As Moses prepares for the end of his life with the knowledge that he will not cross into Israel, he implores his people to remain connected to G-d once they enter the Promised Land:
“Take care lest your forget the Lord, your G-d … and you build good houses and … you increase silver and gold … and everything you have will increase … and you will forget the Lord, your G-d, who took you out of … Egypt from a house of slavery…” (Deuteronomy 8:11-14)
Moses’ fear that the Israelites would forget about G-d once they were home and all was “good” was understandable. People often turn to G-d only when things go badly. Many of us know this firsthand. During the hard times, we ask G-d for help, guidance and strength. Some of us blame G-d for our struggles. But, once the clouds disappear and life is good again, how many of us give G-d credit for the good stuff? How many of us even pause to thank G-d when everything is going our way? Very few of us do. During the good times, most of us credit our success and good fortune to our hard work, determination and strength. G-d doesn’t get any credit! This is human nature: when we find ourselves in a jam, we quickly seek help from others or blame them for our failures but when we succeed – the victory is ours and ours alone.
When it comes to G-d, many flock to the synagogue, seek the counsel of a rabbi or immerse themselves in prayer when life becomes chaotic. Just like the Israelites in the desert who cried out to G-d when they felt hopeless, when the chips are down, we tend to believe that G-d is all-powerful and capable of making things better for us. I see it all the time. Life’s challenges bring people closer to G-d. Personal crises often bring people into the synagogue. They become regular service attendees as they work through their challenges with the strength, courage and hope that one can find with G-d’s help. But, once their problems work themselves out, these folks stop coming. They go back to their carefree life, putting G-d on hold until the next bump in the road. Again, this is human nature. When the going gets tough, the tough get going. But, as Tommy Lasorda said, “when the going gets good, watch out! You might be going downhill”!
Moses understood human nature. He would have liked Tommy Lasorda’s words. We can imagine Moses incorporating Lasorda’s words into his own:
When the going gets good in the land of Israel, please don’t forget who freed you from the darkness of Egypt! Don’t forget who you cried out to on those frightening nights in the desert. Don’t forget who brought you into the land and answered your prayers! Once you forget, once you start seeing your success, your joy, your abundance as simply the result of your own actions you will walk away from G-d. And once you walk away from G-d – you are going downhill.
Now, for those of us in the progressive Jewish world, Moses’ warning might sound silly. You might be thinking: “God has nothing to do with my success. Everything I have I got because of my hard work – not because of Divine intervention!” Really? If this is so, I hope I don’t catch you praying to G-d, asking G-d to fix something, heal someone or fill you with strength. I hope you don’t blame G-d when something happens and the success disappears! If G-d can be blamed for the bad stuff and called upon to make things better, G-d must be thanked, appreciated and given credit for all the incredible blessings that fill our lives.
As many of you know, I struggle with the idea that G-d has the power to cause turmoil in our lives. I don’t believe that G-d makes bad things happen to good people. However, I do believe that G-d is there for us when the bad things happen. I do believe that G-d can fill us with strength at these times and be with us as we move away from the bad things and towards to the good things. I also believe that G-d is very much a part of the good things – the beautiful times, the successful moments and the personal victories. So, I – a progressive Jew – believe, with all my heart and soul that we can call out to G-d when we are lost and need guidance as long as we heed Moses’ advice and sing out to G-d when we are joyful. If we fail to do the latter, we disconnect from G-d, the Source of all that is amazing and spectacular, and we start going downhill. When we disconnect from G-d, the beauty in this world loses its holiness. As we take G-d out of our accomplishments, we grow self-centered and push G-d aside. We abandon our source of strength, creativity and determination. We move forward, but, at some point along the way, the going gets tough. We need Divine inspiration or just spiritual comfort and we discover that we left G-d somewhere behind us. We are alone. At this point, we know we have gone downhill. And so we do what we do when things get bad: we run back up the hill to find G-d.
If only we could heed Moses’ advice and keep G-d in our lives during the good times. We know from Moses’ words that our ancestors struggled to do this. And we know that we are really no different from our ancestors. We struggle to give G-d credit for everything in our lives. If we would allow ourselves to get past this struggle and appreciate that G-d is both the source of our strength and our blessings, we would allow ourselves to discover that G-d can always be by our side, guiding us through the ups and downs of life, embracing us, celebrating with us, inspiring us. This discovery would keep us from having to waste time and energy running back up the hill to G-d. Instead, if we allow G-d to be by our side during the ups and downs, we will find that we only move forward up and down the hills of life, discovering the true meaning of Godspeed.