No God, No People. Know God, Know People.

This Shabbat we begin our annual Torah reading cycle anew, turning back to the beginning of the text with the opening verses of Genesis. We recreate this cycle every year, finishing the story of the Torah at the end of Deuteronomy and reading it again–in its entirety, in order–a new section each week.

One of the most powerful teachings for me from the Torah is not from a specific text but from this fact itself–when the Torah ends, the main narrative of the text is unfulfilled. For most of the Torah our spiritual ancestors are making a journey toward the Promised Land, and as the Torah ends, they are still on the opposite bank of the river waiting to cross. Moses dies, and the Torah resets.

To me, this teaches that we should see ourselves in a constant state of potential, of becoming. As the Torah doesn’t reach its fulfillment, we don’t necessarily reach our fulfillment. Or, rather, we are always reaching our fulfillment, attaining goals and setting new ones.

The practice of starting over from the beginning also shows that the text is not linear, it is circular, and as such, the end informs the beginning. Just as in time travel movies where the future can determine the past just as much as the past determines the future, the end of the Torah informs the beginning just as much as the beginning informs the end.

The end of the Torah is Moses’s swan song, his final charge and blessing of the Israelites. He is not going to accompany them into the land, so he wants to be sure that they are ready by reviewing the history and the laws, and inspired, knowing that God will be with them and, while he won’t be there in body, he will be with them in spirit. We read this text close to the High Holidays, so we, preparing to take the next steps of our journey, are as much the audience as the ancient Israelites.

In rereading the texts this year, one phrase jumped out at me from Deuteronomy 32:21 from the Torah portion Ha’azinu. This chapter is written as a poem or song:

They incensed Me with no-gods,
Vexed Me with their futilities;
I’ll incense them with a no-folk,
Vex them with a nation of fools.

In the context of the text, Moses is telling the Israelites that if the people turn to idolatry (“no-gods”), God will punish them by subjugating them to a nation less than them (“no-folk”). While the tit-for-tat theology is not one I subscribe to, there was something about the language that stood out to me.

The translations “no-god” and “no-folk” (hyphens included) are interesting, and do follow the Hebrew closely. The Hebrew for “no-god” is lo-El, and the Hebrew for “no-folk” is lo-am. Lo means no in Hebrew, El is a name of God, and am means folk, or people. The poetic nature of the text is reflected in the language, as sounds and words are repeated, and written as parallel phrases.

There is a parallel between lo-El and lo-am, that seems to imply a link between the two–that they go together. The Torah implies a cause and effect: turning to idolatry will lead to punishment.

We can think of it in a slightly different way, however: a people can truly be a people and not a “no-people” if they have God and not “no-God.” Or, in a perhaps less confusing way: a people/nation is only truly a people/nation if they have God at the center–if they rooted in values and the idea that they are greater than something larger than themselves. And if we put God in the center of our relationships–building them on love, compassion, patience, and mutual support–then we can be sure that our relationships have meaning and value.

This passage from the end echoes in the beginning. As we begin again, can we avoid the status of lo-El? Can we remember, as we start new connections and write new chapters, to infuse these with the sacred?

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