What does God really want from us?
Moses offers an answer in this week’s Torah portion, Eikev:
And now, Israel, what does God, your God, ask from you? Nothing but to fear God, your God; to walk in all [God’s] paths; and to love [God]; and to serve God, your God, with all levavekha and with all nafshekha, to keep the commands and decrees of God that I am commanding you today for your own good. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 10:12-13)
levavekha (לְבָבְךָ) = your (singular) heart; your thoughts and feelings; your consciousness, your mind. (Leivav, לֵבָב = heart, thoughts and feelings, seat of consciousness + ־ךָ second person singular suffix.)
nafshekha (נַפְשֶׁךָ) = your (singular) throat; your appetite; the soul that animates your body; your life force. (Nefesh, נֶפֶשׁ = throat, appetite, animating soul, body, life force + ־ךָ second person singular suffix.)
Moses begins by addressing “Israel”, the whole people. But he continues by addressing each individual, using the singular suffix for “you” and “your”—just as in in last week’s Torah portion, Va-etchanan, when he says Shema Yisrael! (“Listen, Israel!”) and continues with “And you shall love God, your God, with all levavekha and all nafshekha …”1
Today we might translate the phrase “with all levavekha and all nafshekha” as “with all your mind and all your body”—your entire being.
In this week’s Torah portion, Moses says God wants more than love. God wants your fear as well. And every aspect of your consciousness should be directed toward fear and love for God.
Furthermore, what goes on in your mind is not enough. You must also to do all the correct actions in the world: to walk in all [God’s] paths, … to serve God, your God, with all levavekha and with all nafshekha … [and] to keep the commands and decrees of God.
Both your mental reactions and your physical actions must become so habitual that you instinctively react in a God-oriented way no matter what happens.
Better start now! It’s for your own good!
Fear and Love
Should you fear God because God has the power to punish you, even kill you? The writers of Deuteronomy2 would probably have answered: Yes, if nothing else motivates you to follow the rules. But for centuries commentators have offered two other interpretations:
- After you have grown up, you should not fear God’s punishment, but rather share God’s fear that you will harm your own soul by doing evil.3 If you fear what God fears, you will act for your own good—since the good of your soul is more valuable than any other pleasure or benefit.
- The Hebrew word leyirah (לְיִרְאָה) means “to fear”, but it also means “to revere” or “to be in awe of”. The best attitude is not fear of punishment, according to 14th-century Rabbi Nisim of Gerona, but “fear of the exalted”: trembling awe at the vast majesty of God. The Talmud called it “fear of heaven”, and said: “Everything is in the hands of Heaven, except the fear of Heaven.”4
21st-century rabbi David Kasher wrote: “And at the moment that this sensation of wonder strikes us, we suddenly feel a great love for everything around us, and love for the God that has allowed us to stand in the midst of it. Where once we stood in awe, we come to fall in love. … Our capacity for wonder is something we have the power to turn on or off. It is no mere instinct. It is a choice—an attitude we adopt; an orientation we cultivate.” 5
Walking, serving, and keeping
Thus the Torah urges you to choose to open your mind to awe. Then both humility and gratitude naturally follow. Gratitude is the kind of love that inspires you to give back to the person, community, or God you are grateful to. If you are grateful to God, you want to give back to God. But how? Moses’ answer is:
- to walk in all God’s paths. According to Or HaChayim6, this means atoning for a string of violations of God’s rules by obeying as many commandments as possible. Alternatively, it could simply mean leading a life devoted to doing God-approved deeds.
- to serve God. At the temple in Jerusalem, Levites served priests, and priests served God as their occupation. But all the Israelites are called upon to serve God in certain ways: by burning the appropriate sacrificial offerings in temple times, by obeying God’s orders, or by promoting God’s agenda for a more ethical and compassionate society.
- to keep the commands and decrees of God. The simple meaning of this phrase is to obey each of the 613 rules that Moses passed down7 whenever the appropriate situation for one of them arises. But not everyone is expected to memorize them all. Before the destruction of the second temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E., people could ask priests for clarification of the rules. Since that time, people have asked rabbis for rulings on religious laws.
Each of these three categories of actions can mean either following the letter of the law, or going beyond the rules to lead a virtuous life in general.
For your own good
Why are the fear, the love, and the actions demanded by God “for your own good”?
If you define God as the omnipotent ruler of the universe, the obvious answer is that if you do what God wants you will be rewarded (perhaps with good health, rescue from an enemy, or a color TV). If you disobey God you will be punished.
We get more rewards and fewer punishments when we go along with human authorities. When we do what the boss wants, we get what we want from the boss. So it is natural to think that the same must be true for going along with a divine authority.
