would depend on heeding his words.

The first would be a time of trouble and danger, when the Jews would face powerful enemies and might lose faith. "If you will say in your heart 'These nations are more numerous than I; how will I be able to drive them out?' You should not fear them. You shall remember what the Lord, your G-d did to Pharaoh and to all of Egypt" (Deuteronomy 7:18), "The Lord, your G-d will deliver them before you" (Deut. 7:23).

That message has certainly had to be remembered by the Jews of every generation. In times too many to count, we have been confronted by adversaries stronger and more numerous than ourselves. Our history is one of a constant struggle to avoid destruction. As the Passover Haggadah puts it, "In every generation they have tried to destroy us, but the Holy One Blessed be He always rescues us from their hands."

Although every imaginable method was used to break our spirit, historians marvel at the fact that a small minority defied every threat of extermination century after century. The endurance of the Jew is a unique phenomenon.

It is, however, not really a mystery. The explanation is that we remembered. We remembered the spiritual "pep talk" delivered to our ancestors, by Moses, our teacher. The more frightening the crisis, the more we relied on the words, "You shall not be broken by them for the Lord, your G-d, is in the midst of you, a great and awesome G-d" (Deut. 7:21). We remembered that we have a protector whose help would always assure the final outcome.

This saving power is, of course, as true today as it was when Moses enjoined our fathers to remember. By clinging to our faith, we will come through every threat in Israel as well as in other countries of the world.

But Moses, with his amazing power of prophesy, spoke of an entirely different set of circumstances when remembering and not forgetting would be of paramount importance for the future of our people. He spoke of the occasional periods of peace and prosperity, pointing out that they can pose other dangers.

He said, "Take care lest you forget the Lord, your G-d by not observing His commandments, His ordinances, and His decrees which I command you today, lest you eat and be satisfied and you build good houses and settle and your cattle and sheep and goats increase and you increase silver and gold for yourselves and everything that you have will increase and your heart will become haughty and you will forget the Lord, your G-d Who took you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery…And you may say in your heart, 'My strength and the might of my hand made me all this wealth!' Then shall you remember the Lord, your G-d, that it was He who gave you strength to make wealth…" (Deut. 11:18).

Perhaps forgetfulness at a time of good fortune is the greater danger. Jewish history certainly bears this out. Our greatest casualties have often been suffered in times of peace, not in times of struggle. In times of grave persecution, the burden of oppressive laws forced only a negligible number of Jews to escape through conversion or assimilation. With the dawning of emancipation, however, we can see a stream rushing to break away. In enormously difficult times we hold fast to our religion; in the easier times we drift away from our people and our faith.

The same phenomenon is true of patriotism, as we ourselves witnessed after 9/11. When our country is threatened, strong feelings of nationalism blaze into flame. During long periods of peace, the citizens of any country, preoccupied with their daily work and recreation, are not obsessed with the sentiment of patriotism.

So it is with Jews. When faced with implacable enemies, the whole Jewishness of our nature is aroused. On the other hand, when we are fortunate enough to live in a free country, not subject to governmental discrimination, the pull away from Jewish life is a tremendously strong force, which is difficult to resist.

Therefore, whatever our situation, oppression or freedom, we need to remember the powerful words spoken to our forefathers by Moses. Our continued existence depends on the preservation of our distinctive Jewish memories. They will encourage those of our people who are sadly living in misery and oppression until the day of their deliverance. They will also act as a brake on those of us who, basking in the sunshine of freedom, find ourselves (G-d forbid) drifting away from klal Yisrael, the brotherhood into which we were born.

Shabbat shalom.