This week’s reading sounds just like our worst nightmare of a cheder teacher. “Do this, because if you don’t God will punish you and your family and lightening will strike you down as soon as you break the laws of the Torah.” I guess many of us were threatened with force or punishment by parents or teachers or both and so we react very negatively when we are threatened. It is the worst possible way of getting us to do something. So why does the Torah try this tactic? Is it just for the poor, simple barbarians who would not understand any other language? Surely we should do things because we want to and because they give us pleasure or meaning or something important to our lives, not because we are scared.
I certainly agree we should serve out of love rather than fear. But fear really should mean respect. In fact “fear” is the wrong word, the wrong translation, and sends the wrong message. But “respect” is an altogether different issue. If I really love someone I should respect him too. It should be automatic. If I know that something is offensive to someone I care for, then I should try to avoid it.
Moses is so profoundly committed to Torah, not just because he has experienced God, but also because he has come from a different world and has experienced other societies and civilizations. He has seen what Egyptian society has done to the Hebrews and to others. Despite its scientific and industrial achievements, it was a morally sick society where human life was disposable.
The more passionately Moses felt about the new religion and the new constitution, the more he felt he needed to stress its importance. It was out of his passionate love that he threatened. It was his way of conveying what he cared about. His words were ways of showing how much he cared, and as a result how much he wanted his people to care too. And if they cared for him or wanted to remain loyal to his memory, what was expected of them. The threats were simply ways of conveying to them how much it all mattered to him.