We are in the book of Deuteronomy, which is filled with Moses’s discourses to the Jewish people before they enter into the land of Israel.
Many times in this book, Moses tries to boil down all of the commandments and laws that he has been teaching the people into a short guideline that they can remember and hold onto, even when he is not among them.
In this week’s Torah reading, Ekev, Moses tries again: “And now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you? Only this: to revere the Lord your God, to walk only in God’s paths, to love God, and to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and soul” (Deuteronomy 10:12).
To revere and love God, to walk in God’s paths and serve God —this is what the whole Torah has been urging us to do.
The commandments and laws Moses has been teaching the people are the means; love and service of God are the ends.
Indeed, Maimonides teaches that love of God precedes all of the commandments.
But if this phrase of Moses’s sums up the goal of the whole Torah, why is it preceded by the word “only?” God asks “only” that we dedicate our lives to loving and revering God? “Only” that we walk in God’s paths and serve God with all our hearts?
This is no small thing that God is asking; it is a lofty goal toward which people can strive their entire lives. So what is the word “only” doing here?
Some argue that the word “only” is directed at the generation of the Exodus from Egypt. For the generation that has seen the sea part and heard God’s voice at Sinai, it may be “only” a small thing to do as God asks.
Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev taught that in those days reverence for God was a small matter for the people, because they had seen the great deeds of the Lord. “Give our generation the likes of the Exodus and see how for us too reverence for You will be a small matter!”
Others, however, argue that the word “only” is appropriate here because it refers to the sole aspect of our human lives that is under our control: our free will.
Rabbi Haninah taught: “Everything is in the power of Heaven except whether a person will choose to revere God” (Babylonian Talmud Berachot 33b).
Rashi explains: “All that happens to human beings is determined by God. Humans decide only whether they wish to recognize God’s presence and submit to God’s will or not. That is the extent of their free will.”
We are in control of so little about our lives, but, paradoxically, that little can determine whether God’s will on earth is done. Do we choose to protect the weak, to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, and to fight injustice? Or do we worship the strong, feed only ourselves, turn our eyes away from the poor, and ignore questions of justice?
Jewish tradition insists that although we may be limited in many aspects of our lives, we nonetheless have the power, through our choices, to tip the earth toward good or toward evil. God shaped the form of the earth, but God does not control the human heart. All that God asks from us is that we use our power for good. May we have “only” the strength we need to turn in the right direction.
Rabbi Adam Zeff serves as rabbi of Germantown Jewish Centre in Philadelphia. Email him at: [email protected] .