What is the use of knowing the Torah…if we don’t apply it to our lives?”
The reading of this week when we have missed our Rabbi Percy Johnson is understood from the pshat (פשט direct meaning) pointing out the following: Devarim 26: 1 says: “And it shall be when you come into the land which the LORD your God gives you as an inheritance, and you possess it and dwell there…”. God gives us the earth to inherit, but it is necessary that we possess it and dwell in it. It seems somewhat contradictory, since if I have inherited something, by right it is mine, so why should I own it and inhabit it? Doesn’t God keep His promises to us? In my country, I have seen how many inheritances are spoiled due to a lack of 1. Interest 2. Knowledge of business management that causes them to be deceived 3. Waste or squandering inheritance 4. Lack of sense of belonging or what Freud called “identity”. In our country, we have a saying: “what does not cost, is not appreciated.” It seems that the Eternal makes us go through this natural process so that we can appreciate what He gives us, and as a good father, He teaches us as our Rabbi Johnson would say, “to fish”. For this reason, He announces His promise to grant us an inheritance, but we must earn the right to take His inheritance to the next generation and to be a part of it.
Devarim 26: 2 says, “that you shall take of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you shall bring in from your land that the LORD your God gives you; and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place in which the LORD your God shall choose to cause His name to dwell.” Until we possess the land, we can “take” what the Eternal gives us. I have seen how many people promise to give what they do not have which causes them to fall into a depression since their word holds little value, similar to making a promise which holds as much significance as changing their clothes. I was delighted to understand how Rabbi Johnson teaches “we can’t give something that we don’t have.” What do we give and to whom? We bring the Bikkurim ביכורים first fruits (not necessarily the best ones) to the Temple, teaching us that thanksgiving is not only saying: “thank you very much”, but it implies an act of bringing something physical as a sign of gratitude. We also learn later (26: 12-14) about bringing tithes to the Levites, the widow, and the orphan. The goal of giving is to make His Name dwell among us.
Devarim 26:11 orders us to rejoice before the Eternal because of what God has given us and we return to him some of the things He gives us to keep us humble. Lastly, Israel must stand between Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim (27:12). In my understanding, it was a custom at that time to raise a stone, “stelae” upon which the laws that governed a place were written so that anyone who entered would know its laws (e.g. Hammurabi Code). I have explained this reading to my kids by giving an example: “when you enter an electrical substation there is a sign that tells you “do not to touch” and they put a skull and electric sign on it”. Is this a punishment? Is it a ban? Is it a threat? Of course not. It is simply a message of caution to preserve your life; if you decide to violate the recommendation that they have given you, there are dire consequences; if you decide to obey the recommendation, you will preserve your life and physical integrity. In the modern world, it is called “action-reaction”. It seems to me that the Eternal desires our good.
At the beginning of this portion, He gives us His blessing with a very clear purpose: to possess and dwell. It simply declares the limits to us for our own good, our benefit and to dwell in the land. The limits are: Do not dishonour the father or mother, nor remove our neighbor´s landmark, do not make the blind go astray along the way, do not pervert justice for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, no illicit sexual relations (with stepmother, lay with any manner of beast, incest), do not smite your neighbor, nor take a bribe to slay innocent people, and confirm the words of the Torah but do not do them. Not only is it enough to know the Torah, but we must also apply its principles to our lives. Rabbi Percy has an expression that I really like: “What is the use of knowing the Torah if we don’t apply it to our lives.” Devarim 29:18 “Try to deceive the Eternal” by going after our desires or intentions (of our heart).
To conclude, we usually focus more on the blessings that we see as a promise that Hashem gives us, and sometimes we only want to hear what is convenient, sweet and beneficial to us, but the Eternal also speaks to us through the Tochecha (תוֹכֵחָה admonitions) that tell us about the bad things that can happen to us if we decide to disobey his commandments; these admonitions are conditional upon our bad behavior or conduct. What do we prefer? The blessings or the curses? He gives us the ability to decide and based on this, there will be consequences. He gave us His guide in the Ten Commandments. Are we honoring God? Are we revering Him? In Devarim 28: 1-2 it says “And it shall come to pass, if you shall listen diligently to the voice of the LORD your God, to observe to do all His commandments which I command you this day, that the LORD your God will set you on high above all the nations of the earth. And all these blessings shall come upon you, and overtake you if you shall listen to the voice of the LORD you God.” So, all we have to do is to listen to which implies obeying His words.