Seventy Faces of TorahA Purpose-Driven Tribe
Parshat Ekev, Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25
“And now, O Israel what does God ask of you? Only this: to have awe for God, to walk in all of God’s ways, to love God, and to serve God with all your heart and soul, keeping God’s mitzvot and laws. All the heavens and earth belong to God…Yet it was to your ancestors that God was drawn in love for them, so that God chose you, their descendants….” (Deuteronomy 10:12-15)
This statement comes towards the beginning of a 37-day pep talk and recap of the Torah that Moses delivers to the Israelites, before his death at the end of the 40th year of their desert wanderings. This concise passage is a kind of mission statement for the Jewish people; I’ve always loved it because it says, plain and simple, “This is what I want you to do.”
However, there are really two distinct parts to the Jewish mission that we can see play out through our history and in our lives today, and that are at times in tension: The Tribe and The Purpose. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, one of the great Jewish thinkers of the 20th century, described this dual mission as two covenants, the Covenant of Fate and the Covenant of Destiny.
The Covenant of Fate is about being a member of a tribe. It is about belonging, no matter who you are and what you actually do. Whether you are born Jewish or convert to Judaism, you are a member of the tribe, and share a common fate with all Jews. This is the part of being Jewish that most Jews, even the least religious, like about their heritage–we are part of a group, a family that is bigger than ourselves. According to the Pew Foundation study’s A Portrait of Jewish Americans, “U.S. Jews see being Jewish as more a matter of ancestry, culture and values than of religious observance.” Over 90% of U.S. Jews are proud of this heritage, and 75% report feeling a sense of belonging to the group.
But the tribal aspect of Judaism, on its own, has at least two downsides. When belonging is such an important part of identity, the lack of a sense of belonging can cause real suffering. Many Jews feel like they don’t belong in Jewish groups because they are not observant enough, they are too observant, they don’t care enough about Israel, they care too much about Israel, etc. Our challenge is to create Jewish communities that are inclusive enough for diverse types of Jews to find a sense of belonging.
The second challenge is the concept of chosenness. Chosen for what? When belonging is an end in itself, xenophobia and racism can follow close behind. There must be more to being Jewish than just being a member of the tribe. This is the Covenant of Destiny. We have a purpose as a Jewish people, but we need to actively choose to live in accordance with that purpose.
In our brief passage from Parshat Ekev, Moses lays out clearly five categories of behavior that make up a purpose-driven Jewish life.:
Awe – Live with awe and wonder at the mystery, beauty, and power of God and the universe.
Walk in God’s ways – This refers to middot, or character traits. Align your behaviors with your highest values, values we learn from God’s kindness, love, justice, and patience. Live in ways that contribute to creating a world of social justice and sustainability.
Love God – Let your heart grow in love for yourself, others, the universe, and God.
Serve God with all your heart and soul – Make your life about serving with integrity. Live a life of service.
Follow the mitzvot – Make traditional Jewish norms and behaviors a part of your life.
Does Moses want the Israelites to do all five of these things? Sure. But we can also see them at any one time as a menu–we don’t need to be doing all of them with the same level of intensity at the same time. The important thing is to be growing in all five areas in the way that is right for you. Maybe you are strong in the awe and wonder category, and now is the time to work on developing more patience or courage. Maybe you see yourself living a life of service, and now is the time to start lighting Shabbat candles every week as a way to bring more mitzvot into your life. What a blessing that we have a broad menu of options for how to live a purpose-driven Jewish life.
When we act alone, a purpose-driven Jewish life can lend itself to individualism. When all I care about is how well I am living my purpose, I may see other people as an obstacle to self-fulfillment. My neighbor’s noisy lawnmower interferes with my sense of awe, and my children’s school needs get in the way of other service I want to do. The two aspects of the Jewish mission – the Tribe and the Purpose – should not be separated. A tribe without a pro-social, transcendent purpose can become a mob, and spiritual growth without a community can devolve into selfishness. Yes, one person can change the world. But a purpose-driven tribe, with its goal of bringing more awe, love, justice, and service into the world, will more likely get us there.
Rabbi David Jaffe is the founder and dean of the Kirva Institute and the spiritual advisor at Gann Academy in Waltham, MA. He is in Israel for the year working on a book about the inner life and social activism. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.