The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek.
“These are the times that try men’s souls.” Those powerful words were written by Thomas Paine during our nation’s first existential crisis. The times in which we live may not be quite as perilous as those first days of our nation’s history, but many of us feel that we live in a society in rapid decline, beset by a crisis of leadership, law, character and communication.
We witness rifts in the social fabric more serious than any in the last 50 years, if not longer.
Navigating these times with wisdom and awareness is immensely challenging.
How do we balance our need to be well informed with the toxicity of consuming news? When do we engage in advocacy on issues of fundamental importance and when do we listen to those with views different from our own? When do we indulge our anger and fear about the state of our country and its future, and when do we cultivate equanimity and hope to sustain ourselves for the work ahead?
This week’s parashah brings us teachings with remarkable resonance for these daily struggles.
In Moshe’s address to the people, we find the following luminous statement: “And now, O Israel, what does Adonai your God ask of you? Only this: to fear Adonai your God, to walk only in God’s paths, to love God, and to serve Adonai your God with all your heart and soul.” (Deut. 10:12)
If we read this exhortation carefully, we find a beautiful summary of Jewish religious practice. First a view of a relationship in which God invites us to listen and respond with committed action. Then the central importance of reverence for our Creator, for a life spent emulating God’s ways of being, and the centrality of love. And perhaps most of all, a life of whole-hearted service to God and to Life.
Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev is intrigued by the question that begins this passage: “What does Adonai your God ask of you?”
The question evokes his awareness of our radical limitation and dependence on forces beyond our control, by comparison with the infinity of God. If God called out and said, “Here is what I ask of you!” your response might be awestruck silence and self-doubt. (Most of the prophets responded this way when first approached by God.)
The answer to the question, it seems, should be to prostrate ourselves before the grandeur of God (as we do during the High Holy Days).
But as the verses continue, it is clear that there is much for us to do. We must arise from our posture of humility in order to practice reverence and transformative love, to emulate God’s ways and to spend our lives in service with courage and vigor.
Levi Yitzhak senses a tension. We are human, and so we are to be humble, aware of how small a part of the universe we are. Yet the practices in these verses require boldness and audacity. To act in the world, to practice love when we may be mocked for doing so, we must believe that living in this way will make a difference. To engage in deeds of service, we must believe in our own power and efficacy, stepping up to right wrongs, working for change, striving to correct that which is broken in our world.
We must believe that, in living this way, we are acting in response to the highest call. We cannot do any of these things sitting at home contemplating how small and insignificant we are! These deeds require us to step up and step out into the world, expressing the divine as best we can.
Levi Yitzhak brings us a powerful piece of wisdom, essential for the times in which we live.
Our practice in these difficult times includes contrasting traits. We must be bold, confident and hopeful as we join hands with others to speak out and fight for what is right. And, on the other hand, we must also cultivate humility. Humility requires that we open ourselves to the wisdom of others (including those with whom we profoundly disagree).
It also involves remembering that we can only do the part of the work that is ours to do, leaving the rest to others and to the One.
Either way — cultivating our sense of efficacy or remembering how limited we are — we are seeking to live more fully in the presence of the Divine.