Love of God

We are taught to love God with all our heart, all our soul, and all our might. Our tradition suggests that this love of God comes from our being wholehearted in it, with understanding and feeling, with the very breath of life, and with our strength and best resources.

Yet, even with this profound and lovely guidance, we look for more specific ways we can feel and express this love of God.

The details of doing that are our life’s work, but here are some approaches that may help us begin:

1. Think about, study, and teach God’s words.

2. Look for guidance in how to live with righteousness, justice, compassion, and mercy in ways that God teaches in the words.

3. Endeavor to live in these ways so that love of God by others is encouraged.

4. Draw close to God in both taught and inborn ways to respond to God’s call to draw near.

5. Beyond acting on learning, search inside for, and act on, a native yearning to seek to cleave to God.

6. Grow this love in strength and scope over time, and have hope for a flowering of loyalty, trust, and faith that grows alongside.

7. Above all else, make time and space for love of neighbor, for, in our loving others, we show a love that brings a particular delight to the Divine.

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The Promised Land

As we begin the last book of Torah – the account of Moses’ final words in Deuteronomy to the people before they enter the promised land – we surely begin to wonder, “what is the promised land, and how do we approach it?”

On one level, we know what it is. We’ve been taught at an early age that this is the land of Israel, the physical land that God promised us as part of the covenant. The Jewish people have lived in that land for some 3,000 years. So, this is a profoundly true answer.

But is there something more? Can the idea of the promised land have an additional, important meaning to us?

Is it not also the terrain, wherever we are physically, especially within our souls and spirit, where we live in covenant with God?

We are promised this “land” when we live in divine covenant. And we risk losing our place of God when we don’t. And what a promise it is – a place with the Eternal for now and forever!

Moses emphasizes in this portion a crucial pathway to the land – the paramount importance of trusting in God and God’s support. “Don’t fear them, for it is the Lord your God who will battle for you,” Moses says.

We have many “thems” in our lives. But trust in God’s saving hand against all of them must be central to our spirit and consciousness as we prepare to live in the broad expanse of God’s promise.

Vows and Oaths Matter

The first instruction Moses conveys in the final two portions of Numbers is to the leaders, and it is about the importance of keeping vows to God and being bound to sworn oaths.

Why does Moses instruct the leaders in this way, and what’s crucial about vows and oaths?

Moses certainly knows how important it is to get things right with the new leaders of the community. His time as leader is limited. And what should matter more to him here than being sure leaders prize one’s holding to vows and oaths?

The strength of a community may depend more than anything else on the degree of fidelity to which its leaders and its members honor vows and oaths. If leaders, in particular, can make vows and oaths and regularly fail to fulfill them – whether due to political whim or change of heart or grabs for power – then surely the community will itself likely be rudderless and headed in unclear and uncertain directions.

Vows and oaths are made up of what? Words! It was through words that the world was created. And so it is through words that our world of vows and oaths is created. We must be true and honorable in building that world.

Yet, in the very next verses, the text discusses those situations in which a vow or oath should not be enforced. How can that be?

Our faith is not easy, nor is the way God makes for us. Vows and oaths are indeed central and are to be honored. But in the rare occasion when even deeper core values, such as justice and righteousness and mercy, would be offended by holding one to a vow or oath, there should be relief.

All of this brings us back to Moses’ instruction. He knew how important it was for his successors to have the wisdom both to know vows and oaths matter and to understand the rare occasion when relief from being bound to them ought to be granted.

May each of us garner that wisdom in our own day.

What To Value in a Successor

God permits Moses to see the promised land from the heights of Abarim but reminds him that he will die before the people go in.

Yet, in the very next verse, irrespective of the certain pain he must have felt, Moses makes a powerful appeal to God to appoint a strong leader for the people to take them forward.

The simple act of putting aside his own personal feelings in the interest of caring for and providing for the people is moving enough. But what makes these verses so extraordinary is the power, beauty, and substance of the appeal itself.

First, Moses addresses God as the source of the spirit of all. That is, he calls out to the Divine in a way that connects himself, the people, and God at the deepest level.

Second, Moses asks for a leader who will go out before and come back before the people, and will take them out and bring them in. One might wonder how both are possible.

Moses knows both truths. The leader must anticipate ahead of need and have the drive, courage, and strength to lead ahead. Yet, the leader must, at the same time, be with the people wherever they may be in the journey.

Third, Moses wants to assure that the people are not like sheep without a shepherd. There must be a leader who cares, nurtures, prods, and, above all else, prevents straying or, at least, effects return.

How moving it must have been to God, and it is to us, that we have a teacher who put love of, and service to, God and the community above all else by caring so much that there be the right successor .

What God Wants Us To Be

Much has been written about the rather mysterious diviner/magician Balaam. Was he a spokesperson for God who represented the outer world in viewing and blessing Israel, or was he a conniver who ultimately led the people to sin at Peor? This brief essay doesn’t altogether resolve that question.

What’s remarkable to me about Balaam is that though he was retained by Balak to curse the Israelites he instead blesses them in accord with God’s hopes.

These blessings are extraordinary. They tell us a lot about the people God wants us to be.

First, we are to be separate, that is, we are to serve God above all else, even, and especially when, we must part ways with others who do not.

Second, we are to be upright. Balaam wants to die “the death of the upright.” This means, according to the sage Ramban, that he would spend his days on earth in goodness and then share in the portion of eternal life.

Third, we are not to follow the ways of augury and divination but rather rely on God’s support and defense.

Fourth, we are to live in fair tents and dwellings, suggesting that we are to maintain order and modesty in our lives and communities. This manner of living proves to be fruitful and bountiful in material and especially spiritual ways.

Fifth, living with God gives us access to all that nourishes life, needed strength, and God’s healing hand.

Finally, however challenging life may be at certain times, the world knows that God blesses those who bless God’s people and curses those who curse them.

Baalam may or may not deserve the criticism that’s come his way from many observers. But, in blessing the people who follow God, he does so, in the words of the Bible, as a “man whose eye is true.”

These gorgeous blessings we find in the Bible have an extraordinary richness and enduring value to all believers in  God.