What is it that God truly wants of us? In this week’s Torah portion, Ekev, Moses addresses this question directly: “And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you? Only that you revere the L-rd your G‑d” (Deuteronomy 10:12). The Talmudic Sages, surprised by this comment, ask “is reverence then such a small thing” (Berachos 33b). Moses’ use of the word “only” seems to suggest that the awe of God that is required of us is not difficult and not a lot to ask. The sages answer that Moses employs the term “only” because “in the case of Moses, it is a small thing.”
But the Alter Rebbe, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, is not satisfied with this response. He notes that Moses is speaking to the entire nation, not to himself. Therefore, regardless of how easy it may be for him to acquire awe of God, for the average person it is a difficult undertaking for sure. What God asks of us, therefore, seems to be quite a lot. This is completely contrary to Moses’ implication that God is not asking us for much, and certainly not more than can be expected of us.
The Alter Rebbe resolves this seeming contradiction as follows. “Each and every soul of the House of Israel comprises within it something of the quality of our teacher Moses” (Tanya, chapter 42). When the sages state that fear of God is not a difficult thing for Moses, the implication is that each of can achieve this lofty level by accessing the aspect of Moses within us. What is that aspect of Moses, and how can we attain it?
Moses, the sages teach, was the most humble man in history. In spite of his greatness, Moses stated regarding himself and his brother Aaron the high priest “venachnu mah/what are we” (Exodus 16:7). While the phrase is read as a question in the plain sense, it can also be read as a statement: “we are what!” What is this “what” that Moses pronounces himself to be?
“What” in Hebrew is “mah,” and the mystics explain that the word for wisdom in Hebrew, “chochmah,” is a compound of two words, “koach/power,” and “mah/what.” In other words, true 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.
“Mah/what” is thus an expression of ultimate humility. It is the recognition that one’s only reality is that s/he is an expression of Godliness. If so, then there is no reason to be proud or haughty, for all of one’s strengths and capabilities are not one’s own, but rather they are qualities of the infinite God flowing through this particular vessel. Moses was infused with this awareness, and therefore 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, he recognized that he was nothing but an instrument through which God expressed Himself in the world.
With this, we can now understand Moses’ statement of what it is that God requires of us, and how it is that the requisite “reverence of God” is readily attainable.
There is no punctuation in Torah, and therefore Moses’ phrase “what does the Lord your God require of you” can be read as a statement rather than a question. It states that “what/mah” is that which God asks of us. He does not ask us to be more than what we are, but rather to sincerely ask the question, “what am I?” He asks us to humbly and honestly inquire into the nature of our existence. What we will find when we do so is that we have not created ourselves or the universe in which we exist. Our faculties are not our own, and our manifold blessings are not self-generated. With the genuine humility of “mah/what,” we will discover that everything we have and everything we are is a part of a divine unity that is timeless and infinite.
This “mah” – the ability to overcome our ego and to view our reality through a more objective and universal lens – is the Moses within each of us that the Alter Rebbe refers to. It is the spark of Godliness that is in the core of all things that renders everything one regardless of its outer trappings.
All that God asks from us is that we cultivate this “mah;” that we make the time and space to step out of ourselves now and again in order to perceive the deeper nature of our existence. When we do so, we will find Him hidden deep within ourselves and deep within everything we encounter. This will inspire in us a tremendous awe and amazement, which is precisely the “reverence of the Lord your God” that Moses identifies as our “only” requirement.
In reality, of course, cultivating this “mah” attitude is no “small thing,” as the sages protest. Yet as the Alter Rebbe assures us, it is within the grasp of each of us. It requires discipline and devotion, but as an inheritance from Moshe Rabbeinu/Moses our teacher, we all have within us the “chochmah/wisdom” or “koach mah/power of what” that will enable us to shed our superficial casing and thereby discover our infinite Godly essence.