God Squad Rabbi Marc Gellman

Rabbi Marc Gellman writes about religion for Newsday.

Q: My question for you is based on a recent column Bob Dylan’s “Gotta Serve Somebody” lyrics. This may sound stupid or naive, but how are we supposed to serve God if we aren’t members of the clergy, ordained or rabbis? The financial challenges in this life for me — and I’m going to guess a lot of others — require a focus that I don’t see as serving God. So how do we serve God on a daily basis when keeping a roof over our heads and food on the table is of primary importance? It would be nice if you could list a bunch of ways to do that. Can serving God be as simple as doing things like saying something thoughtful and nice to somebody or opening the door of a store for a stranger, saying good morning to people, etc.?

— From D, via email

A: Serving God is not a prerogative of professionally religious folks. It is the joyous and often challenging gift any person can give to the God who created us all. In fact, the idea that we can somehow appoint our clergy to act as religious surrogates for us is destructive to our own spiritual growth. Serving God is on each of us. There are ways we do that serving that are identical for us all and there are ways to serve God that are different for each of us depending upon our own unique blessings.

The Bible is full of spiritually helpful hints about our universal obligations to God. Interestingly, almost none of the classic biblical texts describing how we should serve God list any ritual obligations. In fact Isaiah chapter 58 brings the word of God against fasting on Yom Kippur unless it is accompanied with justice for the oppressed. The biblical lists are all ethical obligations as your sensitive soul picked up in your question. The classic biblical text is, of course, the Golden Rule, the commandment to love your neighbor as you love yourself. It links both Old and New Testaments as it is found in Leviticus 19:18, as well as Matthew 19:19. In Galatians 5:14 it is considered as the summation of all the other ways to serve God. I love Jesus’ answer to the question of how to serve him in Matthew 25:34-40: “Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me. Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”

The most explicit biblical text and my personal favorite is from the prophet Micah:

“He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the LORD require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?” (Micah 6:8).

Be just, merciful, and humble. That works for me and I am pleased as punch that it also works for the Creator of the Universe.

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So these and other texts establish for all of us the list of ethical virtues we must cultivate not only to serve each other but also to serve God. People who have difficulties with religion and faith ought to pause and consider that the main way religions have all chosen to serve God is through ethical acts that are the same for us all, not through rituals that are quite different for us all. It is an inspiring fact of religious life.