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Because I Said So

How do we grapple with God's call to obedience?

When I was a child, “Because I said so” was a standard response to questions I posed to my parents. As an educator, I came to feel like this was a terrible approach. Wasn’t it our task to help children understand so they could learn to make their own good choices? But as a parent, I’ve learned that sometimes the answer really is “Because I said so.” Sometimes children simply have not lived long enough to understand and don’t have the experience to see the right path. 

This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Eikev, offers a lens through which to view the relationship between God and the Israelites as akin to one between parents and children. A central message of this portion is obedience. The very first verse reads: “If you obey these rules and keep them and perform them, then God will keep the covenant and the kindness made with your ancestors.” Again and again, this idea is repeated: Do what God tells you to do, and all will be well. 

If we were children, this might be a defensible approach. Perhaps God just knows better than we do. But how do we grapple with this call to obedience as independent adults? Isn’t blind obedience dangerous? Are we not well familiar with the catastrophes that can result?

Moses offers three critical ways to address the challenge of trusting in the divine: remembrance, humility, and connection. This nuanced understanding points to critical engagement as the foundation of obedience.

Let’s start with remembrance. Humans tend to have a short memory. We see this powerfully illustrated with the incident of the golden calf. Shortly after God commanded the people not to have other gods and not to make idols, the Israelites did both. So Moses spends a significant chunk of this Torah portion reviewing the miracles and lessons of the past, including the incident of the calf. He begins: “Remember the long way the Lord, your God, led you these 40 years in the desert, in order to afflict you, to test you, to know what is in your heart, whether you would keep God’s commandments or not.” (Deuteronomy 8:2). He wants the Israelites to remember the miraculous way they were cared for by God in the past, but also the mistakes that were made along the way. 

Recalling this history might lead the Israelites to take their success for granted and assume that divine favor is assured. This is why Moses cautions the Israelites to practice humility. “Do not say in your heart, ‘Because of my righteousness, the Lord has brought me to possess this land, and because of the wickedness of these nations, the Lord drives them out from before you.’” (Deuteronomy 9:4) Moses here is speaking to the human tendency to attribute success to our own righteousness and to believe there is some deficit in those who do not succeed as we do. A stance of humility, the recognition that there is something beyond our own power, some cosmic alignment responsible for what we achieve (or fail to), is a preventative to succumbing to the arrogance of success.

Finally, we come to the heart of Moses’ teaching, his encouragement of the Israelites to stay close to the source of blessing: “You shall love the Lord, your God, keep His charge, His statutes, His ordinances, and His commandments, all the days.” (Deuteronomy 11:1) This may be the most challenging aspect for us today — to act based on an ongoing personal connection with the divine. To help hone this skill, Moses issues a curious command to “circumcise the foreskin of your heart” (Deuteronomy 10:16). Our tendency to overthink things, the pace of the world, and myriad other factors can lead to a build-up of barriers to spiritual connection. Circumcising our hearts means finding ways to trim back those barriers and lean into a more intentional and connected experience of life, which better allows us to connect with others — and with God. 

Early in the Torah, God struggled to get humanity to follow the commandments. Humans have a need to understand before we act. Adam and Eve did not comply with God’s instructions in the Garden of Eden, nor did the generation of Noah have interest in walking in God’s ways. Even Moses was resistant to God’s call. He started his prophetic career in a child-like manner — unsure of his own relationship with the divine, unaware of his own power and asking many, many questions. But having matured as a leader, he now acts more like a parent to the Israelites, skillfully able to guide them in developing a relationship of trust with God in order to faithfully perform the mitzvot. 

The three levels of trust-building Moses describes bring the Israelites — and us — from “because I said so” to a greater understanding of why we should do so. They provide us the opportunity to slow down the urgency of the present moment and to reach across time and space to recognize that the mitzvot do not exist in a vacuum or for us alone, but as part of a greater system of which we are a part. Through remembrance, humility and connection, we can transform what appears to be a call for simple obedience to an invitation to be in partnership with the divine in the continuous work of creation.

This article initially appeared in My Jewish Learning’s Shabbat newsletter Recharge on Aug. 5, 2023. To sign up to receive Recharge each week in your inbox, click here.

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