What do you want from me?!
Have you ever uttered that expression? In a moment of exasperation, perhaps. Or a moment of exhaustion and surrender. To a spouse, a parent, or even a friend. You’ve done something inappropriate, maybe. Or you’ve said the wrong thing. We all do it from time to time. And then we apologize (hopefully). We admit our fallibility. I’m only human, we say, “what do you want from me?”
“What do you want from me” can be offered as an excuse – as in “what do you really expect from me?” Or it can be a genuine question, as in “what do you want me to do, what can I say, how can I make it right?”
Did you ever pose the question to God? In a moment of frustration or defeat. When things are not going your way and it feels as if everything is against you. Have you dropped to your knees and thrown up your hands and cried to the heavens, “what do You want from me, God?!”
Or maybe in a quiet time of reflection or devotion. Sitting introspectively, thinking back on your life and looking forward to where it’s all headed. How have I done so far, you wonder. Am I using this precious life as I should? Have I missed the point and missed the target? What is it that You really want from me, God? Why did You create this universe, and what is the role that I am supposed to play in it?
It is a big question. THE big question perhaps. But its answer is actually very small.
The question is asked explicitly in this week’s Torah portion, Eikev. As Moses exhorts the nation, reviewing key events that have occurred in the desert and preparing them for the upcoming journey into the promised land, he declares, “and now O Israel, What does the Lord your God ask of you” (Deuteronomy 10:12).
At this moment, the people were undoubtedly at the edge of their seats. We, as we read the verse, must similarly be wide eyed with excitement and anticipation. Yes, tell us! What is it that He wants from us? Make it plain and clear so that we can know it without confusion and fulfill it without delay. The Torah is long and dense, and here is finally a verse that can offer us a simple and concise summary of its meaning and message.
But the answer that Moses goes on to provide is not so simple. “Only to fear the Lord your God and to follow all His ways and to love Him, and to serve the Lord your God with your whole heart and your entire being; to keep the Lord’s commandments and statutes that I am commanding you today so that it will be well with you.”
“Only” all this?! Moses begins with “only,” as if asking for our “whole heart” and our “entire being” is not so much to ask. Even the Gemara wonders at Moses’ seeming minimization. “Is this reverence such a small thing,” the Sages ask. And they answer, “in the case of Moses, it is a small thing” (Berachos 33b).
But as the Alter Rebbe points out in Tanya (chapter 42), Moses is not speaking to himself. He is speaking to the entire nation. He is speaking to us! And for us – we who are far from Mount Sinai and far from perfect – such an answer may feel overwhelming and beyond our capabilities. In response to our question of what God wants from us, we were hoping for an answer that we could digest and act upon. In essence, what we received was a booming and daunting retort: “Everything!”
Yet the Chassidic Masters see a more simple and accessible message in Moses’ opening words. While the verse is simply read as a question – “what does the Lord your God ask of you?” – the Tzemach Tzedek reads the phrase as a statement: “What” does the Lord your God ask of you. In other words, what God asks of each of us is “what.” The answer to this enormous and fundamental question is a single word: “what,” or “Mah” in the Hebrew original.
What is “what”?
“Mah/what” is a powerful and holy word. It was expressed by Moses when he and Aaron were challenged by the entire nation and blamed for their struggles in the desert. “Ve’nachnu mah/What are we” (Exodus 16:7), Moses uttered in an expression of complete self-effacement. While the phrase is read as a question in the plain sense, it can also be read as a statement: “we are what!” In other words, we are nothingness. Though he was the leader of the nation, the one man who had spoken to God face to face and had stood up to Pharaoh and the entire army of Egypt, Moses recognized that he was nothing but an instrument through which God expressed Himself in the world.
This is true wisdom – the awareness that we are “nothing” in and of ourselves, and we are simply expressions of Godliness. In fact, the very word for “wisdom” in Hebrew, “chochmah,” is an articulation of this understanding. “Chochmah,” the Chasidic masters teach, is a compound of the words, “koach/power” and “mah/what.” Wisdom is thus “the power of what.” In other words, wisdom is the enlightened capability to ask ‘what am I’ – what is my ultimate essence and ultimate worth – and to recognize that I am nothing in and of myself.
This is what God asks of us. This is the “what” that He wants us to discover and express. He asks us to be humble, to recognize His Oneness and to align ourselves with it. He desires for us to know WHAT we are – that is, that we are simply “mah/what.”
What God asks from us is extremely simple, but simplicity can be incredibly difficult. Letting go of our ego can feel like a tremendously heavy task, but the truth is that “letting go” can be far easier than holding on. The effort we are expending in grasping who and what we believe ourselves to be is much greater than the energy it would take to relinquish our grasp and set ourselves free.
“What do you want from me God” – next time you have the question, express it not as a question, but an answer. Take a deep breath, close your eyes, and recite the verse from parshas Eikev:
“V’atta Yisrael, mah A-donai E-lohecha shoel me’imach/and now O Israel, WHAT does the Lord your God ask of you!”
Recite it over and over again if you like. Let it be a mantra whenever you are unsure.
He wants you to calm your raging self. He wants you to know that He is One and that you are therefore subsumed in, and united with, everything. With this, you will come to be at peace with yourself, your neighbors, and your surroundings. You will find meaning and purpose in expressing the inherent Godliness that acts and manifests through you.
This is what we want, and this is the “what” that He wants for us.