Ki Tavo: The Presence of G-d

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |

In the secular world in which we live it can be—and often is—hard to feel the presence of G-d. The Western world has turned religion into a private issue by establishing a wall separating church and state. Undoubtedly, this separation of church and state has had great benefits for the Jewish community. The tremendous growth and confidence of American Jewry is in no small measure due to the constitutional barring of the public endorsement of any religion. Yet, at the same time, it has helped create a society in which G-d remains outside of public discourse and the important contributions that religion can offer in the social, economic and public domains have been blunted.

Judaism teaches that all of life is to be infused with a religious worldview; there are no areas of life that are secular, and G-d must be found everywhere. Unfortunately, many otherwise observant Jews have compartmentalized the religious and secular aspects of their lives. Observant Jews, no less than non-observant ones, have to struggle to feel the presence of G-d. It takes tremendous efforts to avoid making our religious practices rote, devoid of any true impact on our personality and character development. Ironically, the generally non-observant Jew may have an advantage in this area. He or she often pick and choose which mitzvoth to observe and thus will observe only those mitzvoth in which they find much meaning. Observant Jews don't have this “option” and can easily fall prey to religious monotony. 

This is a trap we must work hard to avoid. If the chasidim harishonim, the pious early Sages, spent an hour preparing for prayer (Brachot 31b), how much time should we spend? Prayer is perhaps the most difficult of rituals. While we are literally talking to G-d, do we actually feel His presence? Do we truly feel that only G-d can answer our prayers? It appears sadly obvious that the davening at many of our shuls reflects this difficulty (though thank G-d there are many exceptions).

How can we truly feel the presence of G-d? "G-d will establish you as His holy nation as He promised you if you observe the commandments of G-d your Lord and you walk in His ways" (Devarim 28:9). The mitzvah to walk in the ways of G-d, vehalachta bederachav, is, as Rav Soloveitchik explains, the central mitzvah of the Torah. “Just as G-d clothes the naked, we too must clothe the naked... just as G-d visits the sick… just as G-d comforts the mourners… just as G-d buries the dead so must we” (Sotah 14a). Similarly, the Talmud (Shabbat 133b) teaches that just as G-d is merciful and kind, so too must we be merciful and kind.  Helping others is the pathway to G-d.

The Netziv explains that this crucial mitzvah to imitate the ways of G-d is actually a warning that our piety and holiness must not prevent the performance of mitzvoth between man and man (Devarim 28:9). He notes that many, in their wonderful desire to cleave to G-d and to express their love for Him, may inadvertently neglect the interpersonal mitzvoth. After all, so many people are devoid of religious feelings and spirituality (not to mention sinful) that it is so much more pleasant to focus on G-d, not man. None other than Rav Shimon Bar Yochai fell victim to this phenomenon (Shabbat 33b) and needed a year to learn how to properly balance his desire to cleave to G-d with his responsibilities to his fellow man. It is for this reason, the Netziv explains, that our Sages teach that it is greater to welcome guests than to dwell in the Divine presence (Shabbat 127a).

We must walk in the ways of G-d. Each one of the 613 mitzvoth of the Torah is a step in the right direction. Our primary focus must be on helping man even if it may come at the expense of personal religious growth. By doing so, we are engaging in character development, enabling us to come closer to G-d. This truly is the central mitzvah of the Torah.