With Grace

A humble person sees the essential dignity and value of others. In religious terms, humility stems from an awareness of the unmet personal potential for each person who is created in the image of G-d. Rabbi Israel Salanter, the master teacher of Mussar, Jewish ethics, taught that a person should look up to see needed progress in personal character and downwardly to see and help another in need.

In the prophet Micah’s formulation (6:8), we are taught to “walk humbly with your G-d.”. Remarkably those who “walked with G-d” in the Torah are Enoch (Genesis 5:24) and Noah (Genesis 6:9). “To walk with G-d” denotes a universal, ethical goodness, an attribute designated long before Mount Sinai. Human justice and kindness are the foundations of this accolade, as if “walking with G-d” is the reward for such noble behavior.

To walk with G-d is to seek to follow the path of a kind, caring Creator. Theology differs, ranging from those who experience G-d as determining all aspects of life, to those whose life experience limits G-d to an orderly Creation and to remaining the caring parent who allows creation to unfold and human free will to determine outcomes. To walk with G-d is to believe in a greater moral presence and accountability, a right and wrong in living a life of integrity and goodness. To walk humbly is to know that our lives are fleeting and that our own knowledge is limited, and yet we have the power to improve the world.

Why does Micah add the word “your” before G-d? What first comes to mind is the Amidah prayer’s opening phrase, “G-d of Abraham, G-d of Isaac, G-d of Jacob.” The rabbis teach that the word “G-d” is repeated before each of the patriarch’s names to convey that each had a distinctive relationship with G-d. This is true for each of our relationships, particularly those that are most intimate. When I prepare with a family before a funeral, I am reminded that each family member had a distinctive description, which for offspring is shaped by their place in the birth order and gender. When friends or colleagues speak about that same person, they usually offer varying perspectives. To speak of “your G-d” connotes an intimate, individual relationship. There is room to define G-d and G-d’s ways of acting in the world as a product of our own life experience, faith, truth and heart-felt longing.

And yet, there is a common denominator of shared ethical norms: “You must be holy because holy am I the Ever-Present-One your G-d” (Leviticus 19:1). Holiness even transcends “goodness.” Holiness is to see and act through the lens of the Creator. As a parent seeks the happiness for each offspring and for siblings to treat each other with justice and kindness, so we are called to see in all people a sibling. To have a shared parent is also to hold that there are common expectations of goodness. Back to the wisdom of the funeral, most people’s descriptions will focus on similar core adjectives. As for G-d, justice and compassion are signature attributes.

Excessive pride and dishonesty prevent listening, empathy or admission of error. Such arrogance is the opposite of walking with G-d. In the words of Psalm 10:2-4: “With arrogance the wicked hound the lowly and is caught in the schemes that they devised. For the wicked boast of unbridled lusts; the grasping person reviles and scorns the Lord. The wicked, corrupt as he is in all his plotting [thinks], ‘G-d does not call to account; G-d does not care!’”