This week, we read parashah Behar- Behukotei, containing laws of moral imperatives, social standards, civil and criminal injunctions. They concern how we treat our fellow human being, how we relate to God and the importance of protecting the land just as we protect ourselves- with Shabbat. These laws could seem as a yoke around the neck of the Israelites, yet rather than question God’s commandments, the people Israel continue to recite as one- we accept these commandments- N’Aseh V’Nishmah. We will do and we will hear.
One of the Great Hasidic Rebbes, Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, ponders the easy acceptance of the Israelites to God’s command. He asks, in relation to phrase Na’aseh v’nishmah- we will do and then we will hear- how does this make sense? By encapsulating the Jewish way of life, Menachem Mendl answers his own query by reasoning that through doing mitzvot, we will hear- read, we will understand God and the Divine mystery of the world. The Kotzker ritualizes all behavior so that everything we do is connected in some way to God. Through the process of doing God’s mitzvot, we come to understand God. Through praying at a specific time every day, we learn to draw close to God. Through making choices with what we eat, we remember that we are God’s creatures.
In Jewish tradition, we tell the same stories over and over again in order to teach and reteach the lesson. Here is a personal story that you have most likely heard me tell and yet I continue to tell it because it has so much to teach…. When I was in High School, I spent a year working at Crabtree and Evelyn in the Chestnut Hill Mall. During the holiday season, I was positioned at the front of the store, making baskets and greeting people. One Saturday afternoon, just before Christmas, Rabbi Larry Kushner and his wife walked by the store. I was shocked to see him in the mall and without thinking blurted out, to my embarrassment, “Rabbi, what are you doing here, its Shabbat?” He smiled and replied, “Goldberg- my maiden name, what are you doing working here, its Shabbat?” I continued to push “But I’m not the Rabbi, you are?” “Are you a Jew”, he continued, and as I nodded, “he said, then you need to set your own standards. I can’t be a Jew for you- you need to be one for yourself. I don’t have the lock on Judaism and I am comfortable with my Shabbat observance, are you?” That conversation, held over ten years ago, changed the way that I viewed my own Judaism. I began to celebrate Shabbat in a different way, and explore rituals that I normally wouldn’t have.
We are Reform Jews, and as Reform Jews we need to experiment with personal involvement in ritual. We do a wonderful job of keeping the ethical commandments between adam l’havero- between people. Most of the time, we take care of each other and tend to treat others as we would wish to be treated. We also help those in our community whether financially or through the gift of time. But it’s more difficult for us as Reform Jews to keep the ritual commandments- those between adam L’makom- us and God. And it is incumbent upon us to try and see how they might enrich our lives.
For most Reform Jews, a commandment is a mitzveh in the Yiddish sense, a good deed performed out of our commitment to the Jewish people and to fellow human beings, with no sense of God in the equation. For other Reform Jews, mitzvah is a commandment ordained by our living God which is done merely because it is commanded. The Israelites of Exodus uttered Na’aseh V’nishmah. We will do because we are commanded by God to do. Na’aseh V’nishmah seems to be a lost phrase among Liberal Jews.
How many of us fulfill a religious ritual because we are commanded by God? With our eclectic, autonomous sense of observance are there any mitzvot which we perform because of Divine decree? Which mitzvot do we do simply because we are Jews?
We need to set for ourselves a personal level of religious standard and adhere to that standard in order to find peace for ourselves. Whether it be making Shabbat dinner twice a month, keeping some level of kashrut or using a different set of plates for Pesach. Because we are Reform Jews, it does not mean that we are less religious, or less responsible for our own religion. It means that we meld Judaism and modernism, finding the right fit for ourselves. But we can’t determine the fit without trying something on.
As mitzvot are seen through the prism of each generation’s search for meaning, we believe that it is incumbent on us continually to examine the
whole array of mitzvot, and to embrace those that can shape our lives...Performing Mitzvot leads us to a higher sense of holiness. Do we want our children to remain Jewish? Then we need to make sure that they are educated. Jewish education does not stop at Bar or Bat Mitzvah. Imagine if you decided that at 13 that your children had enough secular schooling. Would they be able to get a job? Understand how the world works? We all know the answer to these questions and yet, we have determined in this community that our children do not need a religious education past the age of 13. No wonder that there are so many disconnected Jewish adults with a 13 year old mentality towards religious practice. “Its boring” “I doesn’t mean anything to me.” We, as parents, are responsible for making our children attend Keshet, Hebrew High School or whatever your teen learning program is called, and modeling learning for them.
Over the past several years, I have met many people who attend services twice a year, on the High Holydays. That is their only
involvement in Jewish ritual life. They may feel like connected Jews, but they are certainly not practicing Jews. That would be commensurate to my saying that because I went to church twice this year for an interfaith services, a funeral and read the New Testament again that I am a Catholic. It doesn’t work that way. We need to put the same effort into Judaism that we put into our tennis to receive the gifts of enrichment and blessing.
And so I ask all of us- for our own sake, for the sake of the Jewish people- to find some way to increase our ritual involvement. There are several ways of accomplishing this: We can heed the commandment to Shamor et Yom HaShabbat- to keep the Sabbath day by lighting candles and making Shabbat dinner more frequently. We can make it mandatory that every family member attend Shabbat services together once a month. Observing Shabbat does not have to be an all or nothing enterprise. We don’t have to stop using electricity, refuse to perform the 33 levels of work that the Talmud declares unsanctioned for Shabbat or find neighbors to open our mail or turn on our lights, but we are responsible for keeping the Sabbath alive. We are responsible for marking the day as something different, something special. And it will make a difference in how we view time. We can follow a level of Kashrut in our homes- whatever that level may be- deciding that pork chops will not be on the menu- eating milk and meat separately. Hanging mezzuzot on every door, except for the bathroom. There are a tremendous number of other commandments that we could be taking into our lives from reciting a blessing before eating, to reciting the Shema before bedtime, to taking minutes out of our busy day to think of our relationship to God and to the earth.
Taking on a commandment is like training for a marathon. We can’t possibly run all 26 miles the first day. We take each step slowly and work our way up to the final destination. Rabbi Hanina, one of the great Talmudic sages teaches in Kedoshim 31A, “Greater is one who is commanded to do something and does it, than once who is not commanded to do something and does it.” This sounds strange to our modern Reform ears. We have been trained in an era where rationalism values autonomy and choice. So we pick mitzvot which palpably infuse our life with meaning, those which we consider good deeds. Sometimes, in our celebration of freedom and autonomy, we no longer allow ourselves to hear the voice of a commanding God.
I am not suggesting that we blindly follow commandments of the Torah which are antithetical to the essence of our being. Not many of us would feel commanded to engage in animal sacrifice on this bimah, treat women as anything but equals or put a member of our community to death for desecrating the Shabbat. I am also not suggesting that we, like some on the religious right, violate our ethical code by acting violently against others or objectifying others in the name of God. I am merely suggesting that as Liberal Jews, we take responsibility for our own Judaism- to Na’aseh V’nishmah- to do and know.