Shoftim: Jews must live whole-heartedly with God


Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9

Isaiah 51:12-52:12

This week's parashah brings us a fascinating glimpse of the political and juridical structure of the Israelite community. We find laws on judicial procedures, on the monarchy, priesthood and prophesy, on the just conduct of war and many admonitions regarding idolatrous practices the Israelites will find among the indigenous peoples of the Land of Israel. Hidden among all of these lies a stunning directive, a meta-mitzvah, that transcends them all.

Tamim tihiye im Adonai Elohecha. "Be whole-hearted with Adonai your God" (Deut. 18:13).

What does this overarching command mean? And why is it placed here, in the midst of a portion about the basic governing structures of the Israelite community?

As one might expect, the commentators love this remarkable bit of Torah. Nehama Leibowitz compares it to the command to love God "with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might," in Deuteronomy 6 (Studies in Devarim , P. 181).

The Chassidic Rebbe Pinchas of Koretz notes that there is no other mitzvah in all of Torah that we are commanded to do "with God," except for the much-loved admonition, "Walk humbly with God" (Micah 6:8). What distinguishes these two mitzvot, according to the rebbe, is that these two commands, "Be whole-hearted," and "Be humble," are easy to fake.

One can readily wear genuineness or humility as a mask, working hard at looking good to others, without doing the inner work that these mitzvot require. Hence the admonition to pursue these mitzvot "with God" — not just on the level of appearances, not just when there are others around, but in such a way that one's behavior and persona match the heart. "For God is the One who knows the hearts of all, while other people one can deceive" (Itturei Torah Vol. 6, P. 122).

Why, though, does this mitzvah appear in this particular segment of the parashah? The commandment to be whole-hearted with God appears immediately after one of Deuteronomy's many admonitions not to be drawn into the "abominations" practiced by the people of the land: divination, sorcery and necromancy, and forms of child sacrifice.

"When you enter the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not learn to imitate the abhorrent practices of those nations…For anyone who does such things is abhorrent to the Lord…Be whole-hearted with Adonai your God" (Deut. 18:9-13).

Moses knows that the land will hold many temptations for the Israelites, just re-entering civilization after years in the desert. The practices of the local people will seem exotic, intriguing, compelling. They will even seem spiritual; the Israelites are sure to feel that they could be natural extensions of Jewish practice. So he repeats again and again: Do not be tempted. These practices violate our most basic values. They will draw you away from God.

Sound familiar? For all of us raising children amid the multiple temptations of America, for all who care deeply for the well-being of the Jewish community, Deuteronomy's admonition rings true for our own time as well. How are we to teach our children to distinguish between harmless fun and soul-destructive activities and attitudes? How are we ourselves to recognize the fine line between embracing the many blessings of American life, and compromising our Jewish legacy?

Rebbe Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev offered an apparently simple comment on our verse that I believe contains deep wisdom for us. He turns our verse on its head and teaches, "If you will be with God, then you will be whole. You will not lack for anything" (Itturei Torah Vol. 6, P. 122).

This is no simple-minded declaration that "faith is the answer." The rebbe knew times of trouble, struggles that could not be resolved, questions that had no answer. Nonetheless, he teaches that genuine faith is the best response to temptation, confusion and threat to Jewish integrity.

Surely, our own journey amid the distorted values of America requires many things: passionate experiences of Jewish community, first-rate Jewish educational institutions, and devoted parenting, to name a few. But above all, perhaps the rebbe is right. It is our own wholeness, our own connection to God/the Source of Life, to that which is most true for us, that can best protect us, our children and our community. The rest is in the hands of God.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg
Rabbi Amy Eilberg

Rabbi Amy Eilberg serves as a spiritual director, peace educator and justice activist, and teacher of Mussar. More information on her work can be found at