“Actions speak louder than words.”
We think of that in particular surrounding gestures of kindness or generosity. Physically showing up to help a friend in need is often much more valuable and appreciated than verbal expressions of sympathy.
In Jewish life, actions transmit more than words. Lighting Hanukkah candles; blotting out Haman’s name; cleaning out the hametz; tashlikh; fasting; dancing with the Torah. Yes, all of those things come with a story. And there’s so much more background and history and ideas and textual sources that go along with the story.
But Jewish life requires action. Our tradition wants us to do something, not just think or talk about it. God wants you to get off the couch, get out into the world, and perform a physical action. And carrying out the actions of Jewish life – Shabbat, kashrut, holiday rituals – is why we are all still here.
“But rabbi,” you might be thinking, “What about Rabbi Akiva, who said that study is greater than action?” (BT Qiddushin 40b)
I would respond by saying, of course you are correct. Who am I to disagree with Rabbi Akiva? But Rabbi Akiva’s reasoning is that study leads to action. So action is still the ultimate goal. The reason we learn is that study helps us bring meaning to the action, which makes it more valuable, which makes you more likely to do it.
In the opening words of Parashat Bo, from which we chanted this morning, included the following (Exodus / Shemot 10:1):
וַיֹּ֤אמֶר ה֙’ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה בֹּ֖א אֶל־פַּרְעֹ֑ה כִּֽי־אֲנִ֞י הִכְבַּ֤דְתִּי אֶת־לִבּוֹ֙ וְאֶת־לֵ֣ב עֲבָדָ֔יו לְמַ֗עַן שִׁתִ֛י אֹתֹתַ֥י אֵ֖לֶּה בְּקִרְבּֽוֹ׃
God said to Moshe, “Go to Pharaoh. For I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his courtiers, in order that I may display these My signs among them.”
Now, what is most curious about this verse, and in particular the word that identifies the parashah, is בֹּא / Bo. If you’ve learned any spoken Hebrew, you probably know this word: it means, “Come,” as in, “Come over here and check out this very interesting verse.” So when God tells Moshe to בֹּ֖א אֶל־פַּרְעֹ֑ה / Bo el Par’oh, he is saying, “Come to Pharaoh,” where we might expect לֵךְ, “Go to Pharaoh.
One commentator, R. Yosef Bekhor Shor, who lived in central France in the 12th century, reads this statement as God saying, “Come with me to Pharaoh.” That is, Moshe should understand that he is coming along with God to request freedom for his people; he is not going alone.
When performing any holy action, just like Moshe, it is up to us to see that God wants us to come along. God wants us to recite berakhot over eating; God wants us to refrain from physical labor and dine luxuriously with family and friends on Shabbat; God wants us to recite words of prayer, Shema and Amidah daily; God wants us to light candles and give tzedaqah and shake the lulav and etrog and wash our hands before making motzi and of course wear a tallit and tefillin at appropriate times.
And when we perform these actions, when we connect our hearts and minds to our hands and feet and mouths in all those moments of holy opportunity, God is coming along with us.
And, by the way, it does not matter if you fulfill the mitzvah of handwashing before making motzi in the Grand Ballroom of a palatial synagogue or in the humblest of kitchens, you still get all the credit. And God is right there with you no matter what.
Now, something which we might run up against in performing the actions of Jewish life is that some of those mitzvot and customs were historically only reserved for men. In particular, positive, time-bound mitzvot – positive, meaning things that you do (as opposed to refrain from doing) and time-bound, meaning that there is a particular time-frame in which they must be performed – from which women were traditionally exempted, and, one might say, even excluded. Think of tallit and tefillin, or leading the congregation in tefillah / prayer, or reading from the Torah or taking aliyot.
I know that it is hard to believe, now half a century after the ordination of the first female rabbi by the Reform movement, and approaching forty years since the first Conservative female rabbi was ordained, that this gender differential still plays out. It is hard to believe that in this congregation, where many women lead us in prayer and in teaching.
But there certainly remains a stubborn gender gap in performing fundamental Jewish actions, not only because many of us in this room grew up in a non-egalitarian world, but also because of the resurgent influence of Orthodoxy.
And so as part of this vision of increased commitment to action for all Jewish adults who are benei mitzvah, the Religious Services Committee this week decided that we are going to gently begin to try to nudge all of us to take action on these positive, time-bound mitzvot, and in particular to encourage the most outward signs of commitment to our tradition.
Now, we are not ready to force anybody to do something that they do not consider themselves obligated to do. However, please consider the following:
In 1984, Rabbi Joel Roth, one of my halakhah teachers at the Jewish Theological Seminary, wrote a landmark teshuvah / rabbinic responsum which permitted the ordination of women as rabbis, but it mandated that in order for this to happen, women must “self-obligate” to all the positive, time-bound mitzvot from which they have traditionally been excluded.
Thirty years later, however, in 2014, Rabbi Pamela Barmash, who herself was permitted to be ordained due to Rabbi Roth’s teshuvah, wrote her own teshuvah on the subject of women and mitzvot. And Rabbi Barmash said something which, I think, should be broadcast loudly and proudly throughout the Jewish world.
She reasoned that the traditional exemption of women from those positive, time-bound mitzvot was solely due to their historically subordinate status. That is, they were not men, and were not equally obligated to men. And then – this is the best part – she pointed out that (wait for it!) “times have changed.” She concludes with the following statement, which is absolutely revolutionary:
The halakhah has recognized that when social customs change significantly, the new social reality requires a reappraisal of halakhic practices. The historical circumstances in which women were exempted from time-bound positive mitzvot are no longer operative, and the Conservative movement has for almost a century moved toward greater and greater inclusion of women in mitzvot. In Jewish thought and practice, the highest rank and esteem is for those who are required to fulfill mitzvot. We rule therefore that women and men are equally obligated to observe the mitzvot.
We call upon Conservative synagogues, schools, and camps to educate men and women in equal observance of mitzvot and to expect and require their equal observance of mitzvot.
In other words, says Rabbi Barmash, all adults are invited to and indeed should strive to fulfill all of the mitzvot of Jewish life.
Now, as I have already stated, we are in the stage of encouraging here at Beth Shalom, not requiring. In addition to the new tallitot in the back of the room meant to encourage people who have not taken on this mitzvah, we will also have an upcoming series featuring Rabbi Dr. Rachel Adler to introduce tallit and tefillin to those who are unaccustomed or perhaps anxious about taking the next step. Even sooner than that, the Men’s Club’s World Wide Wrap is two weeks from tomorrow; we will be teaching tefillin (and tallit) here and at JJEP, and of course there will be breakfast. And the Religious Services Committee will continue to discuss how to encourage the performance of these mitzvot during our services moving forward.
Remember that all of this is in service to the goal of getting you all to do something Jewish. Not to be a passive participant, because it is the actions that bring meaning and frame our lives. It is the mitzvot of Jewish life which bring its value to heart. We cannot just talk about it; we have to live it. And God has invited us all to come along.
Rather than “compete” with the empty, material aspects of contemporary life, we have to demonstrate the value of what we do. And we have to do it.
It is through these actions that we are all – every single one of us – fulfilled in a rich and varied way, and it is through the performance of the mitzvot of Jewish life that we will continue to cast light on our generations into the future.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 1/28/2023.)