Whenever we begin reading a new book in the Torah we get a chance to reflect on the diverse influences, sometimes held in tension with one another, which inform who we are as Jews. The Book of Devarim (Deuteronomy), which we begin reading this week, proposes a vision of God and spirituality that is in several important respects radically different than those that have come before.
Contrast the Book of Devarim with The Book of Shmot (Exodus). The latter is a book about seeing. Tradition holds that those who crossed the Sea of Reeds out of Egypt actually saw God with their own eyes. Rashi tells that when the Israelites sang the word "this" in the line: "This is my God, whom I will enshrine" (Exodus 15:2), they were literally pointing their fingers toward God (or at least toward the miracle). Rashi affirms that at the Sea of Reeds "even a lowly maidservant saw more than the prophets" of later generations ever beheld. Likewise, at Sinai, God's presence was made visible in smoke and flame.
Not so in Devarim. Here, Moses recasts Sinai as an aural experience rather than a visual one: "the Lord spoke to you out of the fire; you heard the sound of words but perceived no shape—nothing but a voice" (Deut. 4:12). And, of course, Devarim's most-quoted line, the Shm'a, bids us to "Hear" (6:4), rather than to see. Dvarim's approach to God is less about vision and more about language—"the sound of words'—devoid of spectacle. Devarim's idea of God is considerably more abstract, and more rooted in the intellect rather than the senses than that of Shmot. The God of Shmot is immanent; God commands the Israelites to build a sanctuary so that God "may dwell amidst them" (25:8); in Devarim it is only God's ineffable "name" that dwells there (12:11).
Our tradition does a lot for us by offering us two such distinct spiritual paths. What makes life meaningful? Sometimes, it is a sense of wonder, the feeling of 'being there.' At other times, merely hearing the story suffices.
What motivates an 18-year-old to go to High Holy Day services at Hillel? Some students are drawn to High Holy Day services at their Hillel because they seek to be enthralled by a haunting melody. These students need to be rewarded by shlichei tsibur (prayer leaders) who take their job seriously. By this I do not mean whether the person in charge decides to include or omit, say, the Service of the Kohanim, or Minchah before Kol Nidrei. To take prayer seriously means to being open to the possibility that prayer has the power to transform a person. Whether we believe that prayer can actuate such a power is beyond our control; the desire to affirm that prayer can is within it.
Other students go because they hearkened to a voice that commanded them to — the voice of their parents. And why do parents command their children to go to High Holy Day services? If you ask them, some will reply: "Tradition, I suppose. But I'm really not sure. I guess it's because my parents made me go."
As Jewish educators, we don't like to hear this. We consign arguments such as "Do it because I did it, and your grandpa did it" to the lowest rung on the pedagogical ladder. But not so fast. This is more or less Moses' message in Devarim: you didn't see anything at Sinai; there was no unmitigated holy experience, no light show. The same with the High Holy Days: you will not actually see God move from the Throne of Judgment to the Throne of Mercy. But still, you go. And you will tell your children to go, even if for you, and for them, no one guarantees that you will have a "spiritual experience." Students such as these, those who go to High Holy Days because they've always gone, or because they don't want to disappoint their parents, deserve a reward as well. One way of doing this is to tell such students, as explicitly as possible, how noble it is that they have cared enough to link themselves to their tradition, even though that tradition does not guarantee a spectacle.
Written by Michael Goldman, Hillel rabbi of the Freeman Center for Jewish Life at Duke Univeristy.
Additional commentaries and text studies on Devarim