On days when the Torah is read, the gabbai ends the call for the first aliyah, with the words: “Blessed be the One (God) who, in His holiness, gave the Torah to His people Israel.” In response, the congregation answers citing a verse from this week’s parasha: “V’atem Hadvekim B’A-donoi E-lohekhem Hayim Kulkhem Hayom – And you who cling to the Lord your God are all alive this day.” (Deuteronomy 4:4)
This verse is taken from Moshe’s grand message to his people before he presents them with the repetition of the Aseret Hadibrot, the Ten Commandments. In it, Moshe urges his people to maintain their exclusive loyalty to God, reminding them, as well, of the dire consequences of the people’s disloyalty at Baal Peor where they had been lured with harlotry to idolatrous worship:
Your own eyes have seen that which the Lord did at Baal Peor, for every man who went after Baal Peor did the Lord your God destroy from your midst. (Deuteronomy 4:2)
What was Moshe’s intention in juxtaposing of the linkage of idolatry with death together with that of fealty to God and life? Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno (16th century Italy) offers an important insight: “What you have seen at Baal Peor bears witness that even though those who sinned by practicing idolatry initially had no intention to do so, since their only intention was harlotry… each individual thought that this would never happen to them, nevertheless it happened… and none of them was protected by their discernment from falling prey to idolatry…” (abridged and adapted) Sforno asserts that falling prey to one’s passions has the potential of serving as a slippery slope leading to betrayal of God.
One might infer from Sforno’s words an even stronger association between the promiscuous sins of Baal Peor and idolatry. From a modern perspective, we might even come to an understanding that the overindulgence in human appetites is a form of idolatry. In other words, idolatry need not be seen necessarily as an external threat where a person is drawn to outside influences; instead, it might also represent an inability to look beyond one’s own yearnings and desires, seeing them as the exclusive focus of one’s life.
Moshe’s “life and death” warning now comes into focus and becomes relevant to us. Narcissism or overwrought self-indulgence is the new idolatry and Moshe warns us that while it may seem like “ultimate fulfillment”, it will only lead one to a place of darkness. On the other hand, concern for others and a commitment to building a world worthy of God is the ultimate source of light and life. The Talmud sums up what it means to “cling to God” in a commentary on another verse:
And Rabbi Hama son of Rabbi Hanina said: What is the intention of Scripture when it says: ‘You shall walk after the Lord your God’ (Deuteronomy 13:5)? Is it, then, possible for a human being to walk after the Shechinah, for has it not been said: For the Lord your God is a devouring fire (Deuteronomy 4:24)? Rather [the meaning is] to walk after the attributes of the Holy One, Blessed be He: As He clothes the naked… so you should also cloth the naked. The Holy One, blessed be He, visited the sick… so you should also visit the sick. The Holy One, blessed be He, comforted mourners… so you should also comfort mourners. The Holy one, blessed be He, buried the dead… so you should also bury the dead. (Adapted from Sotah 14a)
If we follow this model, then we will almost surely always have life!