Monday, March 2, 2009

"What does God want you to do?"

We recently spent Shabbat my ultra Orthodox sister in law and her husband. I had been looking forwards to discussing a situation that arose about 10 years ago in London: On the way home from shul on Shabat morning, I was asked to help push a car to side of the road. I was faced with the dilema of either breaking Shabbat by helping push the car, or not breaking Shabbat by refusing to help push the car.

The initial response was "don't break Shabat to help the guy out". But when I pointed out that helping out your fellow man while he is struggling is also a Mitzvah the difficulty of the situation was acknowledged.

Actually, the difficulty of the situation was summed up brilliantly with words I hope will stay with me forever. My wife's brother in law said: "What does God want you to do?"

What does God want you to do?

It's a crazy question. Or maybe its not so crazy, maybe it is simply the question. The same one that lies behind the thousands of pages of Talmud that we have in our tradition. Debates about what God wants from us.

I thought about it long and hard. (Ok, with a 20 month old, anything over an hour is long and hard).

What does God want me to do?

Its a tough one. Shabbat is so important in Judaism. But to ignore a man in trouble? For me, I can't really say I have full confidence that I made the right decision, on that day, to refuse to offer my help. Next time, I think that I might try and muster the courage to help.

But that question still lingered in my mind. It was brilliant, so deep, relevant to so much more than just one situation.

What does God want me to do?

Learn a lot of Torah.
Make movies.
Raise a family.
Set up a business and employ people in Israel.

These were all good attempts, contained a grain of truth in them. But I didn't feel satisfied. I was looking for something deeper, something below the surface, something that joins all these together. And then I had my mini-revelation. If it wasn't prophecy, then at least it was exciting.

God's wants what is best for me.

Is that obvious? I don't know. It wasn't to me. But the more I've thought about it, the more it makes sense. If my religious experience can indeed be described as reaching out to God, the elusive "Face of the Other" (as Levinas so eloquently describes God), reaching out and trying to understand what is desired of me, then what could be desired of me - by a loving God - more than what is for me? Sounds selfish? Well, maybe it is. But if I think that what is desired of me - by a loving God - is what is for me, it follows that what is desired of all others - by a loving God - is what is for them. So not so selfish!

In short, God wants what is best for us.

I guess that is the easy part. The hard part is trying to figure out what is actually best for us. And that is a question that permeates every field of human activity. Law, science, government, ethics, religion. Wisdom.

And Proverbs 1:7 comes to mind:

"Fear of the Lord is the beginning of Wisdom".

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