When the Material and the Spiritual Support Each Other

At the end of his life, Moses blesses the tribes individually, except Zebulun and Issachar.  He blesses them together, one brother for “going out” and the other for “being in his tents.” Why?

While the tribe of Zebulun apparently had success with mercantile and maritime ventures, and Issachar, with agriculture, many sages look in the text for a deeper answer.

They taught that Zebulun did indeed go out into the world of commercial enterprise but that Issachar stayed in tents, in order to study and teach Torah, God’s word. One earned material strength by going out. The other drew spiritual strength from the interior.

Moses recognized the wisdom in both, especially in their being linked, in their support of each other. And that, I think, is the main lesson for us.

These brothers understood and benefited from the balance that comes from devoting the material to support the spiritual/ethical and the spiritual/ethical to support the material. In our communities and indeed in our own individual lives, there should be mutual cooperation between “Zebulun” and “Issachar.”

Moses goes on to say in the very next verse that these two tribes will call the people to the mountain for sacrifices of righteousness for the abundance of sea and from sand.

This has been interpreted many ways. I like the idea that the way of life characterized by the mutual support of these two tribes will help draw the peoples who stream to the mountain of the Lord’s house, to learn of His ways and walk in His paths.  (Micah 4:1-2)

Such wondrous things are possible for us, too, when the material and spiritual support each other.

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It’s Never Too Late

Perhaps the most poignant lesson Moses teaches on the last day of his life is that it is never too late to get right with others and with God.

Recall in the Biblical story that God had punished Moses for striking the rock to draw water instead of speaking to it. Because of this, Moses would not accompany the people into the land.

So, what does Moses do in his final oration to the people? He speaks before the great Rock! God is indeed called Tzur in this text, the Rock. And Moses draws forth the very finest water for the people.

What’s the water he draws with his speech? It is, I think, the living nourishment that quenches our needs, both physical and especially spiritual.

How does the water flow? As the text explicitly describes, it flows in ways that can sustain each and every one of us.

For the young and those new to it, the water comes gently as soft rain or dew. For those, like growing grass, who are ready for more, it comes as a steady rain. And for those who are the most firmly rooted, as sturdy trees or strong vegetation, it comes in pelting, penetrating showers.

We forever treasure Moses’ final instruction mostly because it guides and sustains our living in covenant with God and community.

Yet, it is with a special sweetness and love, that we value Moses’ gift for another reason. We see in his speech the lesson that it is never too late to turn back to God. However we’ve fallen short, and whatever amount of time we have left, we can serve God and others in ways that are even more consequential than when we earlier missed the mark.

Of all the remarkable personal legacies Moses left us, this may be his finest.

It’s never too late.

Be Strong and of Good Courage

In this week’s Bible portion, we encounter the charge “to be strong and of good courage” three different times.

Moses instructs the people to be strong and of good courage for God will march with them into the land and will not fail them.

Moses says to Joshua publicly, as he had said to him privately earlier, to be strong and of good courage as he leads the people into the land with God’s support.

Then God later charges Joshua to be strong and of good courage to bring the people into the land, pledging to be with him.

Good Bible students know that three separate mentions of a specific direction in the space of the shortest portion in Torah is not accidental. At the very least, we sense that we are to pay extra attention to its meaning.

One way to do so is to look at these Hebrew words and see what they can mean.

The word for the concept of being strong is chazak. It can also mean to hold fast, to make repairs, to harden, to take courage, to strengthen, and to prevail.

The root word for the concept of  being of good courage is amets. This word can also mean to be resolute, to be alert, and to be bold.

The text promotes a view to which people of faith hold fast: we act with the confidence that God supports us and stands with us in life. But the thrice-stated admonition here from both Moses and God drives us to see that we, too, have duties.

Be strong. Hold fast. Make repairs. Be resolute. Be alert. Be bold. God calls us through these verbs to be strong and of good courage.

God’s Word is Near

“For the Instruction I teach you this day is not beyond understanding, is not distant. It is not in heaven that you would need to say who can ascend to heaven to take it for us to hear and do it. It is not across the sea that you would need to say who can cross the sea to take it for us to hear and do it. Rather the matter is near to you, indeed extremely so, in your mouth and in your heart, to do it.”

Deuteronomy 30:11-14.

This week’s portion contains these incredibly powerful words. What do they mean?

Do they teach that God’s word is easy to understand and doesn’t require effort? I don’t think so.  The Instruction indeed is near. It is accessible to all and understandable. But we’ve come too far and seen too much in our study of the Bible to think that we can be nonchalant about thinking this is easy. Too many people in the narrative of the text assumed too much and were lost.

To the contrary, we have learned that understanding comes with thought, effort, discipline, and ongoing commitment.

Yet, we are told that God deals with us directly, and the Instruction is available to us each day. It is there now in our hearts and minds to understand, and it is there in our mouths for us to speak and acknowledge and act on. It is near, very near, for us to know and to guide us in our lives.

We don’t need oracles or philosophers to explain it to us. This in itself is one of the extraordinary gifts of Hebraism.

Nor are we so needy that we must await a hero to cross the sea to bring us back an elusive wisdom. Neither do we believe the wisdom to live as God expects is lodged in a treasure box in heaven, awaiting an unlocking by some traveler to heaven, perhaps even theologians.

We, all of us, stand today and each day before God to re-establish our covenant with the Divine. The message is there for us to receive. The Instruction is there for us to follow. We stand and listen…It’s as if God is saying: You know My ways, and you know what I expect; now go forth and live as I have taught.

Serve With Joy

There is a sense among some that the Hebrew Bible is simply about following the rules. There is no doubt that Moses delivers God’s Instruction in the text, and it is quite apparent that living by this Divine guidance is intended to help us lead good lives in service of God and others.

But the teaching is not all about merely living in accord with some list of specifications, and the way offered is hardly “dry law.” Indeed, embedded in these ancient instructions is a life-giving path that shows the way, even for us in the modern world.

Especially fascinating is our being surprised and actually jolted by a message we see virtually hidden in the midst of statements on blessings and curses in Deuteronomy. It says something that strikes us as new:  we are to serve God with joy, with gladness, and with abundance.

Yes, we are to worship and serve God, but it is not to be by rote, without delight and liberality. Just following the script is lifeless; it leaves us unfulfilled and is displeasing to God.

So, this verse comes out of the blue in a way, to wake us up, to splash our face, to put and keep the idea in our minds that we must add joy, gladness, and abundance to service of God.

Close your eyes, and think on that idea for a minute. It feels good. We shouldn’t let go of it. Indeed we should let it seep deeply in all we do.