From Menahem Mendel of Kotzk, Ohel Torah, Parshat Eikev.
And it will be, because you will heed these teachings and keep them and do them, that the Lord your God will keep for you the covenant and the kindness that He swore to your forefathers. Deuteronomy 7:12
[The word for “because,” eikev, literally means “heel,” and so it is used in the sense of cause and effect, of one thing following “on the heels” of another. But perhaps here the cause and effect are reversed.] Perhaps eikev here means “the end,” as the heel is the end of the body. So the end, the purpose, is that we will heed God’s teachings.
Here’s the Kotzker doing what he does best: in a single line, turning a whole idea on its head. The plain sense of this verse is that, if we keep our side of the covenant by doing mitzvot, then God will keep the other side by being good to us as God was good to the patriarchs and matriarchs. The Kotzker — who had no patience for serving God in order to receive a reward — turns that around on us. The whole idea of serving God is to learn how to serve God all the better! And if along the way God rewards us, well, that’s all right for those who still need it, who want to be like servants who serve for a reward, but anyone who’s serious about walking with God will want to serve like a child of God, for its own sake.
And now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God demand of you? Only to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all His ways and to love Him, and to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul… Deuteronomy 10:12
Rabbi Chanina taught, “Everything is in the hands of heaven except the fear of heaven, as it says, And now, O Israel, what does the Lord, your God, demand of you? Only to fear the Lord, your God” (1). It seems to me the meaning is this: if you ask God for anything you need in this world, it is not certain you will receive it, but if you ask for fear of heaven, surely God will give it to you.
This teaching of Rabbi Chanina is usually understood to mean that our wealth, our health, and everything else that happens to us in our lives is predestined by God. We have no control over anything — except what kind of person we are. I think that’s a powerful enough teaching to sit on for a while. But the Kotzker is impatient. Once again, he turns the teaching on its head, by rereading what “in the hands of heaven” means. Nothing is for certain, for God may give or not, may answer our prayers or not — but one thing we can count on, if we ask for God’s help in standing (and living) in awe, then that prayer will be answered.
This reminds me of a great poem from the Sufi poet Hafiz, via Daniel Ladinsky, called “Out of This Mess” (2):
Pray to be humble so that God does not have to appear to be so stingy./ O pray to be honest, strong, kind, and pure,/ So that the Beloved is never miscast as a cruel great miser./ I know you have a hundred complex cases against God in court,/ But never mind, wayfarer, let’s just get out of this mess/ And pray to be loving and humble so that the Friend will be forced to reveal/ Himself so near!
And you shall set these words of Mine upon your heart and upon your soul, and bind them for a sign upon your hand, and they shall be for symbols between your eyes. Deuteronomy 11:18
Why are we told to put God’s words “upon” our hearts, rather than in our hearts? Surely, God’s words should be held in the deepest depths of our hearts, not “upon” them! It seems to me that the meaning is this: we should at least keep the words “upon” our hearts, for everyone has a time when his heart opens, and if we have kept the words upon our hearts, then they will be ready to fall in in that short moment of openness. Then we will see the light of the words and we will be made new when our souls receive these words from God.
Here’s another classic kind of Torah from the Kotzker, who was a realist (to be generous); he was more interested in the daily grind of living a life dedicated to God than aspiring to flights of spiritual ecstasy, and he expected his students to know themselves well enough to realize that they were not always going to be living at their spiritual peak.
I think religion is a lot like art, and trying to live a religious life is a lot like trying to be an artist. One of the ways they’re similar is that in both cases we might be tempted to wait for inspiration. Unfortunately, however powerful those moments of inspiration are, for most of us they are rare, and the time in between can go to waste. So, in the same way that a dedicated writer gets up every morning and cranks out 500 words even if she’s not feeling inspired, in order to cultivate herself and her craft for that moment when she is, we should be dedicated to some kind of practice that always has us ready for those moments of illumination and openheartedness.
1) Berachot 33b 2) From The Gift; I feel okay reprinting the whole poem here because I doubt Mr. Ladinsky would mind — not that I asked, he just seems like that kind of guy.