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The Only Thing God Asks

The Only Thing God Asks

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat.

Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat candles: 7:41 p.m.
Torah: Deut. 7:12-11:25
Haftarah: Isaiah 49:14-51:3
Havdalah: 8:44 p.m.     

‘What does God ask of you, only to revere the Lord your God and to walk in all of His ways; to love Him and to serve God with all your heart and with all your soul; to observe the commandments of the Lord and His statutes for your good” [Deuteronomy 10:11-13].

Only? How can the Torah express such a difficult request in such an offhand manner?

Almost four decades ago, when teaching Talmud in Yeshiva University to those without previous yeshiva background, the star of the class was a brilliant young man who progressed from barely being able to read the words to real proficiency in analyzing a difficult commentary. At the end of the year, he decided to leave both YU as well his newly found Torah observance!

His explanation: “As a non-religious Jew, I would get up each morning asking myself how I wished to spend the day; as a religious Jew, I must get up each morning asking myself how God wants me to spend the day. The pressure is simply too intense for me to take…”

I was disappointed but I did understand his tension. Indeed, “he got it.” He understood that true religious devotion is more than praying at certain times and other do’s and don’ts. True religious devotion means dedicating every moment to answering a Divine call whose message you can never be certain that you correctly discern. It is difficult to be a religious Jew. So how can the Bible say, “What does the Lord your God ask of you but only … to love Him and serve…”

But only?

This question may be linked to a comparison made by the text between the land of Egypt and the land of Israel. Agriculture in Egypt is presented as easy compared to Israel,  a land of mountains and valleys, dependent upon the heavenly rains for water [Deut. 11:10-11].

Is the fact that Israel does not have a ready and plentiful source of water but is dependent upon the rains of Divine grace, and where agricultural activity is more arduous and precarious than in Egypt, a reason for praising Israel? It seems to me that Egypt is a far better option if we were to be given the choice!

Both the Torah and the Land of Israel are both called morasha or heritage [Exodus 6:8, Deut. 33:4]. The Talmud Yerushalmi explains that an inheritance (yerusha) is often received through no effort on the part of the recipient; a morasha, on the other hand, implies exertion, even sacrifice.

Those objects, ideals and people for which we have labored intensively and sacrificed unsparingly are the very ones we love and value the most. The Mishnah in Avot teaches, “In accordance with the pain is the reward.” My teacher and mentor Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik taught, “In accordance with the pain is the sanctity.” We learn from the word morasha that “in accordance with the pain is the love.”

The experiences which in retrospect give the most satisfaction and which everyone loves to recount are rarely the days of lazy relaxation but more usually the sacrifices during periods of poverty or the battles in time of war. Ask any parent about the special love he/she has for the child who needed the most care and commitment because of a serious illness or accident and you immediately understand the inextricable connection between commitment and love, intensive effort and emotional gratification. A life without ideals or people for whom one would gladly sacrifice is a life not worth living. A life devoid of emotional commitments is a life that has merely passed one by.

Jacobs’ 14 years of hard work for Rachel were “as only a few days” because of his great love for her, attests the Bible. A husband who has the privilege of easing the pain of his beloved wife, if but for a few moments, is grateful for the privilege.

And our commitment to God — with all our heart, soul and might — is a small thing to ask as long as it is an expression of our mutual love. In the final analysis, it is certainly for our good, because it gives ultimate meaning, purpose and eternity to our finite lives.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is the chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone, and chief rabbi of Efrat.


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