Shabbat Akharei Mot-Kedoshim: Choices Don’t Free You, They Distract You

On any given day, we are confronted with choices, and have to make a decision regarding how best to choose; that is, how best to live. In some ways we imagine that our lives are so much better than our ancestors, who, we presume, made their choices from a much narrower range of options, and therefore must not have been as happy as we are. More choices must mean more freedom, and that must mean more happiness – or so we might think.
What a contrast the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel offer us:
… who, then, is the free person?  The creative person who is not carried away by the flow of necessity, not bound by the chains of process and not enslaved by circumstance. We are free in precious moments … liberty is not the constant state of human beings. We all have the potential for freedom but in fact we act freely only in rare moments of creativity.
Jewish tradition offers a framework of meaning for one’s everyday acts that one might argue “free us up” for the moments of creative freedom to which we might find ourselves called. Some days, it simply pares down to manageable size the collection of decisions one needs to make. The obligations that replace some of those choices are called mitzvot. You might say that the mitzvot take care of the daily choices that otherwise distract us from what’s truly meaningful and needs our careful attention. Take kashrut for one: what you are having for lunch, for example, is so much less important than choosing what social justice organization to support.
On this Shabbat the parashat hashavua records what scholars call the “Holiness Code,” a list of specific acts to which we are obligated by our belonging to the Covenant of the Jewish people with G*d. We might consider them the grounding in the quotidian which enables us to save our energy for the surprising and the unusual.
Consider these, taken from this Shabbat’s text:
ט  וּבְקֻצְרְכֶם אֶת-קְצִיר אַרְצְכֶם,
לֹא תְכַלֶּה פְּאַת שָׂדְךָ לִקְצֹר; וְלֶקֶט קְצִירְךָ, לֹא תְלַקֵּט.
When you reap the harvest of your land, do not wholly reap the corner of your field, nor gather the gleanings of your harvest.

when you gather in that which is yours, leave some, and give up your belief in ownership of it.

י  וְכַרְמְךָ לֹא תְעוֹלֵל, וּפֶרֶט כַּרְמְךָ לֹא תְלַקֵּט:
לֶעָנִי וְלַגֵּר תַּעֲזֹב אֹתָם, אֲנִי יְ-ה אֱלֹ-כֶם.
10 Do not glean your vineyard, nor gather the fallen fruit of the vineyard;
leave them for the poor and for the stranger: I am HaShem your G*d.

don’t spend everything you have on yourself; put some of what you’ve gained into a tzedakah fund that cares for the poor.

יא  לֹא, תִּגְנֹבוּ; וְלֹא-תְכַחֲשׁוּ וְלֹא-תְשַׁקְּרוּ, אִישׁ בַּעֲמִיתוֹ. 11 Do not steal; do not deal falsely nor lie one to another.

don’t pretend the facts are otherwise in order to suit your desires or goals.

יב  וְלֹא-תִשָּׁבְעוּ בִשְׁמִי, לַשָּׁקֶר:  וְחִלַּלְתָּ אֶת-שֵׁם אֱלֹהֶיךָ, אֲנִי יְ-ה.

………….

12 Do not swear by G*d’s name falsely and make it contemptible: I am HaShem.

Don’t swear “by all that is holy” and lie, because when it is found out,
no one will respect anything that you hold holy.

…….

יז  לֹא-תִשְׂנָא אֶת-אָחִיךָ, בִּלְבָבֶךָ; הוֹכֵחַ תּוֹכִיחַ אֶת-עֲמִיתֶךָ,
וְלֹא-תִשָּׂא עָלָיו חֵטְא.
17 Do not hate another in your heart; rebuke your neighbour,
do not bear sin because of your neighbor.

Expressing anger without acting against someone who does wrong is itself wrong; speak out and seek to confront that person, lest you be part of the problem.

יח  לֹא-תִקֹּם וְלֹא-תִטֹּר אֶת-בְּנֵי עַמֶּךָ,
וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ:  אֲנִי, יְ-ה.
18 Do not take vengeance, nor hold any grudge against your people.
Love your neighbour as yourself: I am HaShem.

