When I was a teenager, I used to babysit for a family who often came home later than they were supposed to. I found myself standing in the living room a lot, staring out the window, watching for their car. From their home, I could see the stop light at the main intersection, and I remember marveling at how, even very late at night, with no one around, cars would stop at red lights and wait for the green.
This, I thought, was what an entire civilized society was built upon, and to go through the light would be the beginning of society’s downfall. I was a fairly dramatic child.
In this week’s parasha, V’etchanan, Moses said to the people:
“I pleaded with God at that time, saying ‘O Adonai, You who let Your servant see the first works of Your greatness and Your might hand, You whose powerful deeds no god in heaven or on earth can equal! Let me I pray, cross over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan…..but God was wrathful with me on your account, and would not listen to me. God said to me, “Enough! Never speak to Me of this matter again! Go up to the summit of Pisgah and gaze about, to the west, the north, the south and the east. Look at it well, for you shall not go across…” (Deut. 3:23-27)
It’s heartbreaking. And it makes you wonder why Moses didn’t just make a run for it. He was going to die anyway, he knew that. Why didn’t he just keep walking? Can’t you just imagine? Moses gets right up to the boundary line, foot dangling in the air….will he step? Will he put his foot down, so to speak, and put his foot down just over the line? Wouldn’t you? Or wouldn’t you? What kept Moses from challenging the harsh decree? Granted, Moses had seen God’s work, indeed, God’s face, up close and personal. He knew how present God was in his life and probably figured he wouldn’t get away with stepping foot in the Land. But for the rest of us?
How many things are we tempted to do, if no one would ever find out? What keeps us from putting our toe over the line?
I think Moses knew, no matter how much it was tearing his heart apart, how devastating it would be to the people if he flaunted God’s decree and put his foot over the line. If Moses felt like he could ignore the law, so could anyone, and the whole, fragile, brand-new social structure that had just been put into being would begin to crumble. I think that’s why Moses spent so much time going over the laws in Dvarim – and was so careful to hew to them. Up to the very end, he was modeling the faith and trust he needed the people to adopt.
In this week’s parasha, we hear the Shma: Listen up, Israel…this One God is OUR God, for all time. These words which God spoke that day, take them into your heart and soul. Breathe them in, so you can hear them in each heartbeat. Make them so deeply a part of your core that, to toy with them even a little would place a palpable burden on you.
That kind of faith isn’t easy. I know I don’t really think about it much, in fact. It isn’t tested too often, the way Moses’ was when he was so close, so close. What else touches us that deeply? For some, it’s our marriage vows – no matter who would never know what, you can’t put that foot on the other side of that line – it can’t be undone. For some, it’s how we run our businesses – you just do what’s right, and you know it your gut what it is.
And for some, it’s sitting at a red light at 1:00 am, on an empty street. Maybe those people knew someone like me was watching , hoping and quietly thanking them for waiting for it to turn green. A small, momentary Moses-like show of faith in a society in which I was getting ready to take my place.