What do we need to do to stay on this narrow strip of land we call home?
It feels like a question no one should ever need to ask themselves about their home. It’s certainly not the question the Jews are asking themselves on the banks of the Jordan. They’re feeling invincible after the miraculous conquest of the kings of the east, gripped with messianic fervor to conquer the rest of the promised land they’ve been waiting for their entire lives. We might imagine them listening to Moshe’s endless warnings about being expelled with a mixture of impatience and contempt for the anxieties of the fearful personality of the old school, ‘exilic Jew’.
But the only living Jew who won’t be allowed to enter the land has an outsider’s objectivity, and the desperation of a leader in his last moments of influence. And so, again and again, Moshe relates to this existential question that has endlessly occupied the Jewish nation for the last 67 years. Surrounded by enemies bent on our destruction, embroiled in endless conflict over competing claims to the land, our contemporary answers focus on military and political solutions. Moshe, on the other hand, tends always to come back to idol worship as the act that will precipitate our exile.
But the idol worship he speaks of is always the finally expression of a more fundamental problem, a problem that still bears a powerful message for our current reality. In chapter 8, idol worship is not the result of a brazen rebellion against God. It’s simply an issue of forgetfulness. What power corrupts first is our memory. Where we have been, what we have suffered, what grace brought us to this point, the commitments we made- all this is easily erased by a few years of comfort and success. When we’re in distress, we turn to God. When we’re doing well, we take the credit, and begin to worship the work of “our” own hands.
Moshe’s formula for remaining on the land is not political or military- God will take care of that piece. Our job — Remember! Never Forget! And to do that, we must keep challenging ourselves with the question- what do we need to do to deserve this land?