Parshat Ekev: God’s profile

In a speech spoken thousands of years ago, Moshe answers the most important question that a believer can ask: Who is God?

A view of the Old City of Jerusalem and the Temple Mount from the Mount of Olives. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
A view of the Old City of Jerusalem and the Temple Mount from the Mount of Olives.
In this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Ekev, we continue to listen to the speech of Moshe Rabbeinu to the people of Israel right before their entrance into the Land of Israel. This is a speech that was spoken thousands of years ago, and still resonates in our ears today.
In the midst of this speech, we find a very significant declaration. Moshe answers the most important question that a believer can ask: Who is God? This question is usually not asked openly. Everyone feels that this is too great an issue. But truth be told, everyone has his own way of answering this question.
For example, let us assume that we are watching a child playing ball, and suddenly the ball rolls into a busy street. The child, unaware of the danger, chases after the ball, ignoring the speeding cars. A responsible adult standing on the edge of the street does the right thing and prevents the child from running into the street. None of us has any doubt that his person acted properly at the right moment.
At this point, let us ask anyone, believer or non-believer, the following question: In your opinion, does God approve of the action or not? Let us stop a moment and think about this question... It is absolutely clear that every one of us will answer that God is very happy with this act. The surprising conclusion: Each person has the feeling that he knows God and what He likes and dislikes.
Moshe Rabbeinu, in his speech, raises this question and provides an answer as well: “For Hashem your God, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no favoritism nor does He takes bribes.
“He does justice for the orphan and widow, and loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing.
“Therefore, love the stranger!” (Deuteronomy 10:17- 19) God is the highest point of justice and loving-kindness, Moshe Rabbeinu tells us. He is concerned about each person, even those who are on the margins of society, even the unfortunate, widows or orphans. God is concerned about them all and loves them all. Even the stranger or the convert, who comes from outside, from a foreign culture, and is not integrated into the new culture to which he has arrived, even he is the recipient of God’s love, and God takes care of all his needs.
We are meant to understand this message and internalize it. We are also obligated to act with sensitivity toward every level of human society, whether they can stand up for their rights on their own or need our help.
We already know who God is. Our heart can tell us what God loves, and here we have Moshe’s assurance of this. But we still have to understand a number of words in this marvelous description. What is the meaning of the introduction where we read that God is the “great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no favoritism nor takes bribes”? How is this connected to the continuation, which describes His justice and loving-kindness toward all of humanity? With these words we arrive at a more profound level of understanding the values of justice and loving-kindness.
Different people hold various concepts of greatness and might. One person will see the athlete as “mighty,” and someone else will regard the successful politician as “great.” A third will consider a profound philosopher as one of society’s “great men,” and a fourth will regard “might” as amazing economic success.
This is precisely what the Torah is negating.
What is might? Being concerned about one’s fellow man is might! The Torah is teaching us that true might is not expressed physically or economically, but by one’s ability to go outside one’s ego and see the needs of the “other,” especially society’s weaker members. This is might! What is greatness? Paying attention to the humanity of the stranger, one who has difficulty in communicating with his surroundings. This is greatness! Indeed, God does not show favoritism nor does He take bribes. Obviously, this is not referring to a bribe in the usual, monetary, sense of the word. This refers to a more refined type of bribery, bribery that is carried out by observing certain specific commandments while at the same time ignoring the essential values of paying attention to others and helping them. A person can feel that he is “bribing” God through keeping certain commandments, and that this excuses him from the important human obligation of caring about the surrounding society. But God does not take bribes. He knows what he wants. Humaneness, justice and loving-kindness – that is what God wants.
These are the days after Tisha Be’av, when we mourned the destruction of the Temple that was destroyed because of causeless hatred. We stand before Rosh Hodesh Elul – the month of mercy and slihot – penitential prayers. Let us make a greater effort to act justly and with loving-kindness. Let us listen to the weak, and thus possess the qualities of true might and greatness.
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.