Winning Life’s Battles

In this week’s Torah portion, we read that when the people go into battle, God leads them to victory.  I trust the literal truth of this statement, but the text that follows makes clear the battles God cares most about our winning.

It’s not so much the battles on the field of war where soldiers from one army face off against soldiers from another. Rather God is most interested in the battles we all face each and every day.

The enemy is often our pride, our greed, our desire for dominion, or our carelessness to duty to others and God. We can prevail over these enemies by constantly remembering that God watches over us, cares for us, and instructs us in how to meet divine expectations in how we live.

Let’s take a look at the text to see how this plays out.

For example, we are taught that when we find property that is another’s, though tempted to keep it, we are duty-bound to find the rightful owner and return it.

When a soldier takes a beautiful woman captive in war, he may be tempted to ravish her. God teaches that the urge be resisted and that respect and propriety be shown.

When the ravenous hunger and power of the hunter drives him to take the mother bird in the nest along with her young, God says no, and insists upon respecting the feelings of the bird and avoiding cruelty.

When a day worker does tasks for us, God helps us resist the temptation to hold on to our money but rather pay the worker the wages he/she needs on the same day the work was delivered.

When we want to strictly enforce the terms of loans we make, God helps us understand to be caring in our actions, especially if they might unduly pinch the poor or the widow.

When workers are working the fields of an owner, God helps both the workers and the owner resist the temptation only to see their own needs and be fair and respectful of the other.

These are some of the elevated ways of living that help us win the battles against internal enemies we face each and every day of our lives. For, as the text teaches, “when you go to war against your enemies, the Lord your God will deliver them into your hands.”

The Pursuit of Righteousness

This week we come upon one of the most famous verses in the Hebrew Bible in Deuteronomy 16:20 – Justice, justice shall you pursue, so that you may live and take hold of the land that the Lord your God is about to give you.

The Hebrew word translated as “justice” is tzedek, which more commonly means righteousness. We’ll consider it as righteousness in this exercise.

The issue we’ll focus on is why the word is repeated. There are dozens of beautiful and powerful explanations of this double use of words from sages, commentators, and believers all over the world. Let’s explore just one.

In this portion, Moses frequently teaches God’s way by giving us a lesson, but then immediately deepens it to make our duty clearer and fuller. My hypothesis is that the meaning of tzedek, tzedek is that there is righteousness both in the front end lesson as well as in its deepening extension. Here’s how that works.

We learn, for example, that there is righteousness in punishing idolatry and wrongdoing, but it is righteous only if it is done in accordance with strict due process.

There is righteousness in having a sovereign leader, but it is righteous only if the sovereign serves God and lives in sync with God’s disciplines.

There is righteousness in designating the Levites landless so they serve all the others, but it is righteous so long as the others give of their bounty to support the needs of the Levites.

There is righteousness in expecting witnesses to come forward and testify to evidence they have, but it is righteous so long as they suffer consequences if they give false testimony that unjustly hurts the accused.

There is righteousness in fighting a just war against a city, but it is righteous so long as one calls out first to it for peace.

Pursuing righteousness is fundamental to living a good life. It takes effort  and whole intention. It especially requires humility on our part as well as balance in what we do. And, as Chasidic wisdom suggests, being righteous has a good and right beginning, but its proper effect is not achieved without demanding, continuing effort.

Tzedek, tzedek, you shall pursue.

Living With Two Truths

In chapter 15 of Deuteronomy, we read that “there shall be no needy among you” (verse 4) and yet in verse 11, “there will never cease to be needy ones in your land.”

Are Moses and God confused? Or are they using this seeming discrepancy to teach us deeper truths?

Let’s take a look.

The first assertion is made conditional from the start. There will be no needy IF we heed God and follow God’s ways.

Yet, in verse 7, we’re told that if we encounter a needy person, we should not harden our heart or shut our hand against the person, but rather we must open our hand and lend what is needed.

This is made more complex by verse 11, “for there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you: open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land.”

How do these verses fit together?

At one level, God seeks a world in which none is needy, and as covenantal partners, we have a role in making  it so.

Specifically, when we see another in need, we’re to help the other, with the commandments upon our heart and present in our hands in the action we take.

At a deeper level, these scriptures hold two truths. First, the duty to see, care, and help others in need is one we must bear each and every day of our lives. But second, God’s dream, largely dependent on us for fulfillment and inspiring us forward, is one we also carry each and every day of our lives: “there shall be no needy among us.”

Living with both truths leads to wholeness.

Clinging to God

I have always been fascinated by the biblical instruction to cling (or cleave) to God.

We are more accustomed to the other powerful ideas in Deuteronomy 11:22 – to love God and to walk in God’s ways. But, to cling to God – what does that mean?

Some sages say it means to attach oneself to scholars of the Torah, of the Bible. Others say it means to avoid the temptation of idolatry by remaining steadfast in our covenant with God.

I like Ramban’s idea that clinging to God means striving to be near God in all aspects of living. In that nearness, one’s soul “shall be bound in the bundle of life,” where one’s being becomes “a residence for the Divine Glory.”

This teaching has special importance for us as we continue our study in Deuteronomy, particularly what it means to enter and live in the promised land. Perhaps, whatever our physical locale, it is that place where we make ourselves a residence for the Divine Glory.