Weekly Torah Talk on Eikev 5772

on Wednesday, 08 August 2012. Posted in Torah Talks

The Simple Formula for a Good Life

You know, as a people we Jews are good at many things: at kvetching, of course; at lashon hara, gossip, telling people things we shouldn't. We're also good at eating. And, perhaps most importantly, we Jews are good at asking questions.

Perhaps the greatest of all the Jewish questions was asked in this week's Torah portion of Ekev, the third sedrah in the Book of Deuteronomy. It reads:

V'atah, Yisrael, mah Adonai sho'eil mei'imach?

Which means, "And now, Israel, what does God ask of you?"

The passage in Ekev then answers this great question, "That you have awe of the Lord your God, and walk in all of God's ways and love God, and serve the Lord your God will all your heart and all your soul."

This big question-what does God ask of you?-and our portion of Ekev's answer begin a series of statements in Jewish tradition, attempts to distill from our large moral storehouse just what the essence, the ikar of Jewish ethics really is. What is it that God wants? What is the true standard we need to uphold to be considered morally good?

The section in Ekev lists a few things we need to do, for God's sake: first, revere God. Second, walk in God's ways; third, love God; fourth, serve God with all our hearts and souls. And fifth and finally, we are told that we must guard and do all the mitzvot, the commandments of God.

It's a clear and powerful list: fear God; walk in God's ways; love God; serve God; follow the commandments.

Five hundred years later the great prophet Isaiah distilled even these terse commands into a more concise version: Cease to do evil, learn to do good, he begins. And then he lists: seek justice; relieve the oppressed; uphold the orphan's rights; take up the widow's cause.

Both more pragmatic than the earlier text and shorter. First, Isaiah says, seek justice; second relieve the oppressed; third, fight for the widow and orphan. Of course, to start doing any of those, you must first stop doing evil, and learn how to be good. That is you must study, so that you can properly know what goodness actually consists of.

A century later the prophet Micah refined the formula again: he asked, "What does God seek of you?" Only to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.

A simple, clear and beautiful formulation of ethics. Do justice. Love mercy, not domination. Walk humbly with God.

Finally, Hillel, four hundred years later, a little over 2000 years ago, said it most concisely. Do not do to others what is hateful to yourself. All the rest is commentary. Now, go and learn.

Do no damage to others. Never seek to destroy another human being, for you would never wish that upon yourself. Be sensitive and decent. And, of course, learn Torah, study ethics so that you may best know how to live to this standard.

Of course, the assumption is that you will adopt one of these magnificent formulas. Whichever one you choose, it will be a high standard for how to live your life-but it's one you can achieve, if you choose to do so.

After all, it's what God wants... and so should we.

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