December 10, 2018

Torah portion: Beauty and love

Over and above the din of desires there is a calling, a demanding, a waiting, an expectation. There is a question that follows me wherever I turn. What is expected of me? What is demanded of me?

— Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

Our penultimate Torah portion is … a poem. Even allowing for the oral culture of the time, ending a book of narrative and law with song is a pleasant twist.

Ha’azinu describes God’s power as creator of the world and sovereign of history, the power that chooses Israel, wins wars and ensures the harvest. The material has been covered before in Deuteronomy, but here curses and threats are noticeably absent. Rather, the promise of a prosperous future is emphasized. The poem champions God’s love of Jacob, the people Israel:

He found him [Jacob] in a desert region,

In an empty howling waste.

He engirded him, watched over him,

Guarded him as the pupil of His eye.

Like an eagle who rouses his nestlings,

Gliding down to his young,

So did He spread His wings and take him,

Bear him along on His pinions (Deuteronomy 32:10-11).

Poetry is the preferred medium to describe God’s love, and the medium is part of the message. 

Another twist: Moses speaks as the Israelites are about to fight their way into Canaan. They need to hear about the warrior aspects of God who leads them, and indeed, they do in much of the poem that follows. But how does it begin?

The Rock! — His deeds are perfect,

Yea, all His ways are just;

A faithful God, never false.

True and upright is He (Deuteronomy 32:4).

Not strength, but moral impeccability and commitment. Not might, but fairness and loyalty. Or as I see it: beauty and love. The beauty of ethical living and justice. The love behind commitment and loyalty.

I think most would accept that commitment in a relationship can, and in fact, usually does, flow from love. However, perhaps not all would agree that we are attracted to a life of moral integrity because it is beautiful. Morality, as it has famously been argued, is rooted in duty and rationality, not the subjective taste of what each individual finds attractive. There is truth in this view. But such thinking fails to account for how people actually behave.

In the debate over moral education, I side with those who emphasize the cultivation of virtue over developing skills in rational decision-making (though both are important) because for most people, moral action comes less from dispassionate, prudential thought and more from passionate feelings for the right and the good. 

Some of the time, we do the right thing because we weigh the moral calculus and conclude that it is the highest good. But most all the time, we are attracted to truth and goodness because in the realm of spirit, the right and the true are beautiful.

It begins with hearing the Divine call mentioned above by Heschel. While the response might come from a well-reasoned sense of duty, from our heads, it is most likely to come from the spark of godliness within us, from our hearts. God without calls to God within.

The pull of holiness is in our nature. The Torah describes us as created in the image of God. (The English translation falls short; think “likeness,” not appearance.) This is a very deliberate choice of words. We don’t think of reasons to connect with an image. Rather, we are attracted by something beautiful about it, often in ways we cannot articulate. 

And then we explore the reasons. This is important. Reasoned thought guards against the false images, the idols that seek to entice us. Rationality can, and does, influence our desires and shape our virtues. Our thinking and feeling are never separated. But in the end, moral motivation comes from a pull on the heartstrings. 

When we respond, we actualize the image of God we embody. The beauty and love of our godly potential becomes reality. We move closer to holiness.

I write these thoughts because we read Ha’azinu on Shabbat Shuva, the Sabbath of repentance, of returning to God by examining our lives and trying to change for the better. How do we catalyze deep and lasting transformation? 

For me, it starts with listening. Do I hear God calling my name? The key spiritual move is to rediscover and reconnect with the image of God that I already am, the Divine lure that pulls me forward, and then use my imagination to envision a better future and a better self. A more loving person. A more beautiful life.

 

Rabbi Mike Comins teaches the Making Prayer Real Course (makingprayerreal.com) and directs the TorahTrek Center for Jewish Wilderness Spirituality (torahtrek.org). He is the author of “A Wild Faith” and “Making Prayer Real” (Jewish Lights Publishing).