As a people, we Jews are good at many things: at kvetching, of course; at lashon hara, gossip, telling people things we shouldn’t; at eating. Perhaps most importantly, we Jews are good at asking questions.
In fact, the greatest of all Jewish questions was asked in this week’s Torah portion of Ekev, the third sedrah in the Book of Deuteronomy. It reads: “V’atah, Yisrael, mah Adonai sho’eil mei’imach? Now, Israel, what does God ask of you?”
The passage in Ekev then answers, “That you have awe of the Lord your God, walk in all of God’s ways and love God and serve the Lord your God will all your heart and all your soul.”
This big question—what does God ask of you?—and Ekev’s answer begin a series of statements in Jewish tradition, attempts to distill from our large moral storehouse just what the essence, the ikar of Jewish ethics really is. What is it that God wants? What is the true standard we need to uphold to be considered morally good?
Ekev lists a few things we need to do, for God’s sake: first, revere God. Second, walk in God’s ways; third, love God; fourth, serve God with all our hearts and souls. And fifth and finally, we are told that we must guard and do all the mitzvot, the commandments of God.
It’s a clear and powerful list. But it was the beginning, not the conclusion of this exploration. Five hundred years later the great prophet Isaiah distilled these terse commands into a more concise version found in last week’s Haftarah: “Cease to do evil, learn to do good… Seek justice; relieve the oppressed; uphold the orphan’s rights; take up the widow’s cause.”
Isaiah’s version is more pragmatic than the earlier text and shorter. First, seek justice; second, relieve the oppressed; third, fight for the widow and orphan. Of course, to start doing any of those, you must first stop doing evil, and learn how to be good. That is you must study, so that you can properly know what goodness actually consists of.
A century later the prophet Micah refined the formula again: he asked, “What does God seek of you? Only to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”
A simple, clear, and beautiful formulation of ethics.
Finally, Hillel, four hundred years later still, a little over 2000 years ago now, said it most concisely. “Do not do to others what is hateful to yourself. All the rest is commentary. Now, go and learn.”
The Jewish assumption is that you will adopt one of these magnificent formulas in your own life. Whichever one you choose, it will be a high standard for how to live—but one that each of us can achieve, if we choose to do so.
After all, it’s what God wants… and so should we.