Jewish World Review Sept. 14, 2001 / 25 Elul, 5761

Making deals with
the Creator

By Rabbi Hillel Goldberg -- THE most powerful challenge of spirituality is its capacity for distortion. Idolaters could be very spiritual. Many looked beyond their lives with a true passion. Idols were not necessarily innocent diversions or silly statues. Idolatry required commitment, in some cases to the extent that idolaters engaged in self-laceration or burning one's children to death.

Few Jews today are tempted by idolatry. The Talmud says that the Jewish people has not been tempted by idolatry since the destruction of the First Temple some 2,500 years ago. But there are many varieties of idolatry. We are familiar with people who make money their god. Clearly, they are not literally bowing down to bills, but money is still their god. More subtly, the Torah identifies a type of idolatry that does not involve any belief in a false G-d.

In this instance, a person believes in G-d, but relates to G-d in a way that is idolatrous. A person treats G-d as if He were not really in charge -- not really G-d. For example, a person makes deals with G-d.

Many of us have done it; all of us have heard it. "If you heal me, G-d, I will give $1,000 to charity." Fill in the blank: If you heal me, if you save me from financial disaster, if you extricate me from this terrible relationship.

What's wrong with deals with G-d? Isn't it so that people often do good things from impure motives ? Isn't it rare to find a wholly altruistic person? Don't people always have some personal interest in mind? Why should it be any different in a person's relationship with G-d? And in such a relationship, is it not common to turn to G-d to avert a disaster, such as a fatal prognosis?

The difficulty in deals with G-d is located in one pungent verse in Deuteronomy, read in the month of Elul, three weeks before Rosh Hashanah. This verse, especially appropriate in the High Holiday season, might be classified as one of the most significant in the Torah, on par with "You shall love your neighbor as yourself" or "In the beginning G-d created the heavens and the earth."

tamim with the L-rd your G-d."

Tamim can be translated many ways , such as perfect or whole or wholehearted. But it is not the correct translation that provides the meaning of the verse. It is the context. The verses prior to this one prohibit various forms of idolatry, most of which (supposedly) foretell the future. To be wholehearted with G-d is to stand with G-d now, not to try to know the way things will turn out. This verse prohibits human attempts at prophecy. The future is strictly the domain of G-d or His chosen prophets. Palm reading or consulting with the de ad or with demons are the opposite of being "wholehearted with G-d."

The problem with deals with G-d is this: When I try to bargain with the Alm-ghty ("heal me and I'll give $1,000"), I'm saying: I need to know what You, G-d, are going to do. What You have let me know now is just not enough. This is not being wholehearted with G-d. This is seeking knowledge of the future.

The issue here is not whether, in the face of disaster, it is spiritually legitimate to try to avert it. Of course this is legitimate. But only if one hopes in G-d or relies on G-d, not if one treat s G-d conditionally, making a deal with Him. To make a deal with G-d is t o presume to be able to acquire Divine knowledge of the future or to force G-d into a certain position. Either is a form of idolatry. For man's knowledge is not G-d's knowledge and man's power is not G-d's power.

The violation of wholeheartedness before G-d may be formulated in the affirmative: I try to get a deal from G-d (if You do this for me, I will do t hat for You). There is a subtle variation on this, which may be formulated in the negative. This negative variation is based on the same premise -- the attempt to presume on G-d's knowledge, to know more than is permitted. Formulated in the negative, the violation of wholeheartedness is this: I try to understand the deal I already got.

This is encapsulated in the well known phrase, "why me?" Why was it I who got in the accident? Why did my friend have to die this way, or this early? Why am I infertile?

Questions like these can be asked in one of two ways: out of pain and perplexity; or, out of the presumption that there is an answer understandable to man. To the extent that such questions are asked out of expectation of an answer, they, too, are a form of idolatry. If I really believe G-d can provide an answer to these questions for me, then I have elevated myself to the level of G-d's knowledge. That's presuming an essential sameness between me and G-d. That's a form of idolatry.

