I want to ask you a question.
Who do you live your life for?
If you’re religious, the answer which will most probably pop into your head is “God. I live my life for God, according to the commandments that God set out for me in God’s Book.” It is, I will admit, a suitably religious answer, one that will find approval in the circles of fervent worshippers the world round. The thing is … is that really the way you’re meant to live your life?
Another question, if I may: God, being definitionally perfect, is not in need of anything. This being the case, why would you live your life for God when God clearly doesn’t need anything from you?
Now, I’ve obviously set up a straw man here, and I’m not about to go into the long and complicated philosophy that lies behind the question I’ve posed above. Rather, I would like to suggest to you an alternative answer to my first query, one that is almost sacrilegious, and yet one that, as we’ll see, could bring us closer to God than ever before.
The Torah opens the portion this week with famous words, perhaps amongst the most well known in all the Bible: “And the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go for yourself, from your land and from your birthplace and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you…’” (Gen 12:1). Famously, the medieval commentator Rashi comments on this verse “Go forth: Heb. לֶךְ לְךָ, lit. go for/to you, for your benefit and for your good…” (Rashi, ibid.) God then proceeds to promise Abram all the things that would benefit him in this world: “And I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you [Rashi: with money], and I will aggrandize your name, and [you shall] be a blessing” (Gen. 12:2).
What God is saying to Abram in the short discourse above – the first, mind you, between God and Abram – is stunning in its simplicity yet profound in its depth.
Service of God is not for God, it’s for you. God isn’t interested in service of God for God’s sake – if God was, God would have written, “Go for Me” rather than “Go for you”. Ultimately, it is us who benefit from our relationship to God. When we realise this, and we begin to reorient our lives and say, “it is in my best interests to serve God. I want to serve God because this is the most objective good there could possibly be and I want to be connected to it,” our service suddenly takes on a new form.
When people serve God for God, they get all sorts of weird ideas about how they need to behave and to what extent they need to engage in the world. In the second verse of the chapter, God immediately shows us that it is through the very world God created, in its fullest splendour, that we may serve God in the best way. God promises Abram riches, fame, and children will come of his serving God. Abram takes this so seriously that he offers his wife to Pharaoh in order to get money! “Please say [that] you are my sister, in order that it go well with me because of you, and that my soul may live because of you” (Gen 12:13). Notice which Abram put first – his money and then his life!
When one is fully engaged in this world, and living truly for themselves, recognising their own self-worth in God’s world, they become fully able to give back to God’s world, to engage in ḥesed. When one truly appreciates the value of his own life, he can recognise that worth in another human being. However, when one lives his life in the gutter, totally oriented towards God and removed from this world, ḥesed, and any other mitsva go out the window – if you don’t think you have any self worth, how you can you recognise that in another person?
Let us learn from Abram, let us immerse ourselves fully in this world, living our lives for ourselves, connecting to God because we recognise it is the ultimate good and not out of some misguided notion that we should live for God. Then, only then, will we be able to recognise the true value of all of creation, and then, like Abram, our ḥesed will truly shine.