As we approach the end of the book of Devarim/Deuteronomy, we see Mosh Rabbeinu continuing to exhort the Israelites to study and follow Torah. He reminds them that Hashem has kept them and protected them in the wilderness for the last 40 years. Now they will be conquering and settling the promised land and will prosper.
Prosperity can be a blessing and a curse. Prosperity allows us to enjoy comfort and security and enjoy the finer things in life. It can also make us forget what’s important, which is Torah. While we are enjoying the fruits of our labor and the beneficence of Hashem, we must not lose sight of the commandments, and being true to the covenant and commitment we made as a people to honor the mitzvot.
Moshe Rabbeinu is a prophet, and as a prophet, he can see what is to come. Or is he also a great psychologist who has seen the behavior of the Israelites, knows they are a stiff-necked people, and can get lured away from doing what’s right by those same comforts. He knows that his people can succumb to temptation all too easily. So he sets out with a final warning.
Torah commentary has many levels. One of the levels looks at the actual words as they are displayed on the scrolls. The lay out of this particular portion is different than most portions which are the standard lines and paragraphs. Most of Ha’azinu is a poem that is structured as two columns, side-by-side. There is another such pattern earlier in the Torah that is the Song of the Sea, the victory “song” by Moses after he led the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt, through the parted Sea which then collapsed on the pursuing Egyptians and drowned them. This latter portion, however, was structured likes rows of bricks rather side-by-side columns.
Staggering bricks gives a support structure of strength that keeps the structure intact. By contrast, two columns side-by-side makes for a flimsy situation that is easily toppled. Such is the danger of the Israelites; their commitment is tentative, and they must be vigilant to keep their dedication the tenets of our heritage.
What is the structure of your life? We are through the main part of the High Holiday Days in which we asked Hashem to inscribe us in the Book of Life. We now must prove to Hashem that we are worthy of redemption and forgiveness.
Have we set our lives as bricks, side-by-side, staggered, that give us the integrity and character to weather all sorts of temptations? Or is our commitment like two columns side-by-side, easily toppled by the first sign a short cut? It is probably a certainty that we will be tested to see if we are sincere in our desire to be forgiven.
No doubt we will encounter situations and people that will challenge us and our integrity. Maybe we’ll be at a store and get too much change back or maybe we’ll walk into the break room at work where co-workers are demeaning another employee. Is our character on a solid foundation of staggered bricks or two flimsy columns?
And what about our relationship with ourselves? Do we push ourselves to do better or settle? Should we get more exercise to improve our health, or get more rest to prevent illness from over-exertion? Will we stand up for ourselves when people try to take advantage, or just capitulate to low self-esteem and give in, being grateful for whatever attention and favors others show us?
We must favor the bricks. As Hillel said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If not now, when?” And as the poet said, “If you don’t respect yourself ain’t no one going to give a hoot”. How you feel about yourself will translate into your relationships with others.
If you are the columns and give in to temptation, then your co-workers will know that they can count on you to join in harassing another. If you are the staggered bricks, then you will let them know in no uncertain terms that you accept people as the are and do not believe in humiliating others. If you are the columns, then you will think that this is your lucky day to get extra change. If you are the staggered bricks, you will let the store clerk know that they gave you too much.
The observant Jew sees the mitzvot as strength, not weakness. They know that while there may some short-term gain in giving in, it is short-lived as the consequences of negativity make problems later. They know that making fun of a co-worker will cause tension in a job that is already challenging as it is. They know that cultivating a “buyer beware” attitude will create a pattern that one day get that person into legal and financial trouble.