Shelah Lcha: On our need, and Gods, for commitment

Shelah L'cha

Numbers 13:1-15:41

Joshua 2:1-24

God said to Moses: "Speak to the children of Israel and tell them to make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments throughout the generations; let them attach a cord of blue to the fringe at each corner. This shall be your fringe: Look at it and remember to do all the mitzvot of God, so that you will not follow the desires of your heart and your eyes which lead you astray. Thus shall you remember to observe all My mitzvot and to be holy to your God. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God; I am your God" (Numbers 15:37-41).

After a full dramatic narrative and several interesting pieces of legislation, this week's parashah concludes by describing the mitzvah of tzitzit (fringes), in a paragraph that observant Jews recite every morning and evening, as part of the ritual of saying the Shema. The text presents the tzitzit as a visual aid, a mitzvah to promote other mitzvot, a learning tool to focus awareness, to stimulate memory, to remind and inspire and educate the children of Israel to recommit themselves to God's mitzvot every day of their lives.

But consider this very different reading of this text. The Hatam Sofer reminds us of the words of the Shema itself, "Hear O Israel, the Lord our God," in which we express our gratitude that we are graced with the good fortune to call God our God, that God is in our lives. But then he notes that once we have recited the Shema and the Ve'ahavta paragraph, acknowledging both God's power in the world and the primacy of the mitzvot (tefillin, tzitzit and mezzuzah) that remind us of God, then, at the end of our paragraph, suddenly God says to us, "I am the Lord your God." Now, God is proud of us, proud to be our God, proud to be associated with such a holy people.

Not only that, continues the commentary, but the text does not say "I am the Lord your God — in truth," as does the version we use in the siddur, but simply, "I am the Lord your God." That is to say that only if the people Israel commit themselves to a life of mitzvot and God awareness, only then does God fully become God (Itturei Torah, Vol. 5, Page 94).

Through this extraordinary lens, this well-known text becomes a dialogue, even a love song, between God and the Jews. The relationship becomes a partnership, a bond of mutual love and need and dependency. In this view, God is a God in search of human devotion, human commitment, human love. Only if we are witnesses to the reality of a Power who moves in our lives, and only if we demonstrate our acknowledgment of that power through visceral, time-honored rituals – then and only then is God's power made real in the world.

I am reminded of an exquisite passage in the Talmud (Berachot 6a), in which the rabbis imagine that God wears tefillin, and they proceed to discuss which biblical texts God would place inside the divine tefillin. The texts are presumably about love and appreciation for the children of Israel, just as we include texts of love for God inside our human tefillin.

What are we to make of such a text? Pure, quaint fancy? Or a poetic image giving metaphoric expression to a profound belief in the partnership between God and humanity? If we imagine that God wears tefillin to mirror ours, then we are saying that everything we do on earth mirrors that which we are called to do from some ultimate realm, that the way we live affects the cosmos itself.

So, too, when, after the sin of the spies described in our Torah portion, Moses begs God to forgive the people their sin, he cajoles God, saying: "If you slay this people…the nations who have heard Your fame will say, `It must be because the Lord was powerless to bring that people into the land'…Rather, let God's strength be made great" (i.e., in forgiveness, in kindness, in reconciliation) (Numbers 14:17). Some of the commentators suggest that it is through the actions of the Israelites that God's power is enhanced or diminished.

God needs our witness, our expression, our hands and our arms and our lives to work on earth. Otherwise, God is but a tree in a silent forest. Only through the vehicle of our lives, our commitments, our contributions, is the spark of divinity made real in the world. And when we live in such a way as to enhance the presence of God in the world, then the very universe smiles on us. May we be worthy of these proud Parental smiles.