Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell’s final D’var Torah column for the Jewish Exponent. “What does your God ask of you?”
In Parshat Ekev, Moses asks the Israelites, “And now, O Israel, what does your God ask of you?” Moses is addressing the people who are standing before him. He is also addressing all of us, who have followed our wandering ancestors through uncharted wilderness.
“What does your God ask of you?”
Moses answers his own question with seven verbs: “Revere God, walk in God’s paths, love and serve the Holy One, observe God’s commandments; cut away the thickening around your hearts and stiffen your necks no more.”
Moses is giving direction to the present and to the future. He may also be posing this question to himself, knowing he will not be entering the land with the people he led out of Egypt.
What does it mean to revere God, to walk in God’s paths, and to love and serve the Holy One? The biblical language is powerful and precise when it directs us to “cut away the thickening around our hearts.” We live in a time when we know about blocked arteries and occluded pathways to the heart. Clarity and openness, both to ourselves and others, can result from this metaphorical surgery. Further ease and awareness comes from relaxing our stiff necks and easing our rigid postures.
Moses concludes his directions with a potent message: “love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” This final directive sums up and includes all the behaviors that precede it. Each of these practices opens the way towards loving the stranger.
When we see God’s face in another individual, we are honoring and revering God. Walking in holy paths means walking with another, keeping pace with another’s steps, slowing down to accompany a child or an elderly friend. We love and serve God when we share the burden of another person. Observing God’s commandments provides a framework for conscious living.
When our hearts are encased in selfishness, when we are stiff with pride, we are blind to the needs of those around us. Removing the barriers around our hearts, loosening our tight places — these acts open us to our shared destiny with others, and to the possibility of serving other individuals through love and support, compassion and caring.
“What does your God ask of you?”
To love the stranger. Throughout the Torah, the Israelites are challenged to remember their origins as slaves, as outsiders. The acknowledgement of past injustices can move human beings to repeat injustice, enslaving and victimizing others. The Torah teaches us that each of us has the power to interrupt cycles of human cruelty. Love for the stranger can open our hearts and transform the world.
Emmanuel Levinas, the 20th-century French Jewish philosopher, wrote, “I will say this quite plainly. What truly human is — and don’t be afraid of this word — love. And I mean it even with everything that burdens love or, I could say it better, responsibility is actually love.”
Lask week, we celebrated Tu B’Av, the fifteenth day of Av, a day of love and courtship that follows Tisha B’Av, the ninth of Av, our annual day of mourning the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. May we claim love as our banner, and do something today that expresses our love, our support, and our care for someone we might have considered a stranger. This is what God asks of us.
This is Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell’s final D’var Torah column for the Jewish Exponent.
She is grateful to Rabbi Ira Stone and Dr. Tamara Eskenazi for introducing her to the teachings of Emmanuel Levinas, to Eugene Sotirescu for Mussar guidance, and to Claire Levy Levi and Nurit Levi Shein for their nourishing love and support.