August 14, 2020
Moses, having restating the details of the covenant and its broad guiding principles, now turns to the details, which occupy the greater part of the book of Dueteronomy, from chapter 12 to chapter 26. But before he begins with the details, he states a proposition that is the most fundamental one in the book, included in this week’s portion, Re-eh (Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17) and one that would be echoed endlessly by Israel’s Prophets: See, this day I set before you blessing and curse: blessing, if you obey the commandments of Adonai your God that I enjoin upon you this day; and curse, if you do not obey the commandments of Adonai your God, but turn away from the path that I enjoin upon you this day and follow other gods, whom you have not experienced. (11:26-28)
If you behave well, things will go well. If you act badly, things will turn out badly. Behaving well means honoring our covenant with God, being faithful to God, heeding God’s words and acting in accordance with God’s commands. That was the foundation of the nation. Uniquely it had God as its liberator and lawgiver, its sovereign, judge and defender. Other nations had their gods, but none had a covenant with any of them, let alone with the Creator of heaven and earth.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks of Great Britain teaches, “The test of a society is not military, political, economic or demographic. It is moral and spiritual. That is what is revolutionary about the biblical message. But is it really so? Did not ancient Egypt have the concept of ma’at, order, balance, harmony with the universe, social stability, justice and truth? Did not the Greeks and Romans, Aristotle especially, give a central place to virtue? Did not the Stoics create an influential moral system, set out in the writings of Seneca and Marcus Aurelius? What is different about the way of Torah?”
Those ancient systems were essentially ways of worshiping the state, which was given cosmic significance in Pharaohs’ Egypt and heroic significance in Greece and Rome. In Judaism we do not serve the state; we serve God alone. The unique ethic of the covenant, whose key text is the book of Deuteronomy, places on each of us an immense dual responsibility, both individual and collective. I am responsible for what I do. But I am also responsible for what you do. That is one meaning of the command in Kedoshim: “You shall surely reproach your neighbor and not bear sin on account of them.” As Maimonides wrote in his Sefer ha-Mitzvot, “It is not right for any of us to say, ‘I will not sin, and if someone else sins, that is a matter between them and God’. This is the opposite of the Torah.”(Positive Command 205) In other words, it is not the state, the government, the army or the police that is the primary guardian of the law, though these may be necessary (as indicated at the beginning of next week’s portion: “You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes”). It is each of us and all of us together. That is what makes the ethic of the covenant unique.
Thus, as Jews who are blessed with our sacred covenantal relationship with God, we understand why it is important to wear face masks in public gatherings. If I wear my face covering to protect you from me, and you wear your face covering to protect me from you, then we can all dramatically decrease our risk of transmission of the virus that causes COVID-19. This, in conjunction with social distancing and frequent hand washing or use of hand sanitizer, will be important in limiting the spread of COVID-19 as we return to our usual activities. May we all be blessed with our sacred choices.