One of the recurring themes in Sefer Devarim is concern that the Jewish people will forget God and His Torah during times of peace and prosperity. Moshe warns the people against this repeatedly, more than once in Parshas Eikev (see, e.g., Devarim 8:11).
These warnings seem to carry an air of inevitability. Moshe does not merely warn the people that they should be careful not to forget God amidst their future good fortune; he doesn’t just caution them about the awful consequences of their forgetting why they are here and what they are supposed to be doing. He anticipates that when the Jewish people are wealthy and secure, they will forget and stray from God.
Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik expresses this idea far more sharply that I would hazard:“When a Jew acquires excessive wealth, he becomes animal-like. While the nations of the world divert a portion of their wealth towards spiritual matters, towards culture, towards higher ideals, under similar circumstances, the Jew takes on the trappings of a vulgar, cynical materialism.” (Chumash Mesores HaRav: Devarim, p. 77).
Harsh criticism indeed, and perhaps one that partakes of substantial overgeneralization. Surely, Rabbi Soloveitchik here is referring to the broader character of the Jewish people as a whole rather than to individuals. We are privileged to see countless Jews that use the wealth, security, and power with which they have been blessed to wonderful ends; they are certainly not corrupted.
At the same time, however, I think it would be fair to say that Jewish history has been a series of cyclical experiences:
God blesses us with wealth, safety, security, power, and the respect of other nations. We then fail to use those resources properly to benefit others and exemplify godliness; our successes lead us to forget God and Torah. God responds by withdrawing his kindness—indeed, continuing to provide us with wealth and power that we misuse is the opposite of chessed—and we suffer a tragic downfall that leaves us battered, impoverished, and subservient to others. Our new and pathetic existence leads us to remember God, and we use even our meager resources to do good. God then gradually allows our star to rise with the hope that this time we learned our lesson and that this time we will use wealth and power for good. And the cycle repeats.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch has argued that this is the essential story of Jewish history; a cycle that will repeat itself until gradually, exile by exile and tragedy by tragedy we learn to use wealth and power for good ends. (See, The Nineteen Letters, nos. 6-9).
Our experiences suggest that this is an uphill battle. Following Rabbi Soloveitchik’s view, it seems that our predictable responses to wealth and poverty are uniquely programmed into our national DNA. Wealth and power cause us to forget God, “[y]et when confronted with the trial of poverty or suffering, the Jewish people have fared very well. A Jew does not spill blood when he is hungry. When he is hungry, he senses the hunger of his fellow, when he is cold, he feels his brother’s discomfort.” (Chumash Mesores HaRav: Devarim, p. 77).
This is perhaps why the Torah cautions that “Your heart will grow haughty and you will forget Hashem your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of slavery; who led you through that great, frightening dessert full of snakes and scorpions and drought—where there was no water…” (Devarim 8:14-15).
It is not just that our success causes us to forget God. The important point is that it tends to cause us to forget where we come from. Long before we were a powerful nation securely settled on its own land, we were pathetic and downtrodden slaves to a greater power subject to others’ arbitrary will. No thanks to our own efforts, we were rescued from slavery and given a chance at something more. But even redeemed from slavery we found ourselves completely vulnerable in an uninhabitable and dangerous wilderness, protected and sustained only by God.
We know what it is like to be poor, beset upon, persecuted, vulnerable. We know from intimate experience that rather than take advantage of our position, God rescued and helped us. We understand that that is how God responds to others in need; and we therefore also know that that is how we are supposed to respond as well.
The danger of success is not merely that we may forget God as an abstract concept, or religious ritual. The danger is that we will forget where we come from, where we have been, and what that obligations that that experience shoulders us with.
We need to be exceedingly careful. We enjoy what is perhaps unprecedented wealth, prosperity, security, and power—both here in what we often forget is the diaspora of the United States, as well as in the State of Israel, which today despite everything is safer, wealthier, and more powerful and influential than ever before.
Moshe’s final lecture—a veritable mussar shmuez is the best sense of the word—warns us that it is precisely at such a time when we need to be especially conscious and careful about what we are doing with all God’s chessed that we have been so privileged to receive. Are we using this kindness to do chessed and to be generous and kind in return? Do we appreciate the opportunity that such wealth and power afford us? Do we appreciate that we have been given an unprecedented cushion and safety net that should lead us to feel more safe and more comfortable doing and giving more of ourselves?
The Torah warns us that at times like these the tendency is for the answers to these questions to sadly be “no.” All the more reason to be especially attentive to the charge of v’halachta bidrachav, to walk if God’s ways—to do good for others and for the world just as God does good for us.
The correct response to v’achaltah v’savatah is u’verachtah es Hashem Elohechah (Devarim 8:10).