What might God see?

This week’s Torah portion (Re’eh, "See!") recaps key aspects of Jewish tradition – monotheism, freedom, holidays and dietary laws. Perhaps its most important line, however, is a deceptively simple call: “After YHVH your God you will walk" (Deut. 13:5). What might it mean in our day to "walk in God's ways"?

It seems straightforward to follow something physical: the Book of Exodus ends with the image of desert literally following God’s “cloud by day and fire by night” (Ex. 40:38). God, however, isn’t to be seen (Ex. 33:20). And if “God’s ways” were only Torah’s laws and traditions, then Torah might simply tell us to follow them: Torah wouldn’t need to add “walk in God’s ways.”

This question has called and confounded people for centuries. Talmud asked, “How can a human being walk after God?” Talmud’s answer was to walk after God's attributes (B.T. Sotah 14a):

As God clothes the naked [like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden], so we also should clothe the naked. As God visited the sick [like Abraham after his circumcision], so we also should visit the sick. As God comforted mourners [like Isaac after Abraham's death], so we also should comfort mourners. As God buried the dead [like Moses in the desert], so we also should bury the dead.

In this understanding, behaviors – clothing the naked, visiting the sick, comforting the mourner, burying the dead – evoke God's attributes. But God is more than behaviors and attributes: God is holy. "Be holy," Torah records God to say, "for I, YHVH your God, am holy” (Lev. 19:2). To be holy, our ancestors imagined, is to be merciful and gracious – qualities more expansive and dynamic than any fixed set of behaviors or laws. After all, we can't codify God any more than we can squeeze or freeze God into any one idea however glorious and grand. Maybe that’s why tradition calls us into both particulars practices and overarching qualities – verbs and also adjectives, specific acts of our hands and also loftiness of our souls. Like a tree needs both deep roots and tall branches, we humans need both the rooting of specific behaviors and the high and holy aspirations of spirit.

In a recent lesson, I asked a child how we earth-bound humans can be holy and “walk in God's ways”? At first she offered a list of behaviors – follow laws, obey parents, do homework, etc. – but quickly she switched into listing attributes. To be holy, she concluded, was to love… have compassion… be forgiving… be generous… be kind…. be patient. To be holy, she decided, is to see the world as God sees the world, and try to see as we imagine God might see.

“And a little child will lead them” (Isaiah 11:6).

R' David Evan Markus