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Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Torah Talk on Devarim/Hazon 5779

This week we begin the great, final book of the Torah, Devarim or Deuteronomy, also known as Mishnah Torah. The people of Israel have arrived at the very borders of the Promised Land, and our great leader Moses begins a long sermon—three, actually—that will carry us forward through the entire book of Deuteronomy. If you thought some rabbi’s sermons were long-winded, try this: Moses first speech in Deuteronomy starts this Shabbat and doesn’t conclude until next week—and that’s by far the shortest of his sermons in Devarim.

Moses begins by employing that most Jewish of devices: guilt. God has led our people to the very borders of the Promised Land, taken care of all of the Israelites’ physical needs, worked wonders and miracles for them—and yet, they have repeatedly failed to keep faith with God.

You know the story—after all, these are the children of Israel: they don’t call, they don’t write, they don’t send birthday cards... In spite of all the love lavished on the Israelites they never really accepted God’s presence. In spite of everything God has done, from miraculous salvation on the shores of the Sea of Reeds to the great revelation at Sinai, the 40 years of manna in the wilderness, they remain ungrateful and unaware. And now, at the very gateway to the Promised Land they still don’t get it.

To correct this problem, or at least to attempt to do so, in our portion of Devarim Moses begins to lay out the Deuteronomic covenant. It forms the core of his last, best effort to convince our people they should recognize God’s presence and keep the faith. Remember, he says repeatedly; listen; hear my words. Pay attention. God is with you. God cares. Have faith. In next week’s portion of Ve’etchanan Moses will reach true eloquence, in a perfect phrase he will make it all astonishingly clear: Hear, people of Israel: Adonai is our God, and God is one. Shema—listen, hear.

What is “hearing”, really, but the auditory awareness of the presence, the voice, of another? What is our task but learning how to listen for God’s whisper in the world?

The covenant we are given in Deuteronomy has a mixed reputation these days. It’s a simple formula, really: if we believe in God, and act ethically, we’ll be rewarded; if we stray from God’s mitzvot, we’ll be punished.

This form of Divine covenant doesn’t play very well today. It promises good things happen to good people, while bad things happen to bad people—which we know from our own experience isn’t always, or even often, true. But I would suggest that a more profound reading of Devarim teaches us that Moses’ real message, the ikar, the heart of his lesson, is that our fundamental failure is not doing immoral things and being punished for them. It is, instead, failing to become aware of God’s presence in our world.

That, of course, is something our ancestors struggled with repeatedly. When they saw great miracles enacted before their eyes they managed to recognize God’s hand in the world. Yet within a few days, as Moses reminds them in our portion, they managed to forget God had done much of anything for them at all.

And as hard as it was for our ancestors to sense God’s presence, it is perhaps an even greater challenge today.

Today we are bombarded with information of all kinds, by all kinds of devices—television, email, smartphones, texts, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and on. Today it takes something extra to be able to sense God’s presence in the world.

And yet—God is here, and no farther away than before. God is in the intricate ways that life flourishes and changes; in the ways in which we—and nature—learn and grow; in the blush of new love, and in the depth of life-long devotion. In a child’s laugh, in a bubbie’s hug, in a teen’s first kiss, in the expanse of the universe and in the small, magical beauty of an unfolding blossom, in the thunder and lightning of a monsoon.

In the 12th century the poet and Torah commentator Ibn Ezra wrote to God:

I see You in the starry sky

I see You in the field of rye

In every leaf

In every flower

Is witness of Your matchless power

We fancy You remain concealed

But in all Your work You are revealed

And yet we easily walk—or run—through this world of wonder and miss God’s presence. Devarim teaches that it is our central task to look and truly see, to listen and truly hear.

On the week of the first portion of the final book of the Torah, and the week before the commemoration of Tisha B’Av, the fast day of the 9th of Av this coming Saturday night, may we all learn to listen and strive to see God’s presence all around us.

*Don’t miss our first our Tisha B’Av services at 8 PM this coming Saturday night at Congregation Beit Simcha.

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