Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz

“But God did not give you a heart to know, or eyes to see, or ears to hear until this day” (Deuteronomy 29:3).

As we near the end of Deuteronomy and the Torah reading cycle for the year, we’ve gone on an incredible journey of redemption, spiritual challenges, renewal and hope. At this point in the Torah, the Israelites have almost completed their trek through the desert to reach the Promised Land, but have not quite made it. At this point, right when complete redemption is near, Moses reminds his flock — the generations that survived slavery in Egypt and their immediate progeny — that they must not forget how they all reached this point. Only now, through the miraculous wonders of God, are the Israelites finally able to breathe free. 

Yet, it also seems from the text that the Israelites, many of whom were witnesses to God’s acts in Egypt and Sinai, have forgotten what they’ve witnessed with their own eyes, heard with their own ears and internalized in their own hearts. How could a collective of people who’ve gone through so much need another reminder of God’s infinite power?

In our own lives, we all have had these moments: spiritual leaps, personal transformations, intellectual developments where we feel we can understand, see and hear what we could not previously. But why didn’t the Israelites have these spiritual and intellectual capabilities during previous episodes of witnessing miracles and hearing the Divine words of revelation? Why should such a breakdown happen now? 

On this question, Obadiah ben Jacob Sforno (usually just known by his surname, Sforno, 1475-1550) explains that: “Even though God had tried by means of Divine teachings and Divine miracles to give the people a knowing heart … the lesson had not taken hold due to your overwhelming quarrelsomeness.”

This is truly a profound lesson and one that has so much meaning for us in this confused contemporary moment. The Sforno teaches that the Israelites could not develop to the next level to grasp all that was happening for them since many still had a conflict among and within them. Indeed, fighting and animosity blocks the heart. How many of us live with resentment? How many of us flare up with anger at the smallest challenges in our days? These moments — these feelings — stifle us and block our path to actualize our potential. 

But don’t we all have the right to feel normal emotions like anger and to argue each day in disagreement with others? Yes, I suppose we have that right. But the question goes beyond what is normal to what enables us to thrive. If we wish to thrive, to truly “know,” “see” and “hear,” we will need to figure out how to forgive, how to let go and how to be slow to anger. We need to figure out how to avoid toxic resentment, unnecessary conflict and violent belligerence.

The Meschech Chochmah (Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk) has an incredible explanation, brought down by Nechama Leibowitz, as to why the Israelites were not capable of truly understanding prior to this moment. He explains here that up until this moment, they believed that Moses was immortal but now they realized his mortality and that he was merely a messenger of God. Indeed, often times, we think the true understanding should be left to our leaders, rather than ourselves. 

The ability to grow — and recognize that growth is necessary to our moral and intellectual well-being — is not an easy task. Yet, this is what is needed to enter “the promised land.” Witnessing the miracles and revelation are not enough. Each of us must wake up and be our best selves, free from hate, animosity and vituperation. But, it is upon each of us to open our hearts and minds each day and actualize ourselves to our fullest potential. JN

 

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the president and dean of Valley Beit Midrash and the author of 17 books on Jewish ethics.

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