Eikev: With Heart and Throat

August 14, 2011 at 11:39 am | Posted in Eikev | Leave a comment

What does God want from us?  Moses asks and answers that question, as old as human history, in this week’s Torah portion, Eikev (“following on the heels of”).  And the answer still means something, even for those of us who define God as a state of being rather than as the omnipotent ruler of the universe.

And now, Israel, what does God, your god, request from you?  Nothing but to be in awe of God, your god; to walk in all God’s paths; and to love God; and to serve God, your god, with all your levav and all your nefesh; to observe the commands and decrees of God that I am commanding you today for your own good.  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 10:12-13)

levav = heart; seat of thoughts and feelings and understanding; inner self, consciousness

nefesh = throat; appetite; the soul that animates the body; life force

Long-time readers of this blog are already acquainted with the Hebrew words levav and nefesh.  Both words refer to parts of human anatomy that are metaphors for aspects of being human.  But why does God require service with all our “heart” AND all our “throat”—both in last week’s Torah portion (check out Deuteronomy 6:5), and again this week?

In modern terms, we might translate the phrase as “with all your mind and all your body”.  So the two verses translated above mean we must direct all our conscious feelings toward both awe and love of God, and make all our conscious decisions so they follow God’s paths.  Furthermore, our conscious feelings and decisions must become so habitual that our bodies instinctively react that way.  And it takes both our minds and our bodies to keep on observing (paying attention to, guarding) the rules Moses laid out for going God’s way.

If you define God as the omnipotent ruler of the universe, obviously doing all this is “for your own good”.  We get more rewards and fewer punishments when we go along with human authorities, so it seems reasonable that the same would be true for going along with a divine authority.  When we provide what the boss wants from us, we get more of what we want from the boss.

Do you define God as the omnipotent ruler of the universe?  That definition is certainly implied in the book of Deuteronomy.  And the Talmud, commenting on the passage above, claims that God rules everything except our own feelings.  “Everything is in the hands of Heaven, except the awe/fear of Heaven.”  (Talmud, Berakhot 33b)

Jewish liturgy applies this definition of God in its repeated use of the phrase “melech ha-olam”, literally “king of the world/universe/eternity”, in formal blessings and prayers.  And many people today, in several different religions, view God as the omnipotent ruler of the universe.

I do not.  Maybe it’s because I grew up in a family of athiests, but the only rulers I know of are human decision-makers.  I don’t even view “nature” as the ruler of the universe, since “nature” doesn’t make decisions; it just is.

Yet the two verses I translate above still speak to me, even though in my own “heart” I use the slippery word “God” to name a mystery that my rational mind can describe as a state of being, and my intuitive mind identifies as the source and goal of my yearning.

I encourage and cultivate my yearning for “God” in ways that Jews have cultivated their awe and love of “God” ever since the fall of the second temple, almost 2,000 years ago:  through Torah study, through prayer, and through noticing the wonders of this world (from the bug crawling on a leaf to my husband smiling at me).  All three practices lead to feeling awe, love, and gratitude for … what?  Why not call it “God”, in English or Hebrew?

Okay, so I’m working on two of God’s requests in this week’s Torah portion:  feeling awe and feeling love.  What about walking in all God’s paths, and serving God with all my levav and all my nefesh, and following all the rules passed on by Moses?

I can’t prove it, but I believe all this studying, praying, and noticing I’m doing does lead to making better decisions (in my levav) and creating better habits (in my nefesh), so I walk more often on the right paths, and better serve the spirit of God within me.  I don’t follow exactly the same set of rules Moses gives in the Torah (though I do pay attention to them, and think about them, when I study Torah).  But I work on following, as best I can, an informal set of rules for behavior that my own branch of Judaism agrees upon.  And I like myself more, so perhaps all these practices are indeed for my own good.

What God wants from me is, apparently, the same as what I want from my orientation toward God.

Am I just being self-centered?  I don’t know, but I take comfort in the double name of God that first appears in the book of Deuteronomy.  In the verses above I translate the double name as “God, your god”, but the Hebrew actually uses two different words for “God”.  The first one is the four-letter name of God, spelled with the Hebrew equivalents of Y-H-V-H and related to the verb “to be”.  Jews refer to it as Hashem, “The Name”, and treat it as sacred.

The second word appears sometimes in Deuteronomy as Eloheynu, “our god”, sometimes as Eloheykhem, “your god” (the god of all of you being addressed), and sometimes, including the verses above, as  Eloheykha, “your god” (the god of you, one person in particular).  The implication is that the God of all be-ing is also a god that we, you, and I have a relationship with.

What does God want from you?  Relationship, connection, direction.  You can deduce it from the verses quoted above.  What do you want from God?  Relationship, connection, direction?

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