With the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, the book of Deuteronomy changes perspective. Up until now, Moses has been communicating with the Israelites, offering his parting words before he dies, reminding the Israelites of their journeys throughout the wilderness. In contrast to the readings that come before them, Parashat Shoftim (this week’s reading) and Parashat Ki Tetze (next week’s reading) are linked at the hip, and contain different laws and commandments which the Israelites must obey when they enter into the Promised Land. Some of these obligations appear for the first time in these portions while others are found in varied forms elsewhere in the Torah.
One intriguing commandment reads as follows: “Let no one be found among you who…is an augur, a soothsayer, a diviner, a sorcerer, one who casts spells, or one who consults ghosts or familiar spirits, or one who inquires of the dead…You must be wholehearted with the Eternal your God.”
Why was it necessary to include such commandments in the Torah? Apparently, it was common practice in ancient cultures to consult alternative forms of spiritual counsel. In some regards, these alternative spiritual practices involved child sacrifice, walking through fire while carrying a child in one’s arms, or interpreting the way that arrows fall when shaken out of a quiver. These acts were considered by the Torah to be “abhorrent” to an Israelite way of life, because they were the practices of other cultures and ultimately, Israelite society was challenged to believe in one God and commit to living a life of holiness.
In a time and age where it is taboo to criticize the religious and spiritual practices of those who hold beliefs different to our own, what might we still learn from this section of our Torah reading? It seems as if there is a common denominator to be found between the practices of divination, sorcery, magic, and even necromancy, namely that such consultation would ultimately prevent us from living in the present. We would become so concerned with having our fortune told, receiving a prediction and wondering whether or not it would come true, to recognize our need to live in a particular moment, to relate to people and events around us, and as Torah teaches, “to be wholehearted with God.”
On Tuesday we will celebrate Rosh Chodesh Elul, the beginning of the month of Elul, a month of spiritual preparation leading to the Yamim Noraim of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. During this month, we are taught to look inward to achieve a better understanding of our inner strengths and weaknesses, to look outward and examine the nature of our relationships with other people, and look toward God and address our connection with the Divine. Spiritual preparation requires that we find ourselves “in the moment,” seeking and offering forgiveness, discovering ways in which we can enhance our character and the quality of our relationships, identifying the means by which we will contribute positively to the world in which we live. While other people may offer us guidance and support in such matters, we cannot rely on mere predictions or distance ourselves from the reality, sometimes joyful, sometimes painful, of our lives. In order to be whole-hearted with God and wholehearted with others, we first have to be wholehearted with ourselves, and recognize the importance of being present, living within each and every moment.