The Book of D’varim (Deuteronomy) is the fifth and final book of the Chumash. Essentially, it is the very long final speech that Moses orated to the Children of Israel as they camped on the eastern bank of the Jordan River, just across from the Land of Israel. The first third of the book largely consists of recounting the journeys through the desert and preparation for what God will expect of them when they finally enter Israel. The second third consists of a long series of commandments, one after the other in a seemingly haphazard sequence. The final third is the closing words of Moses – his prophecies of future prosperity and catastrophe depending on whether they follow the Torah, a long poem emphasizing the unique status of Israelite nation and their relationship with God, a series of special blessings for each tribe, finally ending with the death of Moses.
The particular section we will be examining comes towards the end of the first third. It is one of several interjections in the main narrative of the text that serve as dramatic reminders of who the Children of Israel are and why they have been chosen for their unique task. It consists of two verses (12-13) in chapter 10: “And now Israel, what does Hashem, your God ask of you, except to fear Hashem, your God, to walk in all of His ways, and to love Him, and to serve Hashem, your God with all of your heart and with all of your soul; To keep the commandments of Hashem, and His statutes that I command you today, for your good.”
This little speech, by the way, is the closest to a statement of the purpose of life that can be found in the Chumash. So what does it mean? What is the purpose of life? On the surface, it’s all very simple – what God wants from us is exactly what the verse says:
1) To fear God
2) To walk in God’s ways
3) To love God
4) To serve God with a full heart and soul
5) To keep the commandments
If one has accomplished these five things, that person has surely met the requirements for fulfilling God’s expectations. Is there anything more to it?
The truth is that these expectations all boil down to the singular goal of gaining a personal and palpable awareness of God. This, in and of itself, is a major hurdle that most of us haven’t the foggiest idea of how to go about acquiring. What does ‘awareness of God’ really mean anyway? How can one become aware of something that isn’t really ‘there’ in any sense that we are familiar with? Can we see God? Can we feel God? Can we hear God? It is precisely because of unsettling questions like these that many Jews, both now and in the past, have either rejected all notions of religion and belief in God, or latched on to a religion with a more palpable image of deity, such as Christianity.
The 5-step program listed above reads as a kind of guide to achieve the elusive and yet tantalizing state that can be called ‘God consciousness’. It is the Jewish program of achieving spirituality. A spiritual experience is one in which God consciousness is attained, regardless of one's image of God. This, in a nutshell, is what the verses in Deuteronomy are telling us – have God in your mind; have God in the forefront of your mind; feel God’s presence like you feel the presence of a loved one; stand before God like you would stand in awe of a bolt of lightening. In fact, those verses state that this is all God asks of us. This is what really matters. But how is this to be done?
First we must discuss the vague and controversial concept known as God. How do we imagine God to be? It is likely that the image of God has varied at different times and situations of Jewish history. The image of God in the Bible changes: God can appear as a Man of War, as an enthroned King surrounded by angels, as a Friend of those in need, as a compassionate Father, a stern Judge, as a patient Guide, or as the Biblical God of vengeance. Ultimately, God ended up as the Creator, an increasingly distant being whose reality can only be known through His creations and His guiding hand through history. In more recent centuries, a new image has emerged – that of the omnipresent ‘Presence’, the Source of all being, the Will that shapes the course of reality.
To fear this 'Presence' is not the same as trembling before the Biblical Judge. This image does not evoke fear in the traditional sense. Rather, the emotion aroused by conscious awareness is one of awe. Awe is a rather elusive emotion that most of us experience only at singularly inspired moments that are rarely self-made. It is a wonderful feeling in the literal sense of the word ‘wonderful’, and can be a highlight of a lifetime. It is a taste, but only a taste, of what God asks of you.
To be aware of this Presence at all times and at all places, to have it penetrate one’s very existence, to sense it in one’s thoughts, to feel it pulsing through all life, to detect it in the stillness or the power of the inanimate universe – this is to be in awe of God. There is no moment in time and no situation in life in which this experience is unavailable. There are no spaces ‘empty’ of the awesome Presence of God. The Presence may be veiled at times and seem almost infinitely remote at others, but it is always ‘there’. One need not be a theologian to experience the awe of God; one need not even be particularly religious in the traditional sense. But one must be open and ready for it, and dedicated to seeking it out when it isn’t apparent. To be in awe of God is to be alive with a capital A.
