I am particularly fortunate to have started this week in Pittsburgh for Parashat Re’eh. It’s one of my favorites. OK, so it’s true that I have a lot of favorite parashiyyot, but this is an especially good one. I do enjoy the passages of the Torah that include numerous mitzvot / commandments, not only because they give us insight into how our ancestors lived and the values they held, but also because they continue to shape our lives today.
But let’s face it: there is quite a bit of obscure and/or curious stuff in the Torah – commandments that don’t apply to anybody today, like those related to sacrifices, or obligations for agricultural behaviors or activities that are irrelevant to contemporary non-farmers, or things that are just downright strange.
For example, in today’s parashah we encounter the obligation not only to not worship like the Canaanites do, but indeed to destroy their altars. (Has anybody met any Canaanites lately?) Also, there are commandments to tithe from our produce, to eat only certain kinds of animals, and to be particular about not eating their blood with the meat. There is the commandment to take care of the needy people around you, and the strange law about piercing the ear of the slave who opts to stay with his master rather than go free. And then there is a whole range of holiday practices.
For us today, we immediately understand the relevance of kashrut and holiday observances – most of us have been doing some of these things for our entire lives. But to an outsider looking in, this parashah might look like a jumble of eccentric behaviors that make no particular sense.
And I might argue that, if we were to look at these things objectively, devoid of context, we might also think that it is odd, for example, to avoid eating leavened things for a week, or to build and live in a temporary hut outside your home for a different week.
But I think that sometimes it is a good idea to pull back the camera to try to see the greater picture.
I recently heard a TED talk about ants, featuring the ecologist Deborah Gordon, who studies ant colonies for a living. What is striking about ants, she says, is that ants function as a collective unit without speaking, without memory, and without a visible leader. And for sure they don’t have the Internet or smartphones. And yet, they have a highly complex society that functions quite well even though not a single one of them can actually see the larger picture. No ant understands how it fits into the colony, and nobody is telling it what to do, but somehow it all works together like some magnificent symphony.
One principle that makes an ant colony function is that it has rules. Some ants forage, other ants are soldiers, the queen lays eggs, and so forth. Those rules are governed by what is encoded in the ants’ DNA.
From the human perspective, we don’t see how the ants function as individuals. We only see the final product: that the ants build extensive homes underground, and forage for food, sometimes in your pantry, and somehow manage to survive the winter to build a new colony next year. And all of this depends on the series of rules for how the ants work.
But humans are not like ants. We think; we communicate; we argue; we create; we destroy; we doubt; we cooperate; we sabotage; and so forth. Each of us as individuals has the potential to help or wound, to be selfish or to participate with others.
And that is why we need a framework. That is why human societies have always had guidelines. Laws. Courts.
And the Torah is our framework, including its obscure laws and its odd commandments. The mitzvot are our rules, and as a people, we have spent the better part of the last two millennia trying to figure out exactly how to carry out these rules. We call that system of rules, “halakhah,” which the Hebrew scholars among you will know is from the verb lalekhet, to go. Halakhah is how we walk through life.
And, just like the ants, it is difficult, and some might even say impossible, for us to see the true bigger picture. Yes, our intellect allows for us to understand more than the ants. But the larger spiritual picture is blurred; all we know is that we have a fundamental drive to reach higher, to seek holiness, to seek purity, to seek the Divine.
Our greatest sages have spent two millennia analyzing and interpreting the meaning, the reasons for, and how to carry out the mitzvot, and we continue to do so ledor vador, in each generation in its context.
You see, when it comes down to it, we don’t really know why the Torah asks us not to mark our bodies permanently, or burn animals on an altar. Even the obvious things, those mitzvot which we are naturally inclined to keep: we don’t even really know why the Torah instructs us not to murder others, or honor your parents, or abstain from sexual indiscretion. We will never really be clear on the big picture. But that is what makes Judaism interesting, and has allowed for an ongoing discourse across the ages over the meaning of what we read in the Torah. An absolute, definite answer would be boring; our tradition allows for continual renewal.
All we can really say for certain is that this template for holy living is what makes our world function. It affects the greater good. It works down here and on high. It is tried and true for 5775 years.
Now I can hear the skeptics among us who might be thinking, “OK, Rabbi, that sounds just peachy. But come on – does it really matter if I pray, or put on tefillin, or avoid shellfish?”
And the answer is yes. 100%. Why? Because you know as well as I that the America of today is one of limitless choice. We are so bombarded with “freedom” that simply choosing a toothpaste or a salad dressing from the hundreds on offer takes up far too much of our time, taking bandwidth away from things that are far more important. And the message that we continually reinforce to our children is, “What do you want?”
We need boundaries. We need framework. Some choices are acceptable, and some are not. All of us who are parents know that, but it applies to adults and children equally. What does infinite choice yield? Indecision. Paralysis. Disunity. Dissatisfaction. The feeling that even though you chose this product, or this school, or this spouse, there might be a better one behind door number 2.
Jewish life gives us a frame through which our lives are endowed with stability and purpose. And we need that more than ever.
Now, that does not mean that the boundaries do not change. Of course they have, and they will continue to change. It is a good thing for the Jews, and Maimonides says so outright in the Mishneh Torah, that prayer replaced sacrifice. It is a good thing that the slavery described in the Torah is no longer permitted. It is wonderful that we at Beth Shalom treat men and women as absolute equals under Jewish law. It is a good thing that we view halakhah through the lens of modernity; Jewish law changes with us, slowly but always for the better.
So, while the Torah includes a number of imperatives that are no longer applicable, we continue to read it and respond to it with change. The history behind the evolution of halakhah is an essential piece of this holy framework.
It’s up to us to find ways to interpret the Torah for today. That is the principle upon which I have built my rabbinate. We have to read the Torah in today’s context; not in the context from which it emerged; not in the context of 12th-century Egypt (Maimonides) or 16th-century Tzefat (Rabbi Yosef Karo, who authored the Shulhan Arukh). We welcome all of those guys to the table, but we have to seek our own meaning. We have to set the boundaries as a community, and the way we do that is the same way that our ancestors have done so for two thousand years: we open the book, and we dig into the text. (The berakhah for Torah study is “La’asoq bedivrei Torah” – to get busy with the words of Torah.)
As I move forward from this starting point here in Pittsburgh, I hope to continue doing exactly that. You will hear me say this over and over: the highest mitzvah in Jewish life is not keeping Shabbat or kashrut or daily tefillah / prayer or even honoring your parents. The highest mitzvah (Mishnah Pe’ah 1:1) is talmud Torah, interactive study of our ancient texts.
And that is how the whole system functions. We may not see the big picture, but within that microcosm, the arba amot shel halakhah, the four cubit radius of our own personal spheres of Jewish existence, we have a holy framework for living that is guided by our personal and communal understanding of Torah. And by following that framework, we each contribute individually to the overall picture.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 8/15/2015.)