By Reb David
This week’s Torah portion (Re’eh) recaps key aspects of Jewish law and life – monotheism, freedom, the holiday cycle and dietary laws. Perhaps its most important line, however, is a deceptively simple call for us to “walk in God’s ways” (Deut. 13:5), literally “After YHVH your God you will walk” (אַחֲרֵי ה׳ אֱלֹהֵיכֶם תֵּלֵכוּ). What does this mean?
It seems easy to understand the idea of following God when God offers something physical to follow: the Book of Exodus ends with the image of Israel literally following God’s “cloud by day and fire by night” through the desert (Ex. 40:38). God, however, isn’t to be seen (Ex. 33:20); God is rarely even to be heard except as a “still, small Voice” (1 Kings 19:12). And if “God’s ways” were just Torah’s laws and traditions, then Torah would tell us just to follow them: Torah wouldn’t also need to say “walk in God’s ways.”
We’ve been tripping over this line ever since. Talmud asked, “How can a human being walk after God?” Talmud’s answer was to “walk after the attributes of God” (B.T. Sotah 14a):
As God clothes the naked — as in ‘And God made for Adam and his wife coats of skin, and clothed them’ (Gen. 3:21) – should we also clothe the naked. God visited the sick, as in, ‘God appeared to [Abraham after his circumcision] by the oaks of Mamre’ (Gen. 18:1) — so should we also visit the sick. God comforted mourners — as in, ‘And it came to pass after the death of Abraham, that God blessed Isaac’ (Gen. 25:11) – so should we also comfort mourners. God buried the dead — as in ‘And God buried [Moses] in the valley’ (Deut. 34:6) – so we should bury the dead.
Clothe the naked, visit the sick, comfort the mourner, bury the dead, be merciful and gracious – these are what it means to walk after God’s attributes. We cannot squeeze or freeze these attributes into any specific set of laws or traditions, though laws and traditions are important, any more than we can hope to squeeze or freeze God into any one form. Maybe that’s why Torah gives us both – specific laws, but also an overarching updraft to aspire and reach high.
In a recent bnai mitzvah lesson with young adults, we studied the Holiness Code that includes the words “Be holy, for I, YHVH your God, am holy” (Lev. 19:2). We asked what these words might mean: how can humans be holy, any more than we can “walk after God”? At first the young adults offered a list of behaviors – follow law, obey parents, etc. – but quickly switched into offering a list of attributes. To be holy, they said, was to love… have compassion… be forgiving… not hold a grudge… be generous… be kind…. be patient. To be holy, they decided, is to see the world as God sees the world, and try to do as God would do.
“And a little child will lead them” (Isaiah 11:6).