Parallel to the experience of awe is the equally powerful and subtle emotion of love. Love, unlike awe, is a common emotion, and one that we generally crave to both give and to receive. But love, like awe, is overwhelming, and makes all else seem trivial in comparison. What is more natural than a mother putting aside all her pressing problems because her child is ill or upset? Is her child’s pain worth more than some urgent business matter she must attend to? The very question is irrelevant to the truly loving mother, irrelevant to the point of seeming almost sacrilegious. Love consumes all, just as awe overpowers all.
How does one love God? The traditional way, is to focus one’s thoughts on the great kindnesses that God does for us. Giving us life, providing us with food and energy, enabling us to experience the wonders of the world, filling our lives with meaning – these are examples of the myriad of ways in which one could develop a genuine love for Creator of the universe. It’s simply a matter of reorienting one’s outlook. Instead of taking all those things for granted like a spoiled child would react to a large supply of birthday presents, one must learn to see the gifts of life and all its blessings as just that – blessings. A blessing is something that must be appreciated. It cannot be seen as something that one had coming anyhow. This crucial difference in outlook – from indifferent to appreciative - translates into the difference between a selfish and a selfless person. It is the key to the love of God.
But the enlightening revelations of the modern world and the discoveries of science in particular, have placed a major block in our ability to make this transition. It is not so easy to appreciate being alive if life is just a random collection of atoms arranged in a rather fortuitous manner. We first shoved God to the remotest regions of creation by replacing miracle with nature, and then made God irrelevant by rejecting the natural for the man-made. Can a person truly feel love or awe for the random effects of evolution by natural selection? Can we genuinely feel God-conscious when texting in a climate controlled vehicle. The wonders of science and technology have done a suburb job of pushing God out the back door and taking all ‘wonder’ out of life. Can God be awed or loved in the modern world?
This is probably the most important religious question for the 21st century God-seeker: How can one develop and maintain an authentic awareness of God in the face of the overwhelming onslaught of technology? It is a modern day search for the Holy Grail. Where does one look for God today? How does one go about it? The answer will have to be personal, as the standard ‘one size fits all’ answers of traditional religion will only work for those who have already ‘bought in’. It will need to cut through the layers of artificiality that permeate modern life, while penetrating and accommodating the discoveries of science. It will need to be both deep and accessible, to satisfy for the moment while inspiring further searching. Is there such an answer?
If you are looking for the spiritual equivalent of a fortune cookie, the kind of thing you could put on a bumper sticker or across a T-shirt, or even read on the back of a box of herbal tea, we don’t have one. However, we do have a suggested path with guideposts to look for. The following may be of assistance in whatever direction your search takes you:
Try searching for God in those areas that still remain outside the domain of science and technology – the stark reality of existence and the profound sense of meaning in life are the two best starting points. They are difficult and elusive, but they are also endless.
Do not get discouraged. This is a quest. It is not a quick glance at a website. It will take time and effort.
Find a companion or two who can join you at least part of the way.
Be ready to change your life if necessary.
Recognize that this is among the most important things that you will ever do in life.
Have faith that there is an answer. God, whatever that may be to you, awaits your presence just as you seek God’s presence.
Start today, if you wait for tomorrow it will never happen.
Don’t limit yourself to intellectual routes. Allow your emotions to guide you and illuminate your path. Your actions also can reveal God. Look for God’s presence in your own deeds.
Put your heart and soul into it. Searching for God is a lifelong task.
Write down your results. Share them with others. This is your spiritual diary. In a sense, you will be writing your personal Torah.
The search for God is more than a religious mission. It goes beyond the limits of any one religion and even beyond the standard horizons of religion itself. It is really a search for meaning in life. If one has found meaning in life, that person has found a pathway to God. Meaning in life is a disguise for God, a disguise that is so effective that usually we are unaware that God lurks behind those singular moments of clarity. Awe and love are two of the most promising means to find God’s hidden presence, but they are not the only means. There were three other paths on that list: walking in God’s ways, complete devotion to serving God, and observance of the commandments. We shall encounter them as we proceed further on in this study. Find your path and search. It is all God asks of you.
Food for Thought
God-consciousness is almost invariably difficult to sustain. It seems that only a small number of individuals are ‘naturals’ and the rest of us have to struggle to get anywhere. Why does God-consciousness have to be so hard? Is there a shortcut?
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