Shoftim 5768 - Rabbi Mark Diamond

Six Questions for Elul

September 6, 2008 / 6 Elul 5768

Rabbi Mark S. Diamond
Executive Vice President
The Board of Rabbis of Southern California

Torah Portion:
Shoftim ("Judges"), Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9

Haftarah Portion
: Isaiah, 51:12-52:12


This week I had the privilege of speaking at the Federation's Jewish Business Leaders' Roundtable, a monthly program sponsored by the Valley Alliance. I shared Jewish texts on the theme of business ethics, including the following passage from the Talmud Tractate Shabbat 31a:

    Rava taught: When a person is led in for Judgment (in the next world), he/she is asked, "Did you...

    1. Conduct your business affairs honestly?
    2. Set aside fixed times for learning?
    3. Engage in procreation?
    4. Yearn for salvation?
    5. Engage in the dialectics of wisdom?
    6. Understand one thing from another?"

    Nonetheless, if the fear of God is his/her treasure, it is well. If not, it is not.

The questions are especially timely as we mark the Jewish month of Elul, a period of self-reflection and spiritual preparation for the holy days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The Talmudic sage Rava teaches that there are six questions we will be asked on the ultimate Day of Judgment (perhaps an early rabbinic version of Mitch Albom's Five People You Meet in Heaven). Rava's queries form a fascinating collection of religious concerns -- business ethics, education, childbearing, faith in a better world, and practical wisdom and knowledge.

After enumerating these keys to the gates of heaven, Rava offers a dramatic counterpoint to them. Quoting the prophet Isaiah, he argues that fear of God (yirat Hashem) is the ultimate foundation of all six queries and much more. If you fear God, you're in. If not, forget about entering the heavenly domain.

This traditional notion of fearing God precipitated a lively and engaging discussion with the dynamic men and women of the business leaders' roundtable. Several questioned the validity of this concept which they believed to be foreign to the Jewish tradition. Others wondered about the translation of the Hebrew phrase, preferring "awe," "reverence," or "respect" of/for God instead of the more troubling "fear of God."

What does it mean to be in awe of God? How does one become a God-fearing individual, if indeed that is a proper ideal of heartfelt religious faith? The rabbinic sages offer a cautionary maxim: Everything is in the hands of God (literally "heaven") except the fear God.

For me, the practical side of this faith debate is clear. Whatever one's motivations may be, ethical living is the key to a life of purpose and meaning here on earth. Doing what is good and right is not only what God, our tradition and our community expect of us. Moral behavior is what we should demand of ourselves.

One phrase in this week's Torah portion crystallizes the ethical imperative of Jewish thought: Tamim tihiyeh im Ado-nai Elo-hekha. "You must be wholehearted with the Lord your God" (Deut. 18:13). The Hebrew word tamim implies a life marked by the highest standards of ethical conduct. We must be holy and wholesome. During this special season of introspection and self-reflection, let's imbue our lives--personal, professional and communal--with holiness and wholeness.