Making God Your Bottom Line
The ultimate pleasure in life is to develop and strengthen your relationship with God. Sounds good. Now how do we do it?
The purpose of Elul is to prepare us for the coming High Holidays. Our task is to get to the very root of our souls. What are we living for? Are we living in order to connect with the eternal, transcendent dimension? Or are we living in pursuit of false pleasures and illusions?
The key to getting the ultimate pleasure is to develop and strengthen our relationship with God. Deep down this is what every human desires. This in turn will energize and motivate every other aspect of our lives.
In Elul, we are struggling for clarity on our future and the meaning of life. And before all else, we must ask life's most basic question: What is my relationship with God? Since God is the all-encompassing force in the universe, this is the most potent question.
LITMUS TEST: PRAYER
One of the basic ways to measure our dedication to God is to examine our thoughts during prayer. On the verse, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your resources" (Deut. 26:16), the Midrash explains: "When you pray before the Holy One, you should not divide your heart, giving one part to the Holy One, and one part to other matters" (Tanchuma Tavo, Ot Aleph).
Prayer is one of the most powerful expressions of our love and commitment to God. If I really care about Him with all my heart, then would I think about other things during prayer?
EVERYONE'S OWN CHALLENGE
During Elul, we seek an awareness of what's holding us back from complete dedication to God. Then, we commit ourselves to improving in that area. It is important to realize that each one of us has our own challenge, and one person's path is never exactly like any other.
The Torah says: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your resources" (Deut. 26:16). On this verse, the Talmud (Pesachim 25a) asks: If the Torah states "with all your soul," why is it necessary to also state "with all your resources?"
The answer is that for some individuals, the challenge is to commit to God with their resources, while others need to dedicate their physical selves. No two people reach levels of human perfection in quite the same way. Each Jew must address those issues which particularly are holding him back.
EXAMINE YOUR MOTIVATIONS
One of the objectives of Elul is to examine our motivation for even the good deeds we perform. Do we give charity or help others because of the recognition we receive in return? The Talmud (Nedarim 62a) tells us that even our good deeds should carry the proper motivation: for the love of God. Though this is a very high level, it represents an ideal toward which we strive.
In the meantime, the Talmud tells us: Mitoch sh'lo lishma, bo lishma -- meaning that a person should always continue to do good actions even for the wrong reason, because from there they will grow and develop toward the right reason.
One tool we can use to develop this purity of purpose is to do an act of kindness anonymously. Send flowers to someone who needs cheering up, or pick up litter on your street. By doing so anonymously, you'll begin to realize the pleasure of doing the right thing for no other reason than "it's the right thing." We cannot expect to achieve the loftiest levels overnight, but during Elul we can slowly begin moving in the right direction.
KNOW GOD IN EVERYTHING YOU DO
Here's another way to make God the bottom line: Examine how much of your daily life is infused with an awareness of the Almighty. The Midrash gives the example of King David:
What is meant by the verse (Proverbs 3:6), "In all your ways, you shall know [God]"? It means that you should place God in your heart wherever you may go, as did David: He was a king, yet he said, "I am not a king. Only [God] is the King, and He anointed me..." King David was a mighty man, and yet he said "I am not mighty." He was rich, and yet he said, "I am not rich..." He went to war and emerged victorious, and claimed, "It was not because of my valor that I was victorious, but rather because God helped me to emerge victorious, and it was He who taught me how to wage war." (Shochar Tov - Mizmor 144)
A good tool for developing your closeness to God is to ask yourself: What motivations have I used in the past to acquire money? Once you have your answer, apply this insight to your pursuit of God. As King Solomon said, "If you seek it as silver and search for it as treasure, then you will understand the fear of God" (Proverbs 2:4).
COMMITMENT TO THE GOAL
The Ramchal (18th century Italy) writes that people with keen intelligence generally devote their best brain-power to the subtleties of their chosen field -- e.g. astronomy, mathematics, or the arts. There are others who devote time and attention to Torah study and spirituality -- learning the Five Books of Moses, Talmud, or the Code of Jewish Law. There are few, however, who devote thought and study to actually perfecting their relationship with God.
The Ramchal exclaims:
"Is it fitting that our intelligence exert itself and labor in speculations which are not binding upon us, in fruitless argumentation, in laws which have no application to us -- while we leave to habit and abandon to mechanical observance our great debt to our Creator?!"
This Elul, we each have to ask ourselves: To which of these groups do I belong?
Our goal this Elul must be to develop a course of action for drawing close to God. These matters cannot be arrived at through imagination and speculation, but rather require serious, authentic study. Nothing should budge us from this resolution. For if we can fully commit to Him and His ways, then all else will flow smoothly from there.