The book of Deuteronomy does depict God as the omnipotent ruler of the universe—more so than the previous four books of the Torah, which imply the existence of other, inferior gods. In the next verse after “for your own good” Moses says:
Hey, the heavens and the heavens of the heavens belong to God, your God; the earth and everything that is on it! (Deuteronomy 10:14)
This statement could be taken as a threat: since everything belongs to God, you had better obey the big boss or else. Or you can look at the bright side, like Rashi, who wrote that for your own good means “that you should receive a reward for doing so.”8
Moses’ next sentence in the portion Eikev says that God is loving as well as omnipotent.
Nevertheless, God was attached to your ancestors, loving them, and [God] chose their descendants after them out of all the peoples, as it is to this day. (Deuteronomy 10:15)
Most modern Jews would hasten to add that God loves other peoples as well, and also chose them to lead holy and ethical lives. But this verse in the portion Eikev also indicates that God loves humans who are far from perfect. In the Hebrew Bible, the ancestors of the Israelites are identified as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. (Their wives are added to later liturgy.) The book of Genesis describes these three patriarchs as acting out of jealousy and spite as well as out of kindness and respect.
If God loves these flawed characters, then God must sometimes deviate from the strict justice of reward and punishment, and forgive transgressors.
While some people can only be induced to behave properly if they are afraid of punishment or eager for a reward, other people find comfort in the belief that God is like a loving parent, and that the purpose of God’s rules is to encourage humans to do what will improve their own lives.
So circumcise the foreskin of levavechem and do not stiffen your necks10 any more. (Deuteronomy 10:16)
levavechem (לְבַבְכֶ֑ם) = your (plural) hearts; your thoughts and feelings; your minds. (Leivav, לֵבָב = heart/hearts, thoughts and feelings, seat/seats of consciousness + ־כֶם second person plural suffix.)
Circumcision of the foreskin is part of the covenant between the Israelites and God. What does it mean to circumcise an organ that does not have a literal foreskin?
Rashi wrote that circumcising the foreskin covering your “heart”—that is, the mind—would remove whatever blocks you from receiving God’s words. 12-century rabbi Abraham ben Meir ibn Ezra identified the figurative foreskin with physical lusts, which block you from taking the right attitude and actions.
According to rabbi Bachya ben Asher (1255-1340) the word foreskin here means any negative character trait that prevents you from developing to your full potential. For 15th-century rabbi Obadiah ben Jacob Sforno, the foreskin represents prejudices that cause errors in your thinking. And for 19th-century rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, circumcision of the heart means gaining mastery over your own thoughts and desires.
What does God want from you? To orient yourself toward God, in both your mind and your actions; to be open to awe, to feel humility and gratitude, and to dedicate your life to good deeds.
Why would you want to do this?
For me, the promise of reward and the threat of punishment are not motivating. I cannot believe in a God that deals out strict justice to every human being, since it is obvious that some innocent and virtuous people suffer and die young, while some heartless evil-doers get material rewards and long lives.
But I do try to cultivate feelings of awe, humility, and gratitude, and to be kind and do good deeds. I believe that the farther I walk in this direction, the happier I am with myself. So I am working on this approach to life—for my own good, and for the good of my fellow human beings. When I stop and realize how fortunate I am, despite my sorrows, I want to give back.
Perhaps what God wants from me is the same as what I want for myself—when I cut back the blockage in my leivav.
What does God want from you? What do you want from God?
- See my post Va-etchanan: Extreme Love.
- The book of Deuteronomy is presented as one or more long speeches by Moses to the Israelites, delivered before he dies and they cross the Jordan into Canaan. Modern scholars date the bulk of Deuteronomy to the reign of King Josiah in the 7th century B.C.E. or later.
- g. Dov Baer Friedman, Or Ha-Emet (1899), quoted in Speaking Torah: Spiritual Teachings from around the Maggid’s Table, Vol. 2, ed. & translated by Arthur Green, Jewish Lights Publishing, Woodstock, VT, 2013, p. 101.
- Talmud Bavli attributes this saying to Rabbi Chanina in Berakhot 33b, Megillah 25a, and Niddah 16b.
- David Kasher, “Two Kinds of Fear: Parshat Eikev”, Parshanut, http://parshanut.com/post/176555221331/two-kinds-of-fear-parshat-eikev.
- 18th-century rabbi Chayim ibn Atar’s most famous book is the Torah commentary Or HaChayim.
- In the 12th century C.E. the Rambam, a.k.a. Moses Maimonides, identified 613 commands or mitzvot in Exodus through Deuteronomy, and Jews have stuck with that number ever since.
- Rashi is the acronym for 11th-century rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki. This translation of Rashi on Deuteronomy 10:13 is from http://www.sefaria.org.
- Deuteronomy 30:2.
- See my posts: Ki Tissa: Stiff-Necked People and Eikev: Covered Heart, Stiff Neck.