This week’s Parsha contains the poetic parting words of Moses:
Listen heavens and I will speak; let the earth hear the words of my mouth! (32:1)
This verse begins Moses’ farewell song to the People by calling upon the heaven and earth to be witnesses to what he will be saying. He asks the people (in a poetic way) to listen well to his words. Moses tells us that G-d is completely fair and just; it is we who are responsible for messing things up.
This is not the first time heaven and earth are called upon as witnesses. Rashi (1040-1105) explains that when G-d uses these two inanimate bodies, He does so in order to admonish and encourage us to fulfill His will. The heavens and the earth always fulfill God’s will. The sun always rises in the morning. Wheat seeds always produce wheat, never barley. They fulfill the will of God even though they receive no reward for doing so and are not punished if they transgress. Therefore, we, who live in a sphere of reward and punishment, should certainly be moved to fulfill G-d’s will.
Sfas Emes, a 19th century Chassidic master, asks an obvious question; the heavens and the earth do not make a conscious choice to fulfill the will of G-d. They have to do it because that is how they were created. We, however, have free will. Confronted with a situation, we need to decide what we are going to do. How can the nation be asked to emulate these two inanimate bodies; we make choices, they do not.
Sfas Emes explains that Moses is teaching a fundamental lesson in how to connect to G-d. We learn from the heavens and the earth that fulfilling G-d’s will is built into the Creation. It is a part of nature. We too, if not for the overpowering influence of the sensual world in which we live and our cunning yetzer hara (evil inclination), would be drawn to fulfill G-d’s will just like every other creation. To the extent that we do not allow our evil inclination to overpower us, we will be directed towards good.
This concept answers a question regarding fulfilling mitzvos of the heart. One of the Torah’s central mitzvos is to love G-d. Since this is a mitzvah only of the heart (with no need for action), how does one fulfill it if s/he does not feel love towards G-d? Mitzvos of action like tefillin, not stealing or committing adultery require action-or at least to refrain from doing certain actions, but what is one to do if s/he does not feel love toward G-d. Love is a feeling; how can there be a mitzvah to feel something? Maimonides teaches that we can reach love for G-d by contemplating the wonders of the Creation. For example, consider the size of the planet. If the Earth was slightly larger, it would have more gravity, which would push up the molecular weights of methane and ammonia gas, causing them to remain close to our surface. Since these gases are toxic, we would die if we breathed them-or, more accurately, we would never have had the opportunity to come into existence. If the Earth was slightly smaller it would have less gravity, which would cause water vapor to dissipate into the atmosphere and we obviously can’t live without water. We need a planet small enough to allow poisonous gases to evaporate and large enough so that the water vapor will not evaporate. When one thinks, all of this was created for us, it causes one to think how great the Almighty is for creating all of this for me and how much He must care for me. If a woman came home one evening and found a new book, one she has been wanting to read, on the desk, her favorite cold beverage in the refrigerator, her favorite song playing on a new sound system with high definition speakers, and a masseuse waiting next to a massage table, her love for her husband would be kindled. She would realize that all of this was there for her benefit and that thought would awaken strong feelings. So, too, says Maimonidies, is the case with humans and their contemplating the wonders of creation. The more one does it, the more his or her feelings for G-d will increase in a positive way.
Some people will say, ‘I am not a spiritual person.’ According to Sfas Emes this person has not tapped into his or her resources. It might take some focused thought but this person, like every person, has the ability to find G-d. No amount of nature or nurture can deprive of person of this right. As Shakespeare wrote in Julius Cesar, “the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves.”
The point made by the Sfas Emes is a classic theme in Chasidic thought. The same way that the heavens and earth do not have any choice in their behavior, so too humans have the ability to make a choice not to have a choice. When one needs surgery and finds the best surgeon to do it, does he really have a choice to jump off the operating table immediately before surgery? In an absolute sense he does but the reality is that he does not. He has placed full trust in the doctor; he reaches a stage when he will no longer make choices concerning his surgery. We do this numerous times every day. Do you have an important skype interview? When the interview is about to begin, you place total trust in your phone and internet carrier. You do not think about changing the phone or carrier at that moment because you have chosen to give up your ability to choose.
We all trust in something. For some it is the corporation, for others it is education; “I have been loyal to the company and trust that they will promote me” or “I studied for years in graduate school and therefore I will find a job in my field.” When the person is fired or does not find a job, s/he is broken because s/he placed his or her trust in imperfect humans. That was a choice.
Sfas Emes teaches that we have the ability to transcend placing our trust in finite beings. We have the ability to let go and let G-d; it is up to us to make that choice. The next time you are frustrated, ask yourself, “in whom did I place my trust?” The fault lies not in our stars but in ourselves.
(Sources: Rashi 30:19; Sfas Emes ibid.; Rambam Yesodei HaTorah 2:1-2;)