“And O Israel, give heed to the laws and rules that I am instructing you to observe…You shall not add anything to what I command you or take anything away from it…”(Deut. 4:1-2)
In this week’s parsha, we begin where we left off last week, towards the end of Moses’ historical survey. This leads into his instruction that they must keep the mitzvot. Tying his statements to some of the events he has just described, Moses explains that the Israelites must serve God in a four part sermon.
The first argument Moses offers is that the Israelites should loyally and lovingly cleave to God, as they have just seen their own fates and those of the worshipers of Baal-Peor.
Second, he tells the people they should keep the mitzvot because they are “proof of your wisdom and discernment to other peoples”, who will praise them for keeping the commandments(v. 5-8).
Following this, Moses tells the Jews to keep the mitzvot “for your own sake” (4:15), because God is a jealous God, and a “consuming fire”(v. 23). To avoid decimation (v.26) the Jews must keep the commandments, and especially make sure to stay away from idolatry, as they were told by Sinai.
Fourth, the Israelites are told that “they have but to inquire” (v.32)about the past, and they will understand that it is imperative to serve the one God of history, who has taken them out of Egypt(v.33-40).
As you may have noticed, Moses ties each of his exhortations to events in reverse chronological order: His fourth statement corresponds to history and the redemption from Egypt, the 3rd(self preservation and avoidance of punishment) arises from Sinai, the 2nd (wisdom and glory from keeping the commandments) is associated with the giving of the specific commandments which followed this, and the first argument (loyalty) is associated with the loyalty and betrayal displayed most recently in the incident of Baal-Peor.
Why did Moses present his sermon in a backwards order? Shouldn’t he have listed them in the other direction?
In order to understand this seemingly backwards presentation, we will explain each of Moses’ statements a little more in depth.
The first argument Moses proposes is that the Israelites should serve God out of selfless and loving loyalty. This is the highest kind of observance, called “cleaving”, and often referred to as “Lishmah”. This is service of God performed for its own sake, and not for the benefit of the servant.
However, it is difficult to serve God “lishmah”, so Moses suggests that those who cannot do so should serve God out of a desire to earn the respect of the nations, who will be impressed by the wisdom of the commandments.
Noting, however, that not everyone desires respect or seeks wisdom, Moses tells the people that for the sake of the their own survival, they must keep the mitzvot. While it seems that the person who performs the mitzvot purely to avoid punishment is acting in a shallow and selfish manner, this is a place all of us are at one time or another, I think, and Moses wants us to perform the mitzvot, even if only for this reason.
Lastly, Moses almost begs the Israelites to merely “ask” questions, so that they might see the God of history commands them, has redeemed them, and they should serve Him.
While before it seems Moses is merely speaking with the people, it seems like he is begging them in his fourth statement, almost like he is trying to shake them to action. I believe this change in style is due to the fact that the members of Israel addressed here are passive, and retain a slave mentality.
Unlike the group of people who will keep the mitzvot in order to survive, this last group does not even care about themselves enough to do this! As slaves they were treated as though they were worthless, and they internalized this message, causing them to not even worry if they live or die.
Moses’ four statements take us from the highest level of service, to the lowest level of being possible. Moses presents the most desired first, in order to emphasize the importance for all to strive for this goal, before continuing down to more selfish reasons for serving God, before addressing those who do not even know enough to care about themselves at all.
Each reference to an event refers to the level the Israelites were at as they traveled from Egypt towards the Holy Land, starting from their low points, and going to their highest.
At first, when they were taken out of Egypt, the people had a slave mentality, and thought themselves to be worthless. No one can live with this attitude, which is a complete rejection of the value of being made in the Image of God. Moses begs the people to notice that God cares about them, has taken care of their ancestors and them, and therefore they should likewise do so.
After the people have learned of their own value, they will naturally begin to care about their own survival. At Sinai the people reached this point, and were treated accordingly.
However, when they received the commandments in more detail, many realized the wisdom in them, and that there is more to life than just being alive! This sense of selfishness can be a difficult state to reach.
Of course, Moses really wants the Jews to serve God for the sake of serving Him, because they cleave to Him with loyalty and love. This is the best possible way to serve God, and this is the level many of the people reached when they abstained from worshiping Baal-Peor.
In order to emphasize the desired nature of this level, Moses presented it first, and continued downward in order of most desired to least. It is now clear that his backwards presentation was intended to emphasize not only what is most desired, but also that he believes the people have progressed through landmark events, and may continue to do so with more time and effort.
Though God recognizes that we may reach incredible low points in our lives, and that we often act in ways that are less than perfect, Moses issues the challenge to work towards the highest level of service described here. We may take his words here to be both instruction and encouragement.
A challenge indeed.