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Eikev 5782 - What Does Your God Ask From You?

Saturday, August 20, 2022

ועתה ישראל מה ה׳ אלהיך שאל מעמך?

And now, Israel, what does Adonai your God ask from you? (Deuteronomy 10:12).

Before I offer a Biblical answer, I’m curious about your ideas. What do you think God asks from you?

The Torah offers the answer to that question, “What does God ask from you?”: “Only to be in awe of Adonai your God, to walk in God’s ways, and to love God, and to worship God with all your heart and all your soul!” (Deuteronomy 10:12). Easy, right? With sayings like this one and the classic, lo bashamayim hi, the Torah is not in Heaven, the book of Deuteronomy wants us to know that partnership with God is accessible. At the same time, Deuteronomy’s beautiful, romantic language can sometimes seem too general for the complexities of our every-day lives and decisions.

Just as some of you have offered your suggestions about what God really wants, the 12th-century Spanish commentator Ibn Ezra spells out a concrete four-step methodology to achieve these otherwise amalgamous goals. Ibn Ezra’s commentary focuses on Deuteronomy 10:20, just a few verses after Moshe’s initial rhetorical question:

את ה׳ אלהיך תירא אותו תעבד ובו תדבק ובשמו תשבע

You shall be in awe of Adonai your God, worship/serve God, cling to God, and swear in God’s name.

For Ibn Ezra, awe of God translates to taking on the task of God's negative mitzvot, or “don’t do’s.” The command to worship or serve God translates to taking on God’s positive mitzvot, or “do’s.” Clinging to God involves the activity of the לב, the inner workings of the heart and mind. Finally, swearing in God’s name means expressing faithfulness to God through our words. As the month of Elul approaches, we prepare for the reflection that leads up to our ten intensive days of teshuvah, repentance. For this coming month of Elul, Ibn Ezra’s framework of (1) positive mitzvot, (2) negative mitzvot, (3) direction of the heart and mind, and (4) direction of speech allows us more clarity in our reflective process.

While taking on every single one of God’s mitzvot may not be possible for any of us, it is possible for each of us to identify one mitzvah from each category that we can access but have not yet. In the category of negative mitzvot, some of us have not yet taken on the commands not to eat milk and meat together, not to eat pork, or not to eat shellfish. Some have not yet taken on the command not to work on Shabbat. During the month of Elul, I challenge you to focus on one of these commandments - that can mean adding one type of food to eliminate from your diet, at least for this singular month. That can also mean setting your phone to Do Not Disturb for the 25 hours of Shabbat and ignoring emails for that period of time. Remember that you can always add a phone message or automatic email reply to let people know you are not available during this time. An alternative can be refraining from buying anything for one day each week. The ultimate task is simple - choose one negative mitzvah - one “don’t do” - to take on from now through Rosh HaShanah.

In the realm of positive mitzvot, perhaps you need to improve on loving the stranger as yourself. You can take this on by donating to a different cause each week, even one to which you might not usually donate. You may embrace a more ritual positive mitzvah, like lighting Shabbat candles every Friday night, practicing Havdalah every Saturday night, laying tefillin each morning, or reciting the Sh’ma twice a day. Along with your one negative mitzvah, choose one positive mitzvah and stick with it for the month of Elul.

In order to cement God’s presence in our hearts and minds, we need to establish some sort of constant reminder of God in our lives. If you do not yet have a mezuzah on every non-bathroom, non-hallway doorpost of your house, now is the time to add that constant reminder of your Judaism. If you do not yet display Judaica in a prominent place in your home or wear jewelry or clothing that declares your Judaism, Elul gives you that excuse to start now. If you learn and remember best through sound, play Jewish or Israeli music every time you go for a run or get in the car. 

For a more immersive way to establish our heart-mind relationship with the Divine, we can tap into what aspects of Judaism and God’s Creation give us a sense of passion. If you find your passion in Jewish community, invite another Jewish family out to dinner. If your favorite hobby is baking or cooking, help us in the kitchen over Shabbat or deliver a casserole to a family in need. If you love singing, learn how to lead part of our Shabbat service. If time in nature fills your spiritual needs, bring your tools to our garden. For those who delight in arts and crafts, you can create your own Judaica - a tallit and tallit case, a Hanukiah, or an illustration of your favorite verse from Torah. The more we can associate Judaism and God with what makes us feel whole, the more we are drawn to think and feel about God at every moment.

Finally, as Ibn Ezra suggests, we can fulfill God’s plea to swear in God’s name through the words we choose. With every word that comes out of our mouths, pens, and keyboards, we pause first and ask whether what we say is in line with God’s commandments. Are we really loving our neighbor as ourselves? Are we criticizing without hatred or shame? Are we acknowledging the people who influence our thoughts and actions? And are we really telling the truth? This month, start out with just one big conversation per week, whether it’s an email, phone call, or in person. Once a week, set an intention before you enter the room, pick up the phone, or open your email application, and then, ask yourself about the necessity and tone of every word you say. Practice the humility attributed to Moshe by spending more time listening than speaking, taking lots of pauses to allow the other person to enter the conversation. And of course, do not shy away from talking about your Judaism and how your theology affects the decisions you make. Bring God into the conversation, both implicitly and explicitly.

Again and again, throughout Parashat Eikev, Moshe tells us that these commandments and this assignment to love God with everything we’ve got are all l’tov lakh (for your own good) or ta’arikhu yamim (to lengthen your days). This coming month of Elul, as you choose what steps you will take towards the new year, choose steps that will give you goodness and life. Choose steps that will make you more confident, happier, and healthier than you were just a couple of months before. From next Shabbat, August 26, through Rosh HaShanah, September 25, you have four challenges: first, to take on one new negative mitzvah; second, to take on one new positive mitzvah; third, to create a visual, auditory, or experiential clue as a reminder of the constant presence of God; and fourth, to prepare for one conversation per week as words spoken in God’s name. On Rosh HaShanah, after you have explored what God asks from you, you can then decide which of your practices you will keep in the year to come. You may find - I hope you find - that just four new practices in one month will not only be accessible but will already help you feel better and more fulfilled in the New Year. Of course, with all of the answers that I can only imagine popped up in your head when I initially asked that question - What does God want from you? - you will know after your month of practice which of these tasks and signs bring you closest to your ideal relationship with our Creator and Sustainer. Shabbat Shalom.

Fri, December 2 2022 8 Kislev 5783