Vaetchanan: Seeking and finding?

HEAR O Israel, listen to who your God is! Listen to what He teaches you, and then do it! We are the people who hear God and obey (or at least should do) and it is this idea of obedience, doing what God says and wants and the consequences if we don’t, that frames this weeks’ portion.

However, the depth of God’s love shines through in Deut 4:29-31: despite our sins which were great, we were never beyond finding God again, as long as we sought Him with all our hearts and souls. To seek God is to seek His righteousness, and to seek to reflect that righteousness into this lost and broken, and it seems, increasingly globally corrupt world. And yet it seems today that so few in our Jewish communities actually seek Him, the One from whom we take our national calling and our very existence.

However, the Torah contains truths that we sometimes have to dig for. And today there is one. Having established that if you seek God you will find Him we are presented with a conundrum. What makes it worse is that it hinges on, or seems to hinge on the nature and character of God. Read Deuteronomy 3:23-27. As far as I am aware, this is the only time God ever speaks like this to Moshe. The answer is abrupt: enough already, my answer is no. But don’t we read that the prayer of a righteous man avails much? Moshe was supremely righteous, he stood before God, spoke to Him and heard His voice like no other man before or since. In the Hebrew Moshe ‘implored’ God to let him into the Land or ‘pleaded for grace’ (v’etchanan has the root chen, grace).

The reasons for God’s intransigence on this are interesting. God was angry ‘on account of the people’. Why so? Because according to Numbers 20:12, Moshe did not make God holy in the sight of the sons of Israel. Because Moshe didn’t do exactly what the Lord had said, the image of who God is was distorted before the people. They learnt what they saw too, and Moshe was a particularly visual and visible leader. God was made small in Moshe’s actions, he didn’t give the glory to God; in fact in his anger he said ‘must WE bring forth water…’ indicating that in some way he had something to do with the miraculous provision of water.

Because of this, God said He would not let Moshe into the Land and He tied this punishment to His nature and character of holiness. In other words, had God then later relented of this spoken word made before the people, then the initial wrong teaching illustrated by Moshe would have been compounded by God again. He would therefore be shown to be not holy, unreliable in word and deed, unpredictable, inconsistent and ultimately unjust too. God sticks to His word. There were consequences and Moshe had to take them to fully redress an otherwise impossible position, a place where the people would begin to think that God wasn’t faithful, or even worse, was partial and biased because of who Moshe was.

This is why Job, and later King David in the Psalms, were able to conclude that despite living in what many then and today conclude is an unrighteous world and universe with no moral compass, we CAN be sure on the basis of this refusal to change His mind, that God is just and He will judge, even if for a moment His mercy holds. Seek God, yes, but you cannot expect Him to act in ways that undermine who He is, or that make Him small, or that fail to grant Him the glory and majesty due to His name.

But there is another we need to consider in this overview: Esau. Again, a man who seems to beseech God and his father for a blessing yet is rejected. We know Esau was no Moshe, the two men are like chalk and cheese morally and in terms of righteousness, but there are parallels too. Firstly a recap of Esau; he casually and lowly esteems that which belongs to him by right, the first-born status and all its priestly inheritance, by giving it away for the sake of a meal, and then according to Torah he also goes on to join himself to Canaanite women knowing that it would offend his father and God. He apparently seeks repentance for his deeds and God rejects this, despite the tears.

God was not made large in Esau’s life. Far from it, his heart was far from God at all times. And this pattern is the first connect point: if in our actions before men we make God small, do not glorify Him and reflect who He is in a genuine way, then we can expect that God will not listen to us. Esau’s rejection of God made God small. God was not interested, enough already! Later on when Esau and Jacob met once more, Esau appeared to be welcoming, yet his words revealed even here his true intent: ‘let me walk before you’, i.e., ‘you recognise me as the real head of the house once more’. Esau just wanted his status back; he was not willing to submit to God or his brother.

Both Moshe and Esau had to learn that sin has consequences, and these are inevitable for a just God who keeps His word.

Shabbat Vaetchanan (and I besought)