For the past several weeks, I have awoken to images of rockets sailing through skies blue and clear. Scrolling through social media sites over breakfast, tiny bodies of babies swaddled in shrouds for the dead float into view. Hate fueled rhetoric seems to prevail and I’ve been deeply disturbed by waves of vitriol coursing across my screen.
This week’s parshah, Eikev, asks a question many of us have asked ourselves. “And now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God demand of you?” (Deuteronomy 10:12). Human beings of different faiths have been responding to this question for centuries. It is likely from where the ubiquitous “Golden Rule” derives. Whether consciously or not, the answer lives in empathy, sensitivity, justice, honesty and reconciliation. Sadly, some have responded to this question with words of enmity and acts of unspeakable cruelty.
The parshah continues, “Only this: to revere the Lord your God, to walk only in His paths, to love Him, and to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and soul, keeping the Lord’s commandments and laws, which I enjoin upon you today, for your good” (Deuteronomy 10:12-13).
The simplicity of this explanation is exquisite. The execution, however, proves daunting. It is not especially difficult to light the Shabbos candles at the time proscribed by your local Chabad website. It’s of no effort to select a package of chickpeas boasting a hecksher, rather than its non-kosher counterpart. Transliteration makes it easy for all of us who struggle with Hebrew to print out a bracha and sanctify a glass of wine. Such “commandments” are easy.
But to love God, to serve the divine with every measure of our hearts and every impulse of our souls is a directive of monumental complexity. There are no lessons in loving what is ultimately unknowable. No handy guide exists for exerting control over the meandering emotions of a heart that seems to feel as it wants, rather than as we’d prefer. And as for the soul, where to find it within our own shadowy internal layers? There is no map.
There is, however, much brutality and inexplicable ugliness in our world. It resides not simply in behavior, but in words, thoughts and feelings, as well. It thrives on fear, divisiveness and the boiling pain inherent in life. It is both our creation and our nemesis. Because of this reality, our world can prove an insurmountable obstacle to loving and serving God. It is true we live in a world where people beat dogs to death, sexual assault is a global epidemic, and there are children in your community enduring abuse at the hands of those who should be their protectors. But it is equally true that we live in a world where people give of their own limited resources to provide for others in greater need. We are surrounded by individuals who endanger themselves to defend those more vulnerable. This planet is a place where people connect deeply with one another, offering the best of themselves to genuinely improve our world.
For me, cultivating whole-hearted love of God is an ongoing process. I do not always or regularly succeed. Sometimes, in the face of tragedy, the concept of God seems ridiculous to me. Such sentiments, I consider part of my own faith journey. I embrace the doubt and disillusionment as natural ebbs in the ceaseless tide of my relationship with God. And I re-commit, every day, to seeking the good, the extraordinary, the transcendent. These are not hard to find when you know where to look.
During the Holocaust, people of courage and great compassion risked their own lives to save others – friends, neighbors, even strangers. When the World Trade Center was attacked and so many lost their lives, many others from across the nation volunteered for the difficult task of sifting through the wreckage and helping to heal shattered communities. When I fled my last relationship like a fugitive, people I knew only in passing offered dishes, bookshelves, and a kitchen table. “Here, take this,” they all said, “I don’t need it. It’s yours.” This is where I find God.
I look for infinity in every flower, in each leaf of every tree, in raucous laughter, and sitting in stillness with someone I love. I find transcendence in orgasms, in soft and sweet snickerdoodle cookies, and rainy spring mornings camping on a mountain. It is the ocean, the majestic Tetons, and the surprise of butterflies on my walk to work, which still my mind for a second and allow me to see my soul. The everyday truly is extraordinary and we are extraordinary creatures.
For me, finding the divine in others alleviates destructive emotions like jealousy and spite. Embracing the routine as transcendental allows me to live side-by-side with the infinite. It is one conduit for cultivating love for a God I have never seen or heard. Sometimes, I think this is the true journey of faith – not necessarily to believe in something beyond our concrete reality, but to recognize it regularly within it.
Your feelings towards and about God are steps on your own path. They deserve careful thought and respect. Parshah Eikev reminds us that love can be part of our journeys, too. Find what brings joy and peace to your heart. Hugs from a good friend, a sick House beat, campy horror films from the 1980s– whatever it is you truly love. Declare it holy and accept it as such. It’s not a way of thinking so much as a means of relating. It will not negate or even lessen the tragedies of our world. But it may help us find balance and feel something we may ultimately be comfortable calling God.
Akiva Yael is an enthusiastic participant in all that is holy, including Torah study, powerlifting, and the beauty of our world.