As G-d-fearing Jews striving to live righteous and spiritually connected lives, we have likely all had a moment of struggle, confusion, or uncertainty. Perhaps, when challenged, we have risen to the occasion, continued to persevere and maintain a close relationship with our Creator despite our trials and lack of clarity. Or perhaps we have faltered, stumbling over our own pain, heartache, or perceived victimhood, looking for something (or Someone) to blame. In either of these kinds of moments, no matter how connected we feel to Hakadosh Baruch Hu, it is plausible that we have at one point or another thrown our hands skyward and asked, “Hashem, what do You want from me already?!”
We Jews are not alone in asking this question, or in wondering what G-d wants from us. And, we are perhaps the only people to profess to know the answer. In this week’s Parsha, nestled among promises of blessing in exchange for harkening to G-d’s word, Moshe Rabbeinu tells Klal Yisrael unequivocally what Hashem wants from all of us. Rhetorically, powerfully, he poses the question (10:12-13), “Vi’atah yisrael, mah Hashem Elokecha sho’el mei’imcha?” and now, Israel, what is it that Hashem asks of you, “ki im liyirah es Hashem… Laleches bichol dirachav, u’liahava oso, v’laavod es Hashem… bi’chol livavcha u’bchol nafshecha.. lishmor es mitzvos Hashem, v’es chukosav.. li’tov lach,” only to fear G-d, to walk in His ways, to love Him, and to serve Him with all your heart and soul, to guard His Mitzvos and Chukim, for your own benefit.”
Reading these words, it is reasonable for one to question Moshe’s phraseology. He appears to imply that G-d wants very little of us - “ki im liyirah es Hashem…” only to fear Him, and yet he then continues to list a litany of other things that Hashem wants us to do. It’s as if Moshe is saying, Bnei Yisrael, you wonder what G-d asks of you? It is very simple – He just wants, well, everything! Is Moshe truly answering our question, helping us to understand the age-old enigma of what G-d wants from us? If so, why does he say “ki im,” only or just, as if to imply that the myriad ways in which we can fulfil Ratzon Hashem are in actuality far fewer or simpler than we seem to think?
As a psychologist working primarily with children, teens, and young adults, I am also almost always working with my patients’ parents and families, too. In conversations with kids about their parents and vice versa, many of the challenges families face in their communication, trust, and other important relational factors seem to come back to a few common denominators. Time and again, one member of a dyad will lament, “I just want my [child/parent] to see my side,” or “to understand what I’m going through,” or even just, “to give me some thought or consideration.”
More than children want their parents to acquiesce to their requests and more than parents want their children to follow through with their rules, people who love each other and want to maintain their connection with each other seem to most value being thought of and respected by the other. Though also important, following rules and providing privileges come second only to actually allowing another person to feel seen. As author Kristin Hannah writes in her best-selling book The Nightingale, “I always thought it was what I wanted; to be loved and admired. Now I think perhaps I’d like to be known.”
Li’havdil, both the Sforno and Ramban explain regarding these pesukim that we must first bear in mind that Hakadosh Baruch Hu does not ask anything of us because He needs it. Moshe begins with the question “what does Hashem ask of you?” and ends with emphasizing that it is all “li’tov lach,” for our good. The purpose of all of the things Moshe lists in between is ultimately for our benefit, not because Hashem in any way truly wants or needs any action or feeling from us. What, then, is the purpose of these tasks Moshe lists, to fear G-d, to walk in His ways, to do His mitzvos, etc.? The answer lies in the words “ki im li’yirah,” only to fear G-d. Moshe says “ki im” because Yirah is, in essence, the key that unlocks all the doors to goodness that follow.
The Sforno notes that if you want to truly internalize that Hashem does not need anything from us, and that all the Mitzvos He commands us and all the dictates of the Torah are actually just for our benefit, you need only to contemplate His greatness, to think about His sovereignty over the universe, and you’ll realize that it cannot be that G-d needs anything from us. And if that is the case, surely His mandates are not for His benefit, but for ours! It is as if Moshe is essentially saying, G-d wants only good for you, Klal Yisrael. If you want to know how to get to a place of feeling and recognizing G-d’s goodness on a visceral level, here is the formula.
Furthermore, as the Ramban explains, Yirah is the prerequisite to all the other “things G-d asks of us.” According to the Ramban (and others in other places), Yirah is not about being afraid of G-d. It is not yiras ha’onesh, operating out of fear of retribution, but rather awe, operating from place of full awareness of Hashem’s greatness. Yirah is about giving thought and consideration to G-d, recognizing His power, glory, omniscience and omnipotence, and experiencing awe as a result of contemplating all of this. When we pause and think about Hashem’s greatness, we also come to love Him, for we realize everything is His and He chooses to partner with us, for our own good! How can we not want to walk in the path dictated by G-d, to adhere to the guidelines He has set for us, and to strive to pour our heart and soul into such a relationship, when we consider the Awesomeness of the Almighty?
Rashi further notes that Moshe boils all of Torah and Mitzvos and a life of Avodas Hashem down into Yiras Hashem for one very simple reason. As Chazal tell us in many places (Brachos 33b, Megillah 25a, etc.), “ha’kol bi’yidei Shamayim, chutz me’yiras shamayim,” everything is in the Hands of Heaven except for fear of Heaven. The Abarbanel further explains that Yirah is derived “mi’paal ha’seichel,” from the actions of our Seichel, from purposeful, intentional contemplation.
Ultimately, Hakadosh Baruch Hu is always running the show. He knows and decides every moment of our lives, every facet of our existence and of the world’s ongoing history. We do not get to choose much of that, but we do get to opt into a relationship with the One Who controls it all. Yiras Shamayim, pausing to consider Hashem in our daily lives, is in our hands. All Hashem wants is that we try to give Him some consideration, not because He needs to be thought about, but because He loves us, and wants that love to be reciprocated, just as He wants us to feel it. The only way to have this happen is through our consideration of Him; He is always thinking about us, the question is whether we are stopping to think about Him.
This week, when we find ourselves asking, “What does Hashem want from us?”, we answer that we have but one job – to actually give G-d some thought. Perhaps this requires setting aside time to consider the ways in which Hashem’s glory fills the world and our lives. Perhaps it means pausing to take in the striking beauty of a sunset, or the vastness of the ocean, or the unparalleled architecture and design of the human body. If the only thing completely in our control is our Yiras Shamayim, we must engage in intentional contemplation of G-d’s power and greatness and His role in our lives. Once we do that regularly, everything else follows. We recognize with greater clarity the magnetic pull of our souls to walk in His ways, we are filled with love when we consider all He does for us, we turn to Him in prayer with more intention and consistency, and we recognize that all the deeds – all the behavioral aspects of Torah Judaism that we think are what G-d wants from us – are actually a map of what G-d knows is good for us, “litov lach.”