Behar 5774: At Your Service
“For the Children of Israel are servants unto Me; they are My servants…I am the Lord Your G-d.” (25:55)
Years ago, when I first studied this verse, it disturbed me. As a son of the modern world, and a citizen of a young country that calls itself “the land of the free,” to have thought of myself as a servant in almost any fashion was challenging. Being a slave (the literal translation) of G-d didn’t seem terribly attractive. It wasn’t the slavery alone that bothered me. It was the terminology. Why, when freedom was paramount, would G-d talk about slavery, even when the focus was on serving Him? There was no doubt that G-d’s redemption of Israel was not meant to be a simple release from bondage in order to let us run free with careless abandon. It was a freedom that bore with it heavy responsibility. It was an opportunity to leave the shackles of slavery behind in favor of a close relationship with the Creator. Why then, didn’t He call it a relationship? Of all things, why servants? After all, here we were, majestically breaking the bonds of slavery in a display so epic that, as soon as it was possible, films were made to depict it.
The theme of this picture is whether men are to be ruled by G-d’s law or whether they are to be ruled by the whims of a dictator like Ramses. Are men the property of the state? Or are they free souls under G-d?
Cecil B. DeMille, Opening Monologue to “The Ten Commandments”
It seems that Mr. DeMille understood that by accepting G-d’s law we are truly free. Yet, statistics show that as the modern world developed and we became more advanced and self-aware as a species, we were less inclined to accept any type of service — even the divine. It is no secret that the vast majority of the Jewish people opt out of serious service and prefer to keep G-d more as an acquaintance than a master. Indeed, for the first time in our three-thousand year history, significant numbers of our people are no longer just questioning the validity of G-d’s law, they are questioning the validity of G-d’s existence.
The first steps to understanding the notion of service is to understand what we mean when we say ‘G-d’. It is one of those instances when, because it is something so familiar, we don’t often stop to examine it. To the Jews, G-d is not a thing or an object, physical or otherwise. He is not even a he. G-d is not something that exists, but rather, existence itself — that which existed before all things. Consider that the essential name for G-d that we don’t pronounce, the tetragrammaton, י-ה-ו-ה, expresses being in Hebrew, as in is – הווה, was – היה, and will be – יהיה. To speak of this Being is to speak of an entity that is necessary, rather than contingent. It relies on nothing for its existence and thus, is the force of existence. It is therefore, the ultimate truth and reality upon which all truths and realities rely.
Understanding this helps us digest the verse in question. The service of G-d is not the service of an entity, no matter how great. The service of G-d is the service of the Source of all that exists. Hence, serving G-d is a profound commitment to truth and life itself.
If G-d were simply an entity — bigger than us and stronger than us — His will and law could be imposed on us by force, but it would be just that — a forced, arbitrary imposition. In such a reality, there is no choice but to either decline observance due to its intrusion upon our lives and freedom, or to accept it in subservience, sacrificing our lives and freedom. This is why, when people opt for the latter, it can quickly deteriorate into fanaticism. It produces people who do not care for truth and reality, but only for what they serve.
Yet, when we recognize G-d as the source and life-force of all that exists, then we see His will, His law, His universe and all that fill it (ourselves included) as expressions of His very being. His law then, is not an intrusion, but part of the fabric of life.
Those who discover Me, discover life…. (Proverbs, 8:35-36)
They have left Me, the source of the waters of life! (Yirmiyah, 2:13)
Thus, the service of G-d is, in essence, all there is.
One who serves [G-d] out of love…does what is true because it is true… (Rambam, Mishne Torah, Teshuba, 10:2)
The reason G-d speaks in terms of servitude is that reality does not exist in our minds alone. It isn’t only as we would wish it to be. There is an external reality that we faithfully serve as free souls through discovery, testing, study and respect. The world in which we live provides us with truths and tonics as well as dangers and deceptions. People who choose life must successfully detect and differentiate between them. To be committed to life does not mean to live unfettered. It means to live in service of all that is real and true and in doing so, connect to its Source. This has always been the authentic, collective legacy of the Jewish people, which in no small part has kept us alive and thriving against all odds. It is why our national cheer is simply L’chayim! – to Life!
Shabbat Shalom to you all,
Rabbi Joseph Dweck