August 25, 2005
The Downer in Me
Parshat Eikev (Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25)
People always tell me that I am a downer, constantly talking about the world's problems here, genocide there; conflict here, poverty there.
Nobody ever wants to talk to me at a party!
However, I also have a deep spiritual side, one that is open to the beauty and wonder of a sunrise, the power of my breath to focus my being, the depth and glory of prayer and praise of God. Together, these sides of me find a perfect home in this week's parsha, Eikev.
Throughout Deuteronomy -- which is Moses' final clarion call to the people that they should love God, follow the mitzvot and have faith -- we find an amazing combination of spiritual direction and powerful calls to social justice. We are not meant to separate prayer, Torah and God from the needs of the world, the demands of justice and the overarching call for equality and peace on earth. At the same time, God gave us free will, the power to decide and discern for ourselves, which is the most amazing and dangerous aspect of our being human.
The Torah says, "And now, O Israel, what does God demand of you? Only this: to revere Adonai your God, to walk only in God's paths, to love God and to serve God with all your heart and soul, keeping God's commandments and laws, which I enjoin upon you today, for your good" (10:12-13).
Moses understands that reverence and love are not attributes that can be commanded.
"Everything is in the power of Heaven, except whether a person will choose to revere God" (Talmud Berachot 33b).
As part of our inherent design, God made us the masters of our own destiny, giving us the path and the tools to succeed, but leaving the choice of using those tools up to us. This is what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel understood as the great partnership between humans and God. That is why I understand Judaism to be the great combination of spiritual depth and social activism, prayer and action, Torah and the morning news. Without the action, the spirit is vacuous; without the spirit, the action tends to be ungrounded and temporary. God needs us to carry out the master plan; we need God to be reminded of that plan.
I am greatly disturbed at the direction our country is taking the world, as we are the greatest, richest and most powerful nation ever to exist, yet we continue to have a tremendous poverty rate, millions of homeless people -- including children -- and skyrocketing deficits, yet we give the lowest percentage of our GNP to foreign aid than any of the other major industrial countries. And even as we proclaim to be God-fearing and religious, we are not heeding the Torah this week, which teaches, "Take care lest you forget Adonai your God and fail to keep God's commandments.... When you have eaten your fill, and have built fine houses to live in ... beware lest your heart grow haughty and you forget Adonai your God ... and you say to yourselves, 'My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me.' Remember that Adonai your God is the one who gives you the power to get wealth...." (Deuteronomy 8:11-14,17-18).
These verses remind me that forgetting God leads to greed and arrogance. Our country, with all of its amazing virtues and incredible individual generosity, is not living up to its greatest potential, because we are not leading the world by example. We don't want to help others if it might hurt us. We don't want to give up our luxuries, including unnecessarily large automobiles, to save the environment. We don't want to participate in world treaties that might challenge our selfishness, requiring us to make less money so we can pass a cleaner, healthier and more balanced world unto our children. This is the downer side of me.
Yet, the spiritual side reminds me that this is what God demands: to seek justice, love, mercy and walk humbly with God. I cannot help but read the Torah this week and think of the Sudan, where millions of lives are being lost and disaffected while the world watches silently; of my own community in Pasadena, where there is homelessness and poverty because we don't want to build affordable housing and give more to those in need; of the disappearing ozone layer and melting glaciers because we are burning so much fossil fuel in our SUVs for the sake of comfort and status, and of the thousands of lives being lost in Iraq for a war that appears to not be bringing us any closer to peace and security. The Torah tells us what God wants, but then leaves it up to us to achieve it.
As we inch closer to Rosh Hashanah, let us all find ways to remember God more often in our daily lives. When we eat and are full, let us give thanks. When we prosper, share it with others. If we can share God's grace with the world around us, we have the hope of saving ourselves. And the next time you are at a party, maybe choose to be a bit of a downer for the sake of tikkun olam. If we don't talk about it, nothing will change.
Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater is the spiritual leader of the Pasadena Jewish Temple & Center. He serves on the executive board of the Southern California Board of Rabbis and is chair of the social action committee.