And yet, do not write off that person who does wrong, and remember
forever that wrong, and hold it against that person – treat everyone else
as you would wish to be treated, if you truly believe that there’s a G*d you follow (however you might define the Source of your certainties and your life), and a people to which you belong.

Some things are already set down for you as a Jew (or someone who loves and travels with one). Let them hold you up in moments of crisis. These are part of your bedrock, allowing us to stand firm upon it. Thus we have the strength to create that which needs our careful, conscious, ethical choices.
Hazak v’nit’hazek, be strong and let us strengthen each other

Shabbat HaGadol: Being Commanded isn’t Enough, and Neither is Being Free

The days before and after Shabbat haGadol, “the Great Shabbat,” are meant to be a time of excitement and joy, of running around to find the best ingredients and the nicest symbolic foods for our Seder. It’s a time to clean house, to bring out the Pesakh plates and the “good” utensils in honor of the holy day, and of looking forward to being with people we love for the special evening. It’s also a time to review the Haggadah, to prepare to sell the hametz, and to remind ourselves – or enjoy learning for the first time – all the laws and customs and habits.

Shabbat haGadol is always the Shabbat just preceding the Seder. This year the parashat hashavua is Tzav, “command.” And it’s worth taking a moment to let that word remind us that for our ancestors, the preparations for and the observances of Pesakh were not something to decide upon but obligations to fulfill and commands to obey. We are on the other side of an abyss from that world, a would defined by the certainty that one’s life was plotted out with clear rules and duties. It may sound burdensome, but Jewish tradition insists that there is a freedom inherent within submission to the mitzvot. 

We live on the other side of that abyss, in a world of choices that we believe we make freely – until we consider the impact of the influences upon the choices we make: what our friends do, what we believe is expected of us, what our parents formed in us from an early age which we either strive to fulfill or are still in reaction against. Then there’s marketing, advertising, and all the other ways in which our society creates the conditions for psychological suggestion. In a world of so many influences, how are we supposed to know what the best choice might be? And what makes us think that we are really free to discern and make that choice?

The great Israeli philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz (brother of the great Torah teacher Nehama Leibowitz – what was that family’s Seder like?) taught that freedom is an illusion. “Cows grazing in a meadow are free,” he said, “they have no obligations at all. Neither are they capable of achieving anything at all. Do you want to be as free as a cow?”

We human beings have obligations, not least to those cows. But that realization is not enough, just as the sign posted in the gym where I exercise five days a week is not, in its urging me to “Live With Intention – Be Bold and Fearless – Make a Difference.” One following these promptings could just as easily apply them to intentionally using the nuclear option in the Senate to force a Supreme Court confirmation, boldly and fearlessly gutting the EPA, and making a difference in the Syrian conflict by bombing refugees.

It’s not enough to be free, and it’s not even enough to know you are commanded, if you do not have a sense of how, and and community to check yourself with. Mitzvot offer a valid and beautiful way to answer the question of “how”,  and the community, through which law is adumbrated and flexed, is the way that the Jewish people developed a meta-ethic of “love your neighbor as yourself” which is meant to communally overrule (by practicing, or, more to the point, not) some of our eternal Torah laws which are not so appropriate.

The sacred Jewish community isn’t perfect, and neither are its laws – both are holy inspiration, though, faithfully if imperfectly transmitted by human hearts and hands. It makes our review of the Pesakh laws comforting – we’re going to do once again something our people has done for millennia – and it guides our free choice, narrowing down the options to something more relevant, coherent, and, even, safe, in the face of all that chaos of what might otherwise seem an endless, meaningless flow of equally valid choices.  

May you find comfort in the mitzvot and the excitement of Pesakh, and be reassured that in the face of unimaginable tragedy wherever it exists in our world, these mitzvot have Eternal meaning. We may not always know what that meaning is – but we’ll only discover it by immersing ourselves in the doing. Consider it your thread of sanity and certainty in all this rain.

hazak v’nithazek, let us be strong and strengthen each other,