Friday, July 23, 2021

Good, Bad and In Between


Good, Bad and In Between

 In the desert one would not expect to find edible fruit. Indeed there is no mention of such in Israel’s 40 year desert journey, except when it is alluded to at Elim, where there were seventy palm trees (Exodus 15:27). However, there is one (proverbial) fruit that can grow anywhere, regardless of climate and topographical conditions, and seems to be present in our recent weekly Torah portions. 

 In this week’s Parashat Va’etchanan we hear Moshe’s cry to YHVH, saying, among other things: Pray, let me cross over and see the good land beyond the Jordan, those pleasant mountains, and Lebanon” (Deuteronomy 3:25).  Moshe longs to see the “good land – ha’aretz ha’tova”  and “this good mountain – ha’har ha’tov” . Tov (tova, fem.) – good – in various forms appears in Parashat Va’etchanan fourteen times, more often as a verb – “it will be good” – “yitav”. By comparison “bad” or “evil” – rah – makes only a single appearance.

 Let’s examine the “goods” that meet us in this Parasha and find out where they take us to. In 4:22 Moshe laments that he “must die” and cannot cross over, while “you shall cross over to possess the good land” (italics added). But in order to “prolong your days in the land which YHVH your Elohim is giving you for all time”, “you shall keep His statutes and His commandments which I command you today, that it may go well – yitav - with you and with your children after you” (4:40b,a). “It will go well” for us in the “good land” provided we keep YHVH’s commandments! What’s more, for matters to “go well” – yitav – it is also expected that we honor father and mother! (5:16). Another addition of “goodness” is found in 6:3: "Therefore hear, O Israel, and be careful to observe itthat it may be well – yitav - with you…” Yes, we have heard this before, but wait… now it comes: “and that you may multiply greatly as YHVH the Elohim of your fathers has promised you -- a land flowing with milk and honey” (italics added).

 Wow!!! My goodness, so much “goodness”, albeit with some conditions, but yes, much “tov” is ahead! But is there more? Yes… "Houses full of all good things – kol tuv - which you did not fill, hewn-out wells which you did not dig, vineyards and olive trees which you did not plant -- when you have eaten and are full“ (6:11).

Moshe recounts the great scene by Horeb’s mountain: "Then YHVH heard the voice of your words when you spoke to me, and YHVH said to me: 'I have heard the voice of the words of this people which they have spoken to you. They are right in all that they have spoken. 'Oh, that they had such a heart in them that they would fear Me and always keep all My commandments, that it might be well – yitav - with them and with their children forever!” (5:28-29). The future generations are also included in the “goodness”! It will “go well” - things will be “good” for them! Hold on, just a minute, let us read again the beginning of the above excerpt: “YHVH said to me: 'I have heard the voice of the words of this people which they have spoken to you. They are right – heytivu - in all that they have spoken’”. In other words, what the people said was “good” in YHVH’s sight (way back then, at Horeb), but what is He referring to? What was so “good” about what they have said, and what did they say?

 "So it was, when you heard the voice from the midst of the darkness, while the mountain was burning with fire, that you came near to me, all the heads of your tribes and your elders.  And you said: 'Surely YHVH our Elohim has shown us His glory and His greatness, and we have heard His voice from the midst of the fire. We have seen this day that Elohim speaks with man; yet he still lives.  Now therefore, why should we die? For this great fire will consume us; if we hear the voice of YHVH our Elohim anymore, then we shall die.  For who is there of all flesh who has heard the voice of the living Elohim speaking from the midst of the fire, as we haveand lived?  You go near and hear all that YHVH our Elohim may say, and tell us all that YHVH our Elohim says to you, and we will hear and do it’” (5:23-27). It is to this that YHVH responds with:

“…They are right – hey’tivu- they did ‘good’ - in all that they have spoken” (v. 28)

 Have the people really spoken well? Did they not say that “we have seen this day that Elohim speaks with man; yet he still lives”? And, “For who is there of all flesh who has heard the voice of the living Elohim speaking from the midst of the fire, as we haveand lived?”

So was YHVH really content for Moshe to be His spokesman, with the rest of Israel staying at arm’s length from a loving Father? Yes, they “spoke well”, but only in as far as where their hearts were at at that time. YHVH’s next exclamation makes abundantly clear His heart’s longing: “Oh, that they had such a heart in them that they would fear Me and always keep all My commandments, that it might be well – yitav - with them and with their children forever!”  “Oh, that they had such a heart… ” but (alas) this was not to be, not any time soon… 

 With this kind of “they have spoken well”, or did ‘good’, in saying what they did, we turn back to last week’s Parasha, to where Moshe recalled the episode with the spies:  “And everyone of you came near to me and said, 'Let us send men before us, and let them search out the land for us, and bring back word to us of the way by which we should go up, and of the cities into which we shall come.'  The plan pleased me well…” (1:22—23a). The plan pleased Moshe well, or literally, “it was good in my sight” Moshe confesses. But was it good in YHVH’s sight? We don’t know, since Moshe makes no reference to Him here. But does not YHVH say very clearly in Bamidbar (Numbers) 13:2: “Send men to spy the land of Canaan…”? Or more accurately: “Send for yourself men to spy the land” (italics added). When Moshe, according to his own admittance, looked well upon the idea of sending spies, just as they were about to go over into the land and take it, YHVH deigned, He condescended, knowing his servant’s heart at that point, just as He did in the case of the people’s request to have Moshe as their intermediary. Abba knows the heart of His children and He is patient, though at times that which is “good in their own eyes” is to their demise, just as it was with that generation of our forefathers, and just as it was with Moshe, who instead of turning to the Almighty when it was time to leave the wilderness, “found it good” to listen to the voice of man. He had already listened to the voice of Jethro when appointing prematurely heads and leaders and officers (Exodus 18 and Deut. 1:12-16, when the people confirmed that it was a “good” thing to do), as they were about to enter the land, where the Torah instructions would have been totally sufficient.

 “Good” can thus turn into “bad” instantly, as we saw in the case of the spies, a turn that changed the course of history in a very short time. In the beginning (4:22) we read Moshe’s statement of not being able to enter the “good” land. But he did not stop there. Moshe goes on saying: "Take heed to yourselves, lest you forget the covenant of YHVH your Elohim which He made with you, and make for yourselves a carved image in the form of anything which YHVH your Elohim has forbidden you.  For YHVH your Elohim is a consuming fire, a jealous Elohim.  When you beget children and grandchildren and have grown old in the land, and act corruptly and make a carved image in the form of anything, and do evil – RAH - in the sight of YHVH your Elohim to provoke Him to anger. I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that you will soon utterly perish from the land which you cross over the Jordan to possess; you will not prolong your days in it, but will be utterly destroyed” (4:23-26). Just like that… tov can morph into rah when one steps on to the slippery slope of good and evil.

 Good and Evil. The tree is “good for food and pleasant to the eyes and… desirable to make one wise…” and oh, how poisonous!

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