It is summertime, and over the last few weeks, the livin’ has not been easy. The murders in Colorado and Bulgaria; the beginning of the Olympics marred by a refusal to acknowledge the 1972 Munich Massacre; an increasingly ugly political campaign–I am usually a glass half full kind of guy, but with these events and the awfully hot weather, it has not been easy.
When times have been tough for the Jewish people, we have had one source of comfort and hope. That is the first part of the Hebrew Bible, the Five Books of Moses. The Hebrew Bible was described by the poet Heinrich Heine as “our portable homeland.” Studying the Bible lifts our minds to a higher plain. It takes out of the world world as it is into the world as it ought to be.
Entering a Different World
Following our ancestors lead, I’m going to turn away from the events of the outside world, and look inward. We’ll look at this week’s biblical reading on its own terms, and not as a source for insight on the events of the day.
We’ve just begun the book of Deuteronomy. In Hebrew the first weekly reading is entitled Devarim, which literally means “words.” The words we have consist primarily of a series of speeches by Moses. The setting is the land of Moav, just across the Jordan River from the land of Canaan.
The people are preparing to enter. Moses is preparing to die. Moses recounts for the people their trek through the wilderness. He is speaking to the second generation, the children born in the wilderness who will enter the land.
He repeatedly emphasizes their parents’ failures. He laments their lack of trust in God along the way–their frequent complaints, their rebellions, their doubts about God’s protection of them.
One particular verse cries out for explanation. Moses is recounting the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. He notes that God said to the people “I place at your disposal the land of Canaan. Go and take possession of the land.”
Two important literary notes: First, Moses is quoting what God had said. Second, the Hebrew is actually written in the past tense “I have placed at your disposal.” In other words, God had guaranteed the land to Israelites 40 years ago. They did not need to wander for 40 years. The gift was waiting for them. The tide was on their side. They simply did not ride it.
The Power of Fear
Why not? Fear. As we learned a few weeks ago in the story of the spies sent in to scout the land of Canaan, the Israelites bristled with fear. The spies claimed they saw giants in the land, and they imagined they looked like grasshoppers to those giants. The people listened to the spies’ reports and begged Moses and Aaron to take them back to Egypt. Their fear prevented that generation from entering the promised land. They missed their chance.
Moses is urging their children to avoid that same fate. He is reminding them that we do not get too many chances in life. Opportunity does not knock and then wait patiently at our door. If we do not answer it, it may not knock again.
“Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,” poet Robert Herrick famously said. Moses is challenging the Israelites to do the same. They stand at the edge of the Promised Land. God has shown them the way in. “Do not”, Moses pleads, “walk away.”
Perhaps we can use this same message. Perhaps we have opportunities waiting for us. It might be a trip to take. A job to pursue. A class to consider.
Perhaps we have resisted them. Perhaps we are afraid of seeming too pushy or ambitious or different. But when our heart is in the right place, it’s better to err on the side of audacity than fear. As John Wayne put it, “Courage is being scared to death–and saddling up anyway.”