Parshat Devarim Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22
My spiritual quest began in my lonely college years. If my peers didn’t understand me, maybe God would. I got involved with Hillel, took some Hebrew, went on a Jewish students’ retreat. But I didn’t feel welcomed in the Jewish campus community, which is another way of saying I didn’t know how to make friends. The rabbis put it bluntly: “Whom everyone likes, God likes; whom everyone dislikes, God dislikes.” (Pirkei Avot 3:13)
When one has few social skills, barriers are everywhere. If I bossed my classmates around, no wonder they avoided me. If I criticized my roommates’ choices, no wonder they kept their distance. In this week’s Torah portion, the Amorites attack us quite unexpectedly; King Sihon of Heshbon and King Og of Bashan deny us access to the highways. We feel baffled and hurt, as their motives are invisible to us. But surely they have motives. Everyone does.
What made my college ordeal bearable was the presence of Steve Levine, an old pal from high school, at another university nearby. With Steve I was willing to negotiate about the restaurant or the activity: I knew enough to honor his preferences. In the Torah portion, we are careful not to provoke the Edomites, the Moabites or the Ammonites, nations with whom we have ties of kinship. We even insist on paying them for any food and water we consume on their territory. If we treat people well, they will probably treat us well. That ought to be obvious, but somehow it is not. It takes a lifetime to grasp it.
Once we’ve annoyed our neighbors, it’s hard to regain their respect. We may suppose that they can turn everyone against us, that they are vastly powerful. The cliques that excluded me in college would conspire to keep me isolated forever, wouldn’t they? In our text, the Amorites seem like giants; Og of Bashan is rumored to sleep in an enormous bed. These foes are immense, or so we imagine. More likely, they are average insecure people like ourselves.
In any case, there are always other people to meet. In a world with billions of human beings, it is not possible to run out of people: We couldn’t alienate them all if we lived to be 1,000 years old. We just keep learning from our mistakes and trying again. In the Torah portion, we are told to enter the Promised Land fearlessly, expecting no trouble with the inhabitants. It will be a new beginning.
Besides, God’s patience is boundless, God is always prepared to take another chance with us. In this week’s haftarah, God proposes, “Come, let us reason together” (Isaiah 1:18). Did my cohorts snub me randomly or because of my rigid, self-righteous personal style? Did my acquaintances reject me out of cruelty or because I burdened them with gripes and grievances? I reasoned with God or the sky, or the bathroom mirror, and found a way to start over with humanity. We call that teshuvah, repentance.
I gave Judaism another attempt in my ‘30s, impulsively joining a synagogue I had never visited, knowing no one. This time it clicked. Judaism hadn’t evolved, but I had. I knew I needed to earn people’s friendship, not demand it. Assigned to co-chair the newsletter committee with Rose Katz, I unfortunately offended her by unilaterally deciding which tasks were hers and which were mine. In my younger days, I would have blamed Rose for being too sensitive. Instead I apologized and turned a detractor into an ally.
In my 40s I went to rabbinical school; in my 50s I landed a pulpit in West Virginia. I’m as flawed a rabbi as I was a college student, but at least I’ve discovered how to listen, to compromise. “Seek good, do justice,” says the haftarah. It may not solve everything, but it’s worth a shot.
The words of Pirkei Avot — “whom everyone dislikes, God dislikes” — are too harsh. It would be better to say, “Whom everyone dislikes, God will keep working on.” Of all the things I’m thankful for, the biggest is that God was there for me in my solitude, helping me to rethink my approach to people, allowing me to grow into a team player and a tactful leader. “Again and again I will raise My hand to you,” the haftarah promises. No matter how hopeless we are, God never gives up on us.
As we head into Deuteronomy, we are delighted to see the Promised Land shimmering on the horizon. As we turn the corner of Tishah B’av and enter the avenue to the High Holidays, we sense that reconciliation with God, and the community is ours for the asking. There’s just one catch. We must be willing to change.
Rabbi Joe Hample is the rabbi of Tree of Life Congregation in Morgantown, W.Va. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.