Often the public discussion of the Bible turns on quoting “what the Bible says.” Leaving aside the very selective reading of biblical verses, the idea of biblical literalism is contrary to the Jewish understanding of how to read a sacred text. Sure, sometimes a mitzvah is just a mitzvah, but Jews also read the Torah’s words creatively, metaphorically and imaginatively. This week’s Torah portion includes one of my favorite creative interpretations of biblical text.
In the Book of Deuteronomy, chapter 13 verse 5, we read: “You should walk after the Eternal your God.” The rabbis ask: Can this possibly be taken literally? Rabbi Hama ben Hanina, a third-century rabbi, wondered: How can a person “walk after” God if, as we read earlier in the same book, “The Eternal your God is a devouring fire” (Deuteronomy 4:24)? Rabbi Hama teaches that the mitzvah of our verse is not to literally attempt to “walk after God” — who has no physical form! — but instead to follow “after the attributes of God.” What, then, we might ask, are “God’s attributes”?
Rabbi Hama was a careful reader of the biblical text; he singled out the verses that he thought best illustrated the attributes of God that humans can aspire to emulate. He cites four examples from the narratives of the Torah, mostly from Genesis. For each verse that describes God’s action, Rabbi Hama (Talmud, Sotah 14a) teaches that we should “follow after” God’s example:
“ ‘The Eternal made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and dressed them’ (Genesis 18:1) — so you should clothe the naked. The Holy One, blessed be, visited the sick, as it is written: ‘The Eternal appeared to [Abraham] at the Oaks of Mamre’ (Genesis 18:1) — so you should visit the sick. The Holy One, blessed be, comforted the mourners, as it is written: ‘Then after the death of Abraham, God blessed Isaac his son’ (Genesis 25:11) — so you should comfort the mourners. The Holy One, blessed be, buried the dead, as it is written: ‘[God] buried him [i.e. Moses] in the valley” (Deuteronomy 34:5) — so you should bury the dead.”
In the very first chapter of the Torah, we find the Torah’s famous teaching that humanity is made “in the divine image.” According to this talmudic text, to be “in God’s image” means to act in the ways that God acts; and all the examples here are acts of caring and compassion. For example, all Jewish commentators explain that the occasion for God’s “appearance” to Abraham was because Abraham was recovering from his own circumcision. We could of course come up with a completely different list of what “God does,” but these are the verses and divine attributes that the Jewish tradition lifts up and focuses on.
Rabbi Hama is not just solving a difficult problem with how to read the Torah’s text; he offers us a model of Jewish spiritual practice. It is not a coincidence that visiting the sick and comforting the mourners are among those mitzvot that are without limit in the amount we are called to do them. We fulfill these and other acts of caring and compassion to the fullest extent we are able. They are limitless because they are entirely about caring for others, taking us outside ourselves and our own concerns. Yet they are also about us; for when we are doing these mitzvot of caring, we are “following after God’s ways.” We become like God and are drawn closer to God: deepening our capacity for caring, for being present and attentive to the needs of others — while setting our own needs aside, we seek to become more like God.
Rabbi Rami Shapiro writes about how we, made in God’s image, are the expression of God’s ahavat olam, unending love:
We are loved by an unending love.
We are embraced by arms that find us
even when we are hidden from ourselves …
We are counseled by voices that guide us
even when we are too embittered to hear …
Embraced, touched, soothed, and counseled,
Ours are the arms,
the fingers, the voices; …
We are loved by an unending love.
Rabbi Yoel Kahn is the senior rabbi at Reform Congregation Beth El of Berkeley. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.