Therefore, I teach you the statutes and decrees as the Lord, my God, has commanded me, that you may observe them in the land you are entering to occupy. Observe them carefully, for thus will you give evidence of your wisdom and intelligence to the nations, who will hear of all these statutes and say, “This great nation is truly a wise and intelligent people.” For what great nation is there that has gods so close to it as the Lord, our God, is to us whenever we call upon him?
In Act I, Scene vii of Macbeth, Shakespeare dramatizes a central human question. Macbeth has begun to waver in his resolve to kill Duncan. The basis of his doubt lies in the limits of human choice and action. “I dare do all that may become a man; who dares do more is none.” What constitutes human action, and are there limits to what humans can do and remain truly human?
As we hear or read at times of the horrors that humans wreak upon each other, we often describe the persons who inflict these horrors as “monsters.” Something innately in us wants to think that those who do such evil are somehow beyond the pale of the human experience that we know. And yet, it is precisely an aspect of our human freedom, of our human sinfulness, that each of us has the capacity, and even the desire, to go beyond the bounds and limits of the innate laws of the universe, to deny in act our own reality.
It can be difficult for us to appreciate the significance of the Law, of Torah for the Hebrews. For us, law is primarily a human and social construct intending to make possible a certain level of survival and social coherence. In this sense law is always somewhat arbitrary and consistently subject to our own interpretation. Many years ago one of our Congolese Brothers said to me: “The worst thing Mobutu did to us was to give us the sense that if one wants something that belongs to another you merely take it.” Such an attitude is not confined to the poor and developing world. In our capitalist cultures of the West, the rich and powerful readily take whatever they want without consideration of whom they are taking it from. And the “laws” of these countries make it perfectly legal to do so.
Deuteronomy, however, tells us that wisdom comes only through a careful observance of Torah, or, in another ancient tradition, in living according to the Tao. There is an order to, a law of, the universe that is not of human making. It is this law of Reality that dictates our own place in creation. We live in integrity and wisdom when we do what becomes a human to do, and we wreak chaos and destruction when we dare to do more or other than that.
It can seem mysterious that human avarice and arrogance can deny all evidence that our planet, our “common home,” is in peril due to our own excessive desire for wealth and comfort. Yet, this may be in part because we understand only the rational and egoic dimension of wisdom. We tend to be in awe of our capacity for invention and what we see as progress. We rightfully value our ability to develop ways of making life easier, more comfortable, and more pleasurable. However, especially in the secular disenchanted world in which we live, we fail to exercise our spiritual capacity for wisdom of which Deuteronomy speaks. Because we are not merely instinct, we are able to do more than “becomes” us. We are able, as does Macbeth, to exceed the limits of humanity. And so, we close our eyes to the effects of our actions on our planet and on our brothers and sisters. We fail to appraise the value of our actions based on their effects.
it is Torah, the Tao, the Way that marks the limits of order, creation, humanity. When we lose our day to day and moment to moment contact with Reality, we have the demonic power to unleash chaos on our world. When selfishness and greed take root, when politics is reduced to mere power and selfish advantage, when individual comfort and pleasure becomes the ultimate goal, then a society descends deeper and deeper into chaos. The seemingly intractable environmental and social problems that beset us are, at their root, spiritual problems. From humanity’s beginnings, the essential dilemma has been whether to live in accord with the laws of reality or to demand our own way. Adam and Eve refused to be bound by their human limits. They wanted to master, to dominate “as gods” their world rather than live in responsible and obedient relationship to it. This is the very same conflict and choice that faces each and all of us throughout the ages.
We read today that the sign that the gods of the Hebrews are close to them is the wisdom and order in which they live; it is in their living in obedience to Torah — to the laws of Reality. Today, we even speak of alternate facts and alternate realities. In our pride we insist that our way of seeing and being supersedes God’s. The Law, however, tells us we are creatures with our own place in a world that is not ours to dominate but a gift to us. Even for believers in our day, God is often distant or absent. God is not close to us because we are not close to the truth of things. We live in a world of our own making, so distant from the actual physical world that we act on it without relationship to the effects of our actions. We take from the earth and from others what we want without adverting to the effects these actions have on it and on them.
In order to live in fidelity to the law of creation, we must practice living close to the world in all its manifestations. As spring approaches, a spring that is not yet totally silent, I can hear the birds singing outside my window in the early morning. It is very difficult for me to attend to their song, as from the first moments of the day, my own thoughts dominate my consciousness. At moments of awareness, however, I will occasionally pause and be still and listen. At such moments, I experience myself in a very different relationship to the world. I am participating in creation with the bird, the trees, the sky, the breeze, the life of the world all around me. I am not, in that moment, encapsulated within my own thoughts, feelings, designs, and plans. I am at once much smaller , but also more peaceful and content as I experience my own place in the universe.
When we are close to the world, we recognize that the Law, the Torah, is in our hearts. We know “our place,” we just tend to forget it in the stories and legends we spin in our own minds. We humans are not gods. When we try to act as gods, we introduce chaos and destruction into the world that we are meant to serve. There is great joy and consonance for us in living and serving from our true place in the world. Being small and being a brother and sister to all creation in all of its forms is “wisdom and intelligence” for us. I often wonder what good things would happen for our planet if even one day a week, each sabbath, we would all stop working, dominating, polluting and just sit still and listen. As we would draw closer to God’s world, we would come to know God’s closeness to us and the true order of things would slowly become manifest to us.
Not only does the Torah transcend the cosmos, but “any given part of the Torah is of greater importance than the cosmos.” The Torah determines both the essence and the existence of the universe. When God decided to create the universe say the rabbis, he consulted the Torah. It served as his blueprint for creation. The nature of creation was determined through the Torah. Even the initial existence of the cosmos is dependent upon the Torah. “The existence of the Torah is a necessary condition for the existence of the cosmos.”
How vast is the cosmos! Yet somewhere in the dimension of space lies its limit. Is there an entity without any limit? Yes, said the enthusiastic rabbis, the Torah.
Not only was the existence of the Torah the necessary requirement for the creation of the cosmos; it is also the necessary condition for its continued existence. The world was created on approval. Unless the Torah was accepted at Sinai, the cosmos would have to be returned to chaos. There could be a cosmos only with the Torah. The absence of the Torah would imply the absence of the universe. With Torah comes the divine blessing of an ordered creation. Without it, there is danger of a return to the abyss of cosmic confusion. The Torah is the ground of all beings. The creatures of heaven and earth cannot exist without it.
When one gives a gift in love to another, part of the giver is given with the gift. The Torah is God’s gift to his creation and to his creatures. When God gives the Torah, it is as if he gives of himself.
Abraham Joshua Heschel, Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, pp. 192-3