WHAT DOES GOD WANT FROM US?
In Parashat Eikev we find ourselves in the middle of one of Moses’ great speeches. It is a speech that soars with blessing, it sighs with memory, it sings with lovely cadences about the land of Israel, and stings with warnings about what will happen if we forget God.
You will find in it the memorable line, “man does not live by bread alone” (Deut. 8:3) and also the bedrock verse of Birkat HaMazon: “VE-AKHALTA VE-SAVATA U-VERACHTA” (8:10) (Cue the table banging!) And let’s not forget the second paragraph of the Sh’ma towards the end of the parasha. (11:13-21)
These are just some of the magnificent takeaways from this great speech. But if I had to choose one great line to sum up the theme of his oration it would be this one:
And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you, but to revere the Lord your God, to walk in all His ways, and to love Him and to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul. To keep the commandments of the Lord and His statues which I command you this day for good. (10:12-13)
That’s it. Boiled down into an easy proposition. What does God want? Reverence, obedience, love, service, and performance of the commandments. Sof pasuk. End of story.
But it’s not the end of the story. Actually it’s only the beginning of the story. Read the Bible closely and you will discover that there are some other attempts to answer what God wants from us. In fact, for someone who has dipped just a little toe into the sea of biblical literature Moses’ question here in Deuteronomy sounds remarkably similar to another one posed many hundreds of years later. The prophet Micah, in a riveting oration of his own against the gross spiritual emptiness of temple sacrificial ritual says the following:
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with myriad streams of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has told you, O man, what is good, and what the Lord seeks of you; but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:7-8)
Micah mimics Moses, moreover, Micah modifies Moses. When we place the Micah and Moses messages side by side and we yield a very interesting teaching. Moses frames his question to the entire nation of Israel. Micah to the individuals who make up that nation. Moses calls for reverence and obedience. Micah calls for justice and kindness. Moses wants Israel to be subordinate to God. Micah wants the individual to walk humbly with God.
These two messages compliment each other. Micah might actually be a response to Moses, (and perhaps, if you take the dating of Deuteronomy to be after Micah, Moses might even be a response to Micah!) Reading the Bible, you can’t read one without hearing the echo of the other. And in truth, we need both of them.
The sad reality of religious life is that one can be punctilious about observance and also be a vile human being. Even, as we have seen recently, a murderer. Micah understood that. When he calls for “doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God” he is reacting to a world where religious observance is detached from menschlakhkeit. And yet, there is something to what Moses is saying too. After all, anyone can be a mensch, but the key to Jewish menschlakhkeit is to ground it in reverence for God and the practice of mitzvot. We need the universalist spirit of Micah to animate the particularity of Moses, and we need the particularist words of Moses to ground the universalism of Micah. We can’t have one without the other. Both are necessary.
In the chronology of the Bible Moses initiates the question of what God wants, and Micah gives us his answer. But his is not the final word. Rather, each generation has to ask this question in its own way, and guide future generations with their answers.
This is our last Shabbat at Camp Ramah. It has been a magnificent summer for us. Ashreinu mah tov helkenu, how fortunate are we to be in this wonderful community and how fortunate we are, ashreinu, to be able to explore this basic question of Judaism and continue the never ending conversation of our people.
Rabbi Malomet is the Rabbi of the Highland Park Conservative Temple – Congregation Anshe Emeth in Highland Park NJ.