It was a clear day when I recently crossed the country, flying home after speaking at a well-known East Coast synagogue. Knowing we’d be approaching the Mississippi River, I eagerly scanned the landscape below. Right on schedule, there it was—the Mighty Mississippi, the greatest river system in North America.
From 30,000 feet I could see more than a hundred miles of the river stretching away to the south. But wait a moment! Why wasn’t it flowing in a long, straight line? Why were those great sweeping curves meandering from one side to the other? In fact, most waters ramble. Even the rivulet of rain flowing down my car windshield doesn’t take the direct route.
There are very few straight lines in nature. Sea shells and sunflowers sport spirals while leaves and petals display delicate curves. Oceans have waves while hills, lakes and valleys are contoured in sinuous arcs and turns. There just aren’t many straight lines.
However, we humans usually build straight roads, straight walls, and straight pipe-lines. Most significantly, phylacteries -Tefillin- (Exodus 13:16 and Deuteronomy 6:8) which Jewish men wear while praying each weekday morning, must comprise square boxes with perfectly straight edges.
We all know the meaning of English expressions such as ‘keeping to the straight and narrow’ and we might remember Johnny Cash’s 1950s song, I Walk the Line. One source for the metaphor of walking the line is:
The roadway of the righteous is turning away from evil…
Furthermore, the theme of following the line without deviating is seen here:
And you shall guard yourself to do as the Lord your God commanded you;
you shall not stray to the right or left.
The implication is that humans need to know exactly where we stand. Straight lines are best whether you are plotting your position on a map or probing your moral outlook.
Our challenge is to know where the line lies. One way of exploring this is to ask, “Is what I am doing right?” Follow this question up by asking another—“Says who?” It triggers a wonderful dinner table conversation for one’s children too. Who is our ultimate arbiter of what is right? When we say, “Let’s do the right thing,” what exactly do we mean? In this way we can test ourselves and help locate our moral coordinates.
Ancient Jewish wisdom relates that God subjected Abraham to a total of ten tests. The last one was the command to sacrifice Isaac.
And it was after these events that God tested Abraham…
This is perplexing. Wouldn’t God already have known of Abraham’s righteousness? Why still another test?
As usual, the clue lies in the Hebrew text. The Hebrew word for test, NeS, is exactly the same as the Hebrew word for banner or flag as seen here:
He will raise a banner for far-off nations…
God wasn’t ‘testing’ Abraham as much as He was providing Abraham with a banner to display for his own moral growth and as a flag to flourish for his descendants.
Nature may do its thing but we are to rise above nature. While nature’s curves and meanders are beautiful and can point us toward their Creator, our duty to that Creator is to walk the line He set. We need to constantly remind ourselves that humans are different from animals and the natural world because we are touched by the finger of God. Physically we can ramble and enjoy byways, but spiritually we must find the straight line that we must walk and walk it even in the face of temptation.
I truly appreciate how many requests we get for past Thought Tools. However, our office staff is stretched quite thin. Please do us and yourself a favor and acquire the two books which comprise the Thought Tool Set. You will have dozens of Thought Tools easily accessible for you, your family and friends. As with all Torah learning, you will find that as you grow you see new dimensions and depth in God’s word. It also makes a great teacher appreciation or hostess gift and is available online this week at a reduced price.