And now, O Israel, what does the Lord, your God, ask of you? Only to fear the Lord, your God, to walk in all His ways and to love Him, and to worship the Lord, your God, with all your heart and with all your soul,
At first glance, Moses seems to be asking very little of the Children of Israel. But when we read the second sentence taken from this week’s Torah portion we understand that G-d “only” wants everything. Everything?
Actually, not so. Despite the sins of Israel, Moses has touched upon G-d’s basic request. He is not asking for donations to the Temple, sacrifices for the altar or even Jewish scholarship.
As Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, the 11th Century commentator Rashi, puts it, G-d wants a little respect. The Torah calls it “fear.”
“Even though,” Rashi writes, “that you did all this [sins], His mercy and love are with you. And with all that you sinned before Him, He is not asking from you anything but fear.”
What is fear? It is not what we know of as fear — which involves distrust, distance and hate. It is not the 1933 movie “King Kong” where the cannibals on Skull Island regularly bring a human sacrifice to assuage an evil deity. It is not a Christian god that essentially retired and left the job to his son. It is not a Muslim god in which surrender is everything and human life means little.
The G-d of Israel is exactly that: He cares about Israel as a father for his children. He’s not interested in intimidating people; He wants to bring them close. His requirements are not meant for Himself, rather for the good of His people. The proof is that G-d wants us to love Him.
How do you love G-d? Ovadiah Sforno, the 16th Century Italian commentator, explains that love of G-d is achieved through learning His ways. Those ways are good and meant for the good of the people.
“And all that He asks is for our good, so that you will merit the next world,” the Sforno said.
Rabbi Haim Ibn Ittar, the 18th Century Moroccan kabbalist known as the Or Hachayim, says G-d actually wants two things from His people. The first is to fear Him — to respect and observe His commandments, to understand that He created the world and runs everything. He has not retired and does not take vacations.
When a Jew can fear G-d, he can ascend to the level of love. That love will bring the Jew to eagerly follow G-d’s ways. Would G-d ever tell a lie? The Jew wants to be as honest as his maker. Would G-d ever take advantage of the weak, poor or convert? The Jew is determined to be as careful.
The nations are aware of the way a Jew can transcend the foibles of man. They are both fascinated and wary of this trait. The Talmud tells of a poor Jewish man who found a gold box and returned it to a Roman matriarch. The matriarch told his advisers, “May there not be anybody else like him in Israel.”
Her advisers were stunned. The Jew had just returned a priceless treasure and this was the matriarch’s response? She explained that this Jew could have easily kept the box, also filled with gold coins. It would have made him rich. The Romans were cruel to the Jews and nobody would have thought otherwise.
Instead, the Jew acted the way G-d would: He returned the lost item to its rightful owner, regardless of her nationality. The matriarch was certain that if there was one more Jew as honest, the conquered Jewish nation would be able to throw off the yoke of Rome and achieve divine redemption. The G-d of Israel would have ensured that. That’s what she didn’t want.
And yet Moses in our Torah portion seems to belittle the difficulty in fearing and loving G-d. The 18th Century hasidic master, Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev, says Moses might have very well found fear and love of G-d easy. Moses was a humble man, with no thought for airs and graces. It was because of his humility that he merited to be born at a time of great oppression by Pharaoh.
“When he looked at himself, that he was born in the merit of fear, then this is a small thing,” Levi Yitzhak said.
G-d is the paragon of humility. When G-d made man He consulted with the angels, an earlier creation. When the 99-year-old patriarch Abraham was in pain from circumcision, G-d visited the first Jew. G-d allows the rabbinical court to determine the new month as well as the holidays. Even the fast of Yom Kippur is the domain of the sages rather than the heavens.
In the 13th Century, Rabbi Moses Ben Nachmanides, or the Ramban, would sent frequent letters from the Land of Israel to his son, Nachman, in Spain. The Ramban’s son needed advice as well as encouragement: He was fighting for the survival of the Jews in a hostile land that imposed Christianity.
At first glance, the Ramban’s advice seemed almost inane. He didn’t quote Spanish law or come up with a strategy to win favor from the royal court. The son was merely told to improve his character: That was the secret to ensure the welfare of Israel.
“Always be bashful and merciful and do good deeds because through these traits the seed of Israel will be publicized…,” the Ramban wrote.