This week’s Torah portion (Shoftim) includes a curious command to the person who is going to be King of the Israelites. The King has to write his own Bible scroll in order that he learn to fear G-d — not learn to love G-d but fear Him instead.
I find this to be a peculiar command because my instinct tells me that we are all technically supposed to look to the Bible to learn how to love G-d as well as fear him, and yet the King is just supposed to focus on what seems to be a negative aspect of his relationship with G-d.
I want to use this peculiarity as a jumping off point for a larger discussion on Fear and Love of G-d and see if through this article I can share a metaphor that might put a different perspective on how the Rabbis viewed the current Hebrew month of Elul and the holidays which follow it.
Because we tend to read this Torah portion around the time that we start the month of repentance leading up to Rosh Hashana (the Jewish new year), it piqued my curiosity to see if there was a larger context being hinted to by the unexpected nuance of this command to write a Torah scroll.
As I started reviewing the past few weeks of Torah portions, I discovered that there is a very obvious thread of fear of G-d that appears again and again each week. I won’t try the Rabbinic scholarly tactic of impressing you with quotes of each fear reference in the text. Rather I want to try a very different approach and suggest that fear of G-d is like the current in the ocean. It’s always there. Sometimes it’s moving fast and sometimes not much at all.
Either way though, tf you are in a boat, your boat is simply going to be moved along with the current or if there is no current just sit idly by until the current reappears. In a certain sense, as I learned recently from Rabbi David Bloch, one of my daughter’s teachers in Shalhevet high school in Los Angeles, you could think of this ocean current as a sort of Fate without any specific destiny in mind. It’s a history without any meaningful past or intended future.
But the ocean current is a state of affairs that we have to respect and almost admire because when you have a sensitivity to the currents, you also get a sense of where your boat is going to go. How does this idea of a fatalistic current connect with the notion of fearing G-d?
I think this part is pretty easy when you think of where the currents might be taking you. If you see a storm ahead or a waterfall or obstacles in the water, you want to do everything in your power to avoid the upcoming destruction. When a person obtains this type of awareness that he or she has no power once caught in the currents, that is when one can experience true fear and awe.
The King is in one respect an all mighty and powerful leader of People. Yet, this King needs that one handwritten Torah scroll to remind himself constantly of Who is really in charge. It’s possible that this is why the King is admonished from being too extravagant with wives and horses. These are two symbolic reminders that may remind us of another dominion going back to the story in Genesis when G-d says to Adam that he will rule over his wife. And we should remember that Adam is the one to name all the animals. When you consider that the Torah scroll is supposed to educate the King to Fear someone more powerful than him it’s not a big leap of faith to see that it might be easy for the King with all his power to get a really big head without the Torah scroll.
What about Love? Where does love of G-d fit into the picture – for us and for the King?
If we return to the metaphor of the boat, the love can be represented by the wind. I apologize for sounding so pedestrian in my writing here but this concept woke me up early on Sunday and truly I can’t dress this idea up in pretty language without tarnishing the raw power of what the wind can represent.
It’s clear we are all in our own boats guided by G-d’s rule over nature. And this situation is not something I would describe as a loving relationship. It’s fraught with fear and anxiety of what each day will bring us – especially when we feel powerless to control many aspects of our lives.
And yet, when our sails catch the wind, we can turn that boat even against the current and feel like we are able to exert a little more control over our lives. It makes sense that people would seek out G-d to attract His attention because only an external unnatural power can restore the balance that a world of judgment and fate can never find.
The wind gives us a sense of destiny that we are part of an ongoing decision-making process called life and that it can lead somewhere with a purpose and with meaning. G-d’s partnership is the potential he gives us to chart a course that can overcome the blind fates of ocean currents.
There’s one more piece to this puzzle which King David touched upon in the one Psalm that we now will recite two times daily for almost the next 2 months. Underneath this seesaw of love and hate there is one system that gives us the ability to harnesses those two awesome powers. That system is faith.
To put it as simply as I can, the same faith that sustains is in a world of fear and anxiety where G-d is hidden, is the same faith that we turn to when we feel G-d’s presence more clearly in our lives. What comes before comes after. What comes after was already there before.
If you read the Psalm of L’David Ori, it starts off with many references to fearful events. Who should I fear? What enemies should I fear? There’s a transition through the Psalm where the fear evaporates in favor of the Confidence that all will be well. And the final phrase says I will put my faith in G-d (Kaveh el Hashem) and with strength and courage in my heart I will again put my faith in G-d.
The reference to strength and courage (Chazak V’amatz) is an obvious textual reminder of Moshe passing the mantle of leadership to Joshua. Moshe tells Joshua that G-d will watch over him as he leads the Israelites into the promised land to fulfil the destiny that He promised to Abraham and his descendants. And Joshua understands that the strength and courage he needs to exhibit (and that we all need to exhibit) will bring the wind that is G-d’s love.
So as we go tonight into Elul and start the month of Repentance, let’s try to take the mantle from our parents (who we are told to Fear and Love) just as Joshua did from Moshe and pass it to our children thus continuing the cycle that will bring the world closer to the destiny it’s finally meant to inhabit.
P.S. If you really want to knock your own socks off, go look at the lyrics from Donovan’s first song he introduced into the United States called Catch the Wind. It’s pretty amazing that he captured the essence of this metaphor in his best selling hit.