Nechama Leibowitz was undoubtedly correct when she wrote that the gist of the entire Torah is contained in one verse: “And now O Israel what does the Lord your God demand of you? Only this: to revere the Lord your God, to walk only in His paths, to love Him, and to serve your God with all your heart and soul” (Deuteronomy 10:12). The Talmud (Berakhot 33b) questions how the Torah could give short shrift to reverence. The text makes it seem that God’s demand is minimal: only reverence is required. Only reverence? Reverence is no small requirement. It is a substantial commitment.
The Talmud goes on to explain that for Moses, reverence for God is indeed a small thing. After all, he spoke to God face to face. Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev went further. To the Israelites who lived in the time of Moses, reverence for God was also a small thing since they beheld the great miracles wrought by God in Egypt, at the time of the Exodus, and in the journey through the wilderness. Reverence, concluded the Berditchiver, is a problem only in the dark times when Jews no longer perceive God as involved in their affairs. For such Jews, reverence is a difficult commitment.
The problem is how to cultivate a sense of reverence for God when direct, immanent, personal experience of God is absent. It is here that the text offers some guidance. Reverence for God, the highest goal of Jewish life, is developed by the daily performance of religious obligations: “keeping the Lord’s commandments” (v. 13). And the opposite is also true. Failing to keep God’s commandments leads to forgetting about God, the antithesis of reverence (Deuteronomy 8:11). Reverence is connected to doing. In fact, it is a consequence of doing. The doing generates the feeling. To generate the feeling of reverence independent of doing would be extraordinarily difficult.
Rabbi Joseph Albo (Sefer Ha-Iqqarim 3:31) explains it this way: “Now, Israel, consider the wonderful kindness of God. What does He ask of you? Instead of the fear of God, instead of walking in His ways and loving Him, instead of serving Him with all your heart and soul, all of which you are obliged to do—He asks you merely to keep the commandments of God and His statutes which I command you this day, for your good, i. e., all this is for your good, because by keeping the commandments of the Torah one may attain the human purpose which we should attain by great labor and enormous effort through fear and love and God’s service with all one’s heart and soul.”
The mitzvot are the necessary means to the higher end.