Revering, Walking, Loving, Serving
Reflections of Torah portion Ekev 2023 (from previous versions)
This week’s Torah potion, Ekev, has a section that I encourage you to memorize, as we ascend on our path toward the Days of Awe. This passage expresses succinctly the worldview of the book of Deuteronomy and much of the Bible.
And now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God demand of you? Only this: to revere Adonai your God, to walk only in God’s paths, to love God, and to serve the Adonai your God with all your heart and soul . . . for your good. (Deuteronomy 10:12 and following)
Memorize these verbs: revere, walk, love and serve.
The Hebrew word for reverence is Yirah – “awe.” The term is sometimes translated as “fear,” but not in the English sense of being frightened. Yirah can refer to an experience of overwhelming wonderment. I recall truly being awestruck when I saw the Grand Canyon for the first time, for its majesty and grandeur. I also recall feeling awestruck when I saw the Kotel in Jerusalem for the first time (and every time since), for a different kind of majesty and grandeur.
The awe produced in nature and monuments seems to take us over. This capacity for awe can arise in smaller moments, especially in the experience of the beautiful. We can closely examine a flower, listen to music, see the stars, or witness the sublime arc of a cinematic scene and feel awestruck.
There is a version of awe called reverence. For example, as an American, I revere the Constitution and the constitutional process, in our nation’s stumbling ever forward toward a vision of a just society. I revere the Bible, and all our holy texts. I revere the souls of other human beings. The words of sacred texts bring me to a state of reverence.
I revere God and have moments of awe in God’s presence. I venerate certain people.
Every experience of awe, reverence and veneration ends in an experience of deep gratitude.
I have spoken often that one of the curses of modernity, among its many benefits, is the lack of the common cultural experience of awe, of reverence, of veneration, of deep respect, and honor. We often know better what we hate than what we revere. Even if one has those experiences of awe, reverence, veneration and honor privately, there is much to be gained by sharing these experiences as a community of meaning.
Think about it. If you were to regularly experience reverence, respect, awe, veneration, and gratitude in a purposeful community, the teachings presented there would lodge deeply within. A natural desire to “walk the path” is created. I have seen this power at 12 Step groups, in military training, and of course in study, worship, and celebration in the religious life.
If you ask yourself insistently what you revere (we don’t ask ourselves this very often, but we should), you will find a way to live differently. Let me give a personal example. For the past few years, I have been listening to Audible books on the history of science, the origins of the universe, the appearance of life, the evolution of human beings, but especially the nature of the brain, the mind, the appearance of consciousness, and the miracle of my being conscious. To paraphrase Bill Bryson in his Short History of Everything,
Trillions and trillions of atoms, tiny pieces of matter, that are not alive, have been drawn together and formed me, as a live being. These pieces of matter comprise my brain, from which consciousness proceeds. Matter is producing consciousness. This unique and, for me, serendipitous conglomerate of atoms will fall apart in due time. I hope they enjoy being me as much as I am grateful that I am alive.
In short, life is a miracle.
The more I study both scientific achievements in understanding the physical world, and the nature of life and consciousness, the more awestruck and amazed I become, and grateful to the scientific world that has brought this knowledge to me. With that awe and gratitude comes a desire to make all the energy that is swirling around and making me me be worth the effort. My studies have helped me revere existence, nature, and life, and as a result my spiritual path is different. I feel deeply how much I am ensconced in a mystery, an extraordinary wonder.
I think reverence for God is fundamentally rooted in the same experience, except that the Power that brought the atoms together is conceived of as conscious – a Power that is conscious of you, and loves you in some extraordinary, unimaginable way, and has set out straight paths before you lest you stumble and waste your life away, but forgives you when you do. As these verses say, God gives us these paths “for our good.” There are, according to our nature as human beings, better and worse ways to live. Torah sets out the good path.
One of the aspects of walking in the paths of God is the daily practice of cultivating love for God. Cynics like to deride this – why does God command us to love God?
I often issue the advice of love to families in trouble. I catch a teenager with a particularly venomous sarcasm, designed very well to drive the parents up the wall. The kid is ordered into counseling. I listen to the litany of complaints, and I say, “Okay here is my advice: Act as if you love them.” At this point, the teen protests, “But I don’t love them.” I say, “If you want the next five or 10 years to go well for you, you will at least pretend to like them. For your own good.” The acting-as-if, of course, helps remove the barrier from around the heart. Love, at least partly, is a choice, a practice, a discipline, a method.
All these words, “revere, walk in the paths, and love,” lead to the final term: to serve God. Those who experience these words find themselves with a profound desire to respond. In other words, those who meditate on these words, day and night, have discovered “responsibility” – the virtuous, life-long moral response to having been touched, benefited, and transformed.
How do we serve God? The ritual dimension is designed to bring us into states of holiness, consciousness, mindfulness, and communion. Admittedly, for some people, the ritual dimension gets in the way of those experiences. However it happens, when we have a moment of awe, reverence, veneration, honor, we should act on it, if possible.
The moral/virtue dimension of serving God directs us to be of service to each other, to love each other, and to do good for each other.
These terms, “Revering, Walking, Loving, and Serving,” can awaken the soul in many ways. The main thing is: memorize these words, allow them to help forge our path to the Days of Awe.