The Foundation of Our Lives

Even in these hazy lazy days of summer, our days are full of doings – of many kinds and for many reasons. Why do we do what we do? Answers vary with circumstance: hopes of getting ahead, fears of falling behind, family commitments, laws, goals, traditions, love, pain and more.

This week’s Torah portion (Eikev) asks why do we do what we do. This question comes at a time in the Jewish spiritual year when the question especially matters.

This week’s portion seems to focus on consequence. Distilled to its essence, Torah’s claim is that if we follow Torah’s mitzvot, then all will go well (Deut. 7:12-13); if we don’t, then all will go poorly (Deut. 8:19-20). If so, Torah suggests, we should align our actions with the outcomes we seek. The assumption is that what happens is the consequence of our choices. The implication is that we deserve what happens to us.

Really? This consequentialist thinking has easy objections: put plainly, life ain’t fair. Children get cancer. Tyrants flourish while refugees flee. Consumers get shafted. As Billy Joel sang, “Only the good die young.”

Because bad things happen to good people, a strictly transactional approach to life is hardly any approach to life at all. Surely Eikev couldn’t be so dim-witted as to suggest otherwise, right?

Rather, I understand Eikev much as political philosopher John Stewart Mill taught of utilitarianism. Society should seek the greatest good for the greatest number – with rights ensured to lift the fallen, and responsibilities allocated to secure society’s foundation. Utilitarianism is a core idea on which democracy depends, which today’s get-ahead culture and crass politics directly undermine.

Our shaky social foundation and democratic institutions evoke the highly symbolic name of this week’s Torah portion. In Hebrew, Eikev colloquially means “if” or “because” – that is, “if” we do X, then the result will be Y. But Eikev‘s root word means “heel” – the same word that gave patriarch Ya’akov (Jacob) his ironic name for competitively grabbing the heel of his brother Esau during their’ birth. “Heel” connotes foundation, that body part without which we cannot stand.

Eikev evokes society’s foundation and our ability to stand and withstand. Eikev teaches that we (with)stand only by serving goals greater than ourselves, by ensuring rights to lift the fallen and by setting expectations that serve the whole. If we live that way, then the whole can flourish; if not, little can go well. See for yourself what’s unfolding in society, in your community, in your family and in your own life: how well do Torah’s words ring true?

Of course, as last week’s Torah portion proclaimed with the words of the Shema and V’ahavta, spiritually speaking it’s all about love. Tanya (the 1797 compendium of Hasidic wisdom) teaches that acting from duty or fear of consequence is fine, but the higher intention is to act from love. To cultivate enduring love for the whole, so that love continually can shape what we do and who we are, is spiritual life’s highest aspiration.

Difficult as it sometimes may be, imagine if all of us really lived that way – out of love, not out of fear. What kind of foundation would we build for ourselves, the world and the future? Especially in today’s climate, and during these weeks leading to Rosh Hashanah, the calling and challenge of Eikev is one that we dearly need to take into our hearts, our homes, our relationships, our politics, our charitable giving and the whole of our lives.

 

Originally posted at The Jewish Studio.

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