A s the Jewish People were on the cusp of entering the Land, it wasn’t the Canaanite enemies that Moshe Rabbeinu feared — Hashem had promised they would be vanquished — but the moral fortitude of a nation on the verge of victory and accomplishment: Would their egos inflate together with their success?

As parshas Eikev opens, the Jewish People are still standing on the East Bank of the Jordan, listening to Moshe Rabbeinu’s parting speech. In a short while, a new leader will be taking them across the river. They will take Canaan by storm and settle in the Land. And as they prepare for this historic campaign, Moshe warns them about what awaits them at their destination. His fears are very, very substantial.

It is not the Canaanite enemy — brave and mighty — dwelling in the Land, that casts fear into his heart. In fact, he boosts the courage of Bnei Yisrael for the coming battle, infusing them with confidence and assuring them of victory and chasing all doubt from their hearts:

“If you should say in your heart, these nations outnumber me, how will I be able to inherit them? Do not be afraid of them… Hashem will deliver them to you and drive them out before you, and confound them with great confusion until they are destroyed.” (Devarim 7:17–23)

Yet in the same breath, he warns them against… Eretz Yisrael. This is what scares him. Its very existence in earthly form causes him deep concern. This is the Land, so good, of which he says:

“For the L-rd your G-d is bringing you to a good land, a land with brooks of water, fountains and depths, that emerge in valleys and mountains, a land of wheat and barley, vines and figs and pomegranates… a land in which you will eat bread without scarcity, you will lack nothing in it, a land whose stones are iron, and out of whose mountains you will hew copper.” (Devarim 8:1–9)

And to these heartwarming words, Moshe appends this solemn warning: “Guard yourself, lest you forget Hashem, your G-d, and not keep His commandments, His ordinances, and His statutes, which I command you today” (ibid. 11).

As we see, Moshe foresaw future developments. Knowing his people well, he was concerned about the encounter between the people and the Land of Israel. It could prove to be a shock. Children of the parched desert, raised among the bare sand dunes, could become intoxicated at the sight of a settled land, fresh and green, sprouting grain in abundance, with springs of fresh water flowing from its mountains and valleys. This sudden, acute change could upset their spiritual equilibrium, achieved with so much effort on the part of their parents and teachers during those long years in the wilderness. They might, chalilah, become addicted to the enchantment of nature burgeoning all around them. Perhaps in all this plenty they would see the powers of idols at play, rather than the kindness of the One G-d. Baal, Ashtores, and all the nature-gods might appear before their eyes in all their glory, those same idols that were worshipped by the displaced nations of Canaan. And there was a real risk that they might adopt the nature-rituals that prevailed in Canaan before the conquest, rituals based on lust and cruelty. Sensuality, Moshe feared, might overcome Jewish morality and cause the mitzvos to be forgotten.

As if this weren’t enough, Moshe saw another troubling possibility. Even if their spirits remained steadfast in the face of the transition and its allures, they faced yet another spiritual danger that could ruin his dream of establishing a regime based on doing what is right and good.

“Lest you eat and be sated, and build good houses and dwell therein, and your herds and your flocks multiply, and your silver and gold increase, and all that you have increases… and your heart grow haughty and you forget Hashem, your G-d… and you say in your heart, ‘My strength and the power of my hand have brought me this success.’ ” (ibid. 12–17)

With these statements, Moshe expresses his fear of a revival of materialism in the state about to be founded, on the graves of his vision and his ideals. He tries to instill an awareness of the spiritual dangers of wealth, of achievement for its own sake, of the race to accumulate property. These material blessings are soon to be theirs in the Land of Canaan and could prove a pitfall to them both as individuals and as a nation. When a person succeeds in his occupation, in his business, he is flattered. He takes it as confirmation of his talents and abilities. His self-esteem soars to a point of smugness and pride (lest “your heart grow haughty”), and he begins to look down at the lesser mortals around him. The thought that “my strength and the power of my hand have brought me this success” brings forth the dark side of the human soul. One’s very success is seen as “proof” of one’s rectitude and worthiness. If you’re successful, you must be on the right track. This is the kind of thinking that Moshe Rabbeinu warns against in his “intelligence briefing” on the eve of battle:

“Do not say in your heart… Due to my righteousness Hashem brought me to inherit this Land.… It is not due to your righteousness and the rectitude of your heart that you come to inherit the Land…” (9: 4–5).

That feeling of righteousness that takes over the heart of the serial achiever spawns many evils in both the personal and national spheres. It seems to set the person or the nation free from any subjugation to a binding moral framework. For them, anything is permissible. They can trample anyone who stands in the way of their ambitions, destroy their opponents or competitors, deceive and mislead, break every law and every rule of decency in the sanctification of success by whatever means will get them there. They see themselves as a sort of superman, immune to the weaknesses of ordinary mortals.

But Moshe is well aware of the sin that crouches in wait for them, and he warns them: “If you forget Hashem your G-d and follow other gods… I bear witness against you this day that you will surely perish; like the nations that Hashem causes to perish before you, so will you perish.” (8:19–20).

An individual or society built on the foundations of ambition and hubris harbors the seeds of self-destruction. Moshe sounded the warning against this destruction in advance, in the language of Jewish faith. And many generations later, historians expressed this truth in the language of accumulated historical experience.

History, writes 19th-century English historian James Anthony Froude, “is a voice forever sounding across the centuries the laws of right and wrong. Opinions alter, manners change, creeds rise and fall, but the moral law is written on the tablets of eternity. For every false word or unrighteous deed, for cruelty and oppression, for lust or vanity, the price has to be paid at last: not always by the chief offenders, but paid by someone. Justice and truth alone endure and live. Injustice and falsehood may be long-lived, but doomsday comes at last to them, in French revolutions and other terrible ways.” (J.A. Froude, Short Studies on Great Subjects)

A similar conclusion was reached by the famous British historian Arnold Toynbee, author of the monumental A Study of History, in which he summarizes the rise and fall of 21 civilizations of the ancient world. He points out the reasons for their downfall, which in his opinion lie in the fact that they became blinded by self-interest and antisocial and anti-spiritual tendencies, so that eventually they were shaken and destroyed by lack of inner harmony. Thus history gives stunning confirmation to the prophetic words of Moshe Rabbeinu.

But how did Moshe wish to immunize them against the infectious germs of materialism? What did he offer them as an aid in the struggle they would face in their homeland?

Clarity of vision. A healthy collective memory, kept alive and aware by constant, tangible reminders of their historical past. And most importantly, a lesson in how as soon as the ego-talk of “I did it by my own strength and talent” creeps into the equation, real success will ultimately be stripped away. (Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 672)