This week’s Torah portion, Eikev, records another wonderful speech by Moses to the People of Israel. “What it all boils down to is this,” Moses seems to say as he tries – yet again – to explain the covenant and the way of life expected of the nation now living free and about to enter in its new homeland: “And now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you? Only this: to revere [literally “fear”] the Lord your God, to walk only in God’s paths, to love God, and to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and soul, keeping the Lord’s commandments and laws which I enjoin upon you today, for your own good.” (Deut. 10: 12-13).
This sounds pretty simple and straightforward. Moreover, “for your own good” is a nice built-in incentive…as is the implication that failure to do so will have results which are not for our own good!
Centuries later, the prophet Micah was inspired to make a similar summary statement in which we hear the echo of Moses’ words: “God has told you, O human, what is good, and what the Lord requires of you. Only to do justly, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8).
Again, this sounds pretty simple and straightforward: Challenging, for sure, but not impossible. Hey, I can do this! Moreover, Micah appeals to us as humans-in-general and not specifically as Jews, so we can embrace both his and Moses’ messages with every aspect of our self-identities: They are, unmistakably, talking to us.
Among the differences between Moses’ and Micah’s statements, though, is a subtle but important change of perspective. Moses uses the word “shoel”, what God asks of you. Micah uses the word “doresh”, what God requires of you.
Neither reverence, fear, or love can be produced on command, they cannot be “required”. The Talmud states “Everything is in the power of heaven except whether a person will choose to revere God.” (Berachot 33b). Should we say, then, that doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God are “required”, that they can be produced on command?
Jewish life for us today holds both choices and requirements. Feelings of reverence, fear, love, and humility may motivate us to engage our Jewish heritage and explore how we can enrich our lives through Jewish practices. A sense of being ‘required’ to behave certain ways and to live up to certain obligations, meanwhile, may threaten our cherished hope to enjoy absolute freedom over our lives. However, required duties also give us the satisfaction of having fulfilled those duties, of living with a purpose beyond ourselves, and of directing us toward what is most enduring and of ultimate value in life and through the generations:
Our need for meaning.
Our need to serve for some higher purpose to our lives;
Our concern that there be a moral, ethical world;
Our innate passion for justice;
And our desire to set the world aright, for tikkun olam…
…are all mandated by the myriad of mitzvoth in Torah: those deeds in life and the world which our tradition wants – needs? – to ensure we perform. The idea of a mitzvah having an element of “commandment” and “requirement” in it challenges us to hear our Jewish heritage calling out to us: Choose to manifest the path of God in your soul through your actions.
Moses and Micah, at least, thought it was that simple…