Ekev: On basic morality, wisdom and fear of God

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Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25

Isaiah 49:14-51:3

Philosophers have devised all sorts of tests for morality. Quite a few seem abstract or idealistic. When theoretical formulations get translated into practice, some people, given the opportunity to do evil, just refuse. Even if the legal system approves of the evil act, even if the whole society rewards it, some people just refuse.

You can call it common decency, although it does not always seem particularly common. You can call it basic morality. The Torah calls it "fear of God."

When, for example, the midwives who serve Hebrew women do not carry out Pharaoh's orders to kill baby boys, the Torah praises them: "They feared the Lord" (Exodus 1:21).

When Joseph frees all but one of his brothers from prison, he explains his change of heart by pretending to be a kindly ruler: "I do fear God" (Gen. 42:18). A ruler who frees prisoners because of their needs exhibits fear of God.

When the King of Gerar challenges Abraham for presenting Sarah as his sister, Abraham justifies his actions. Abraham lied because he suspected that the people of Gerar would kill him to take his wife, as he says, "I thought that there is no fear of God in this place" (Genesis 20:11).

People who refrain from killing, raping, and imprisoning, even when the government approves of such behavior, exhibit fear of God. These, and other examples, illustrate that "A wise one who fears, turns from evil" (Proverbs 14:16).

In this week's reading, Moses our teacher asks the people: "What does God, your Lord, request of you but only to fear God, your Lord, to go in all his ways, to love him, to serve God, your Lord, with all your heart and all your soul, to keep the commandments of God, and his statutes, which I command you this day, that it shall be well with you? (Deut. 10:12-13). Fear of God comes first among the many virtues included in this list.

Now, this list seems quite extensive to be preceded by the word "only." Even the first item, "fear of God," seems like a large item. This question occurs in the Talmud: "Is fear of God small?…Yes, for Moses, it is small. What does this resemble? Ask to borrow a large vessel from someone who has one, and it seems small to him; from someone who has none, and it seems large" (Berakhot 33a).

This answer leaves some of the rabbis dissatisfied. Fear of God might seem small to Moses, but as he speaks to the people he must know that it remains a large demand for them.

Perhaps I can defend the Talmud's answer: Some of my most brilliant teachers, both in graduate school and at Yeshiva, had difficulty with the concept that other people need help to figure things out. Perhaps these brilliant thinkers had reached such a high level that they had trouble recognizing their students' lack of background knowledge or intellectual acuity.

Perhaps Moses had reached a level from which it was difficult for him to imagine his followers' moral weaknesses. For this reason, fear of God may have seemed like a small accomplishment to him.

A few months ago, the Judah L. Magnes Museum displayed interviews with those singularly brave and good people who rescued Jews during the Holocaust. Most of them refused to acknowledge that they had done anything extraordinary. They said things like, "What could I do? Refuse a place of refuge to a stranger in need? Of course I took them in." For those who have it, fear of God seems a small thing.

For those who recognize that they do not yet have it, remember the words of the Talmud: "All is in the hands of heaven except the fear of heaven" (Berakhot 33b). Factors beyond our control determine our health, beauty, wealth, intelligence; we ourselves determine our level of "fear of heaven."

As a corollary of this saying, one rabbi has reasoned, when we ask anything in our prayers, we may or may not be granted anything; but when we ask for fear of heaven, without doubt we receive it (Ohel Torah, cited in Maayanah shel Torah). "The beginning of wisdom is fear of God" (Psalms 111:10). Let us truly seek this moral courage.