Ekev: Ask not what religion can do for you…

On your next visit to the mall, notice the advertising’s dominant theme: “Our product/service is all about you!”   Apparently, narcissism sells even better than sex appeal. 

Presumably, advertisers are playing to a fundamental tenet of human psychology: we are primarily about us.  Religion, at least in its best character, seeks to shift our priority away from the narrow, selfish, primacy of “us.”  

For example, this week’s Torah portion, Ekev, contains what one of my teachers, Rabbi Dr. Mordecai Finley, described as “The Best Summary of Judaism.”  The editors of the Jewish Study Bible call it a “striking transformation of the Decalogue” [Ten Commandments]:

And now, O Israel, what does YHWH your God ask of you except to hold YHWH your God in awe, to walk in all his ways and to love him and to serve YHWH your G-d with all your heart and with all your being, to keep the commandments of YHWH and his laws which I command you today, to have it go-well for you? … 

So circumcise the foreskin of your heart, your neck you are not to keep-hard anymore; for YHWH your God, he is the God of gods and the Lord of lords, the God great, powerful, and awe-inspiring, he who lifts up no face (in favor) and takes no bribe, providing justice (for) orphan and widow, loving the sojourner, by giving him food and clothing.  So you are to love the sojourner, for sojourners were you in the land of Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 10:12-19, Everett Fox translation). 

In other words, what does G-d require of us?  To not make our lives mainly about us.  

Many people seek “more spirituality.”  I suspect that this is, in part, a consequence of the spiritual emptiness of pursuing money and things, self-interest, self-gratification, self-expression, “having fun,” and “being happy.”  Not that there is anything wrong with prosperity.  Judaism does not value asceticism.  But it’s one thing to have a nice home, possessions, take nice vacations, etc. and quite another to prioritize these while marginalizing, discounting, or even ignoring the needs of others!   

Religion teaches that our priority should be to give.  Paradoxically, of course, it is in doing so that we receive.  Spirituality comes from acknowledging values, purpose, and a power greater than ourselves -- and then acting on this acknowledgment.  

You may remember the stirring lines of JFK’s 1961 inaugural address:  “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”  What you might not remember is that JFK began his address by acknowledging that: “… the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of G-d.”   He concluded it by saying “With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God's work must truly be our own.”

It seems to me that President Kennedy was echoing this week’s Torah portion.  To paraphrase, he was saying: “Ask not what religion can do for you -- ask what G-d expects of you; ask what you can do for others.” 

This Shabbat, why not think about how you can do more for others?  You’ll likely find that it will help not just them, but yourself.   

That’s the spirit! 

Shabbat shalom. 

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He who guards his mouth preserves his life
Proverbs 13:3