Obviously, though, people do ask these questions. Are they really illegitimate? For example, is it wrong to ask why G-d took my beloved? Isn't it, in fact, a sign of religious commitment to cry out to G-d?

There is a thin but very real line between idolatry and wholeheartedness. To be wholehearted with G-d does not mean that G-d dishonors a person's pain or perplexity. Quite the contrary. G-d honors those who cry out to Him -- this point pervades the entire book of Psalms. The Talmud stresses the point graphically, if anthropomorphically: "G-d lusts for the prayers of the righteous." To be religious -- to have a relationship with G-d -- is not equivalent to standing in existential sterility before G-d, lacking emotion.

Bu t to cry out to G-d or to wrestle with His decisions is qualitatively different from saying: I deserve an answer -- G-d owes me. He and I are on the same level -- and He owes me. To be wholehearted before G-d is to be at peace with whatever G-d brings.

Admittedly, this is a very high level, an extraordinarily difficult challenge. To be hurt by various vicissitudes of life is natural. It is not easy to be wholehearted before G-d in certain moments. But to believe that G-d actually can provide an answer to why me is to engage in a form of idolatry, to presume t o be able to know more than is permitted -- to violate the command to be wholehearted before G-d. As I say, a thin but very real line.

Another thin but very real line distinguishes between making deals with G-d and responding to G-d.

Deal-making and responsiveness are two very different spiritual gestures. The first is forbidden, the second is esteemed. The first gesture, deal-making, is based on the future tense ("if you heal me, I will give $1,000"). The second gesture, responsiveness to G-d, is based on the past tense.

Deal-making is an attempt to know the future, which is forbidden by the Torah under the requirement wholeheartedness -- to stand with G-d now.

The second gesture is based on events that have already taken place -- past tense. Because you enriched me, impoverished me, healed me, made me sick [fill in the blank] . . . I have received a message from You. I have listened spiritually, and I have heard. I now respond to that message in accord with Your Torah.

This second, spiritually valid gesture brings new or renewed observance of a certain mitzvah because I have gotten a message. I do not make a deal with G-d; I respond to G-d. I do not put a condition on my acceptance o f a new mitzvah (if you heal me, I will keep a kosher home); rather, I listen spiritually: Because you healed me, I responded by deciding to keep a kosher home.

One way to respond to G-d is through prayer. Prayer is not to bargain with G-d, it is humbly to request of G-d. Prayer is not to say to G-d, if You; prayer is to say to G-d, please. Of course, a person in pain or perplexity should feel free to ask G-d for relief. But there is all the difference in the world between humbly asking the Creator of the Universe for relief and care, and between bargaining with G-d or presuming on His obligations. There is all the difference in the world between humbly offering to G-d one's acts of kindness and repentance, and between expecting that they will be accepted as a matter of course. Prayer and repentance are based on an essential inequality between a person and G-d.

When one is wholehearted with G-d, one hears messages from Him all the time. The opportunity to respond to G-d is constant. His messages are not necessarily easy to interpret; caution and humility are always in order. Still, the spiritually wholehearted are given opportunities to respond to G-d all the time.

This is a critical pre-Rosh Hashanah message. The verse, "be wholehearted with the L- rd your G-d," bids us to love G-d and observe the Torah from within our own condition. This is the meaning of Rosh Hashanah's central theme of "crowning" or "coronating" G-d. We accept G-d as our master. Yes, we m ay ask Him to improve our lot, but we may not engage in bargaining. Yes, we may ask G-d to honor and alleviate our pain, but we may not expect to understand His ways.

From out of this essential Rosh Hashanah perspective, we receive G-d's presence, which is the summum bonum, the highest good. This is more than spirituality, which can come in many fallacious forms; this is spirituality with integrity.

JWR contributor Rabbi Hillel Goldberg is Executive Editor of the Intermountain Jewish News. Comment by clicking here.


© 2001, Rabbi Hillel Goldberg