The Last of Deuteronomy
These are the terms of the covenant which the Lord commanded Moses to conclude with the Israelites in the land of Moab, in addition to the covenant which he made with them at Horeb. Deuteronomy 28:69
I recently finished one of my marathon encounters with customer service at a credit card company. We got the card because it was recommended as having the best point reward program. (Our other three cards have frequent zero-point interest, no credit limit and/or a Chicago Cubs logo on the front.) These cards are mostly for security purposes (and the points) because we pay off our bills in full every month.
Of course, in order to use the cards and access the points, we had to agree to Terms and Conditions. Usually, the most important details are highlighted – interest rates, minimum payments, penalty fees, arbitration requirements. But there are pages of densely packed tiny print written, I am sure, by highly trained attorneys that set all kinds of terms and all sorts of conditions that are required by regulation and developed by the company. I never read them.
Those kind of terms and conditions also apply to health insurance, mortgages, auto loans, home improvements, computer apps, internet and data service, appliance warranties, and small electronics. I never read them.
Once, after a regularly scheduled out-patient medical procedure, the condition of my discharge required me to sign a release that, I was told, included an agreement not to sign any legal documents for twenty-four hours because of the lingering effects of anesthesia. I stared in incredulity at the nurse who presented me with the clipboard and pen who said, “I know. You are not the first one to question this. You are not even the first one today.” I signed. I never read the terms and conditions.
My four-and-a-half-hour session with four customer service reps over two days was about rebooking a flight that was canceled by COVID-19 restrictions last year. I called with new dates for the rescheduled vacation, including flight numbers and the information the company had provided on how to rebook the flights using my returned points. So why did it take so long? Terms and conditions. The very specific circumstances of rebooking were in black and white, seemingly to prevent me from ever using the credit at any convenience to myself. I never read them.
This problem is not new; it is not an invention of modern commerce and litigation. A classic legend from almost two thousand years ago imagines a confrontation between Moses and the rebel leader Korach from almost fifteen hundred years before that. Korach asks if a garment made completely of blue thread fulfilled the requirement of a blue thread in the tassels, as included in the terms of the covenant. Moses says no. He asks if a houseful of sacred books of Scripture would exempt the resident from posting a few verses of the Bible on his doorpost, as required in the terms of the covenant. Moses says no. Korach scoffs at the entire endeavor.
Mind you, this legend is told by the rabbis who held Scripture so sacred that they studied its every jot and tittle as holding some divine revelation. There were, however, things they even they found inscrutable. They chalked them up to categories they called “statutes,” divine commandments that did not have apparent logically derived rationales.
The fact that an individual may not be able to explain why the tassels must have a blue thread or the doorpost of a library must have the same verses as a bedroom without a single book did not change the terms and conditions. Neither did the excuse “I never read them.”
In a society based on personal autonomy like the United States, every set of terms and conditions must be restated for the individual and agreed to by that person. There are, of course, some exceptions. Those collective terms and conditions that were accepted by representatives of an entire generation on behalf of all subsequent generations are still in force. “We the People of the United States” for all sorts of reasons broadly stated, did “ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
In a system based on collective responsibility like many faiths, but certainly like Judaism, the terms and conditions apply without personal affirmation. Maybe that’s why there is such a preoccupation with learning (and by “learning” I mean sacred studies, not merely how to write the legal documents that I never read) in Jewish culture. The terms of the covenant made at Horeb – that is, Mt. Sinai – and Moab – that is, Moses’ instructions in Deuteronomy – are incumbent on every consumer, not just the Levitical customer service reps.
That’s why I always read them.