For my commentary I would like to focus on two specific passages:
1) "Remember the long way that YHWH, your God, has made you travel in the wilderness these past forty years, that God might afflict you as a test in order to discover what is in your heart and whether or not you would keep God's commandments." (8:2)
2) "If you keep all of this instruction (mitzvah) that I command you, loving YHWH your God, walking in all God's ways, and clinging to God, then God will drive out all of these [other] nations from before you: you will dispossess nations greater and more numerous than you. Every place/kol ha'makom upon
which your feet travel shall be yours, from the wilderness to the Lebanon and from the River - the Euphrates - to the Western Sea (the Mediterranean).
This parashah, and these verses in particular, are about journeying. The people are reminded of the long, strange trip they have traveled over the last 40 years. This journey was viewed initially as a punishment for their parents' generation, because they did not trust God and instead listened to the 10 spies who told them that they could not conquer the land. But 40 years later, the years are described as an ordeal, a test, to see whether or not this new generation of Israelites would follow God's ways. More than that, it was a test to discover what was truly in their hearts.
In the Hebrew it is unclear who is discovering what is in the people's hearts. Was it God or the people themselves making the discovery? Does it matter? Is there a difference? For when we discover the true contents of our hearts and souls then our true nature becomes known to us. In becoming known to us it also becomes known to God, to the Divine within us.
There is an ancient concept in Judaism called isurim shel ahavah/punishments out of love. This essence of this concept is that God sometimes causes us to suffer out of love for us, in order for us to learn a lesson or to become better people. This is akin to a parent causing a child to endure suffering or pain "for his/her own good" in order to teach a lesson.
As a spiritual teacher and human being I have difficulty with the concept of a God that would cause us to suffer in order to teach us anything. As a parent, I am equally troubled when anyone tries to apply this concept to the parent-child relationship, or any relationship!
However, in reading this verse again, I believe that it contains within it an important instruction for living. This instruction is to remember that all of our wanderings, all of our pain, all of our difficulties in life can help us discover what is truly in our hearts. The origin of pain and difficulty is not God, per se, but simply the reality of life. However, the suffering that sometimes arises from our pain is something we create ourselves. By obsessively focusing on the pain, not letting go of it, or through reacting to it in ways that are not productive or helpful we can turn our pain into suffering. Yet, ultimately the pain and suffering, the feeling of wandering and being lost, can also help us discover our true essence, if we let it. We simply need to pay attention to the feelings and thoughts that arise within us.
The second passage cited above can be viewed as instructions for walking our individual and communal journeys through life in a way that allows us to experience what is within our hearts, rather than simply wandering aimlessly. However, these instructions are conditional. If we follow them, then the desired results will happen. If we love God, walk in God's ways and cling to God, then we are on the right path. If we don't, then the opposite will occur.
We must bring love into God's world and to God's creation, whether human or not; we must listen to the voice of God within us that guides us down the path of right action (including speech, deeds and thoughts). We must cling to God, remembering that the only thing that is permanent in this world is God. Therefore, clinging to anything or anyone else means we are clinging to something temporary and ephemeral. And if we grab on tightly to impermanence, whatever we hold will eventually slip from our grasp and we will suffer once again. But if we try to reach these goals outlined in this portion moment-by-moment, one step at a time, then we will ultimately find reward in the results.
Yet, what are the results? The text tells us that other, seemingly more powerful nations, will be displaced. The people will run away in fear and awe. In the allegory that I am proposing, these other nations can represent the potentially damaging forces within and around us, which can seem so strong at times, but which will disappear if we follow the right path.
This is a process that we have go through repeatedly as we journey through life. It is a process which brings about growth. It is an integral part of what it means to live a life guided by the Divine. It is essential if we are to feel that sense of interconnectedness with the universe.
If we allow ourselves to face these "other" forces (that are truly not other) and then displace them we are then told that "every place/kol ha'makom upon which your feet travel shall be yours, from the wilderness to the Lebanon and from the River - the Euphrates - to the Western Sea (the Mediterranean). No person shall stand up to you: YHWH your God will put awe and fear over the whole land which you traverse, just as God has promised to you."
What struck me about this verse was the use of the word "ha'makom." Though this literally means "the place" it is one of the names for God found throughout classic rabbinic (post-biblical) literature. For God is “the place” of the world. All of the universe is contained within God. If we read this verse using both meanings simultaneously then the text is saying that, if we do all of these things, wherever our we stand at any given moment becomes a place where we can experience the Divine. In every place/kol ha'makom we have the potential to discover and experience God/ha'Makom.
When our feet take us to the wilderness, the barren places where it seems that there is nothing but emptiness and distress, we can find God. When we travel to Lebanon, biblically seen as the place of hills and strong cedar trees, a place where it seems that all is majestic, strong and secure, perhaps making us feel insignificant in contrast, we can find God. If we are swimming in the river, ever changing, ever shifting, pulling us along in its current whether we want it to or not, we can find
God. And when we are standing at the shore of the Sea, experiencing at once the beauty of its existence and it's vast, unknowable power and its depths, we have the ability to experience that place as The Place, as God.
As we take each step in our lives we must stop and experience the moment. We must pay attention to the hand of God guiding us, through the guidance we receive from others and from within ourselves. We also must embrace God with all our heart, all our soul and all our might. If we do this, then in any moment we can face the fear and uncertainty. When we face and acknowledge them, they can no longer block our path or pull as away from our connections. It is then we can recognize the Divine within ourselves and our world. It is then we can understand what it means to be present in ha'Makom ... the place where we are at one with ourselves, others and the world. The place which we call God.