Personal Covenant with G-d

“Only watch yourself and watch your soul scrupulously”

That is the literal translation of Verse 9, Deuteronomy 4. 

There is no doubt that like all law and the evolution and progress of thought, there have been changes in the way the scriptures are read and understood. But a few things stand out to me that make life more understandable and more meaningful.

We are enjoined from changing any word of the law. Some commentators take this to mean a warning to the scribes to make sure they get it right when they copy the good books. That’s probably true. Others take it to mean that every word of the Bible is to be taken as literally true even if the meaning and context of those words has changed over millennia. That’s probably an overstatement, and yet it has an appeal, since human nature is given to stray when given the room to do so. 

Others have taken it to mean that you should use the words of the book as your guide and not the interpretation of some current teacher, preacher, prophet or rabbi who might have an agenda that strays from God’s will. This is probably correct too, although proving it takes us to other verses.  We are constantly reminded to avoid idolatry — the making of graven images and other objects whose importance rises above our covenant with the Lord. We have to remember that crime and chaos was rampant for thousands of years while mankind strove to create order and a functioning society. 

The idolatry and graven images admonition then is repeated because as humans we are so inclined to replace our true knowledge of right and wrong with some substitute that we think serves us better in the short run. Commentators call that “situational” ethics, which is merely changing the rules when the rules don’t allow you to do what you want to do. 

Verse 9 is usually translated as “but take utmost care” and it misses the point of the original words whose meaning is as relevant today as it ever was. Why some scribe changed it is testament to the vagueries of human nature. To watch ourselves (our bodies) and our souls scrupulously means to “call upon” (pray) G-d and observe G-d’s laws above all others, while protecting ourselves and our families from the consequences of transgressions of secular law or secular interactions. 

It means then that not one word should be changed, as you, in your heart understand those words, and only where that understanding is within the context of your covenant with G-d’s laws.  As an action items it means think for yourself and listen to the words of others but not accept them or follow them without scrupulously watching yourself and your soul. Listen to the words of those around you and consider the source, no matter exalted they think they are or how holy others view them.

This empowering message gives each individual the power to enter into a personal and unique relationship with G-d, but excludes the ability of others to do it for you. It also make you accountable for you say, think or do and not someone else whom you later discover was mistaken or worse. 

Where is the relevance? All around us. Take for example the very existence of money and the way it is viewed. If you think about it, money is a belief system — probably a necessary one to keep society running — but simply an agreement and understanding that when you accept it in exchange for something you did or made, your belief is that someone else will do the same for you. 

Money then is neither good nor bad. It is a strategic tool we use to make life easier to navigate. Yet many if not most people have imbued money with much more meaning than that. It connotes (to idolatry worshippers) power, freedom, justice, and wealth. For many it is elevated high above the laws of G-d, and has replaced the last vestiges of an individual covenant with G-d with greed, jealousy, abuse, murder, war, and lust for sex and power.

Whether it is Enron, WorldCom, credit cards, fossil fuels, medical care, education, or the mortgage meltdown crisis, the common theme is that people got into positions where they had money, power and wealth and they would do anything to preserve, maintain and expand it. They would even destroy the life plans of millions, perhaps billions of other human beings to achieve their aims. 

When I was practicing as an attorney, and I represented people who had broken the law in these “white collar” crimes, I was constantly struck with the same thought: they had the brains, the opportunity, and the means to do right in the world and still  achieve their material goals. Why take the road that destroys others?

And when I look around me at people in my age group and higher, and I see contentment, wealth, peace, and good-natured society, I ask myself, why does anyone take any other path?

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