I attended a junior high school run by a harsh autocrat who loved rules, discipline, and punishment. When friends of my parents arrived in the auditorium for back-to-school night a few minutes late, the principal publicly berated them and warned them that their child had better never be late to his school. The principal was a tyrant. The rules struck me as arbitrary and often formulated simply to impose control. I resisted being controlled and consequently often found myself on the receiving end of school “discipline.” On one particularly memorable occasion, I was sent to the vice-principal for some infraction or another (probably passing notes in class). The vice-principal delivered a 30-minute canned speech in which I was likened to a budding juvenile delinquent, and then threatened to send me to reform school in upstate Connecticut.
I emerged from junior high school with a strong disdain for mindless rules, and a distinct rebellious streak. Within a month of entering high school, I was summoned to the vice principal’s office because I didn’t show up for a study hall in the typing room (no desk space to get any work done; instead I went to the English Department resource and library room). I told the vice principal that after my experience in junior high school I was no longer willing to obey pointless and absurd rules for which I could see no good purpose, and the one I had violated was Exhibit A in that regard. He was quiet and thoughtful for a moment and then asked what my criteria were for following rules. That was an easy question to answer because I’d given it much thought: I was willing to follow rules that promoted order and learning in the school, and respected the person and property of everyone there. There was a long silence. He smiled and said, “Good enough. I’ll support you.” And he was true to his word for all four years of high school.
The Torah presents (in part) a world of strict rules accompanied by harsh punishment. From parshat Etchanan alone:
And now, O Israel, give heed to the laws and rules that I am instructing you to observe, so that you may live to enter and occupy the land that the Lord, the God of your ancestors, is giving you. You shall not add anything to what I command you or take anything away from it, but keep the commandments of the Lord your God that I enjoin upon you. (Deuteronomy 4:1-3)Torah tells us again and again that the purpose of God’s commandments is to ensure that the core of the society forming in the Wildness (to be transplanted to Eretz Yisrael) is justice tempered by compassion. Much in the Torah elevates our souls: laws that require and inspire compassion and decency, generosity and honesty. At the same time, examining the laws of the Torah at a remove of more than three millennia, we can easily find problematic laws. Stoning a shabbat violator, permitting slavery, executing the women and children of those defeated in battle, shaatnez, animal sacrifice, the second-class status of women, prohibition against homosexual behavior… Many laws strike us as cruel, primitive, misogynistic, arbitrary.
This is the teaching that Moses set before the Israelites: these are the decrees, laws, and rules that Moses addressed to the people of Israel, after they had left Egypt… (Deuteronomy 4:44-45)
Moses summoned all the Israelites and said to them: Here, O Israel, the laws and rules that I proclaim to you this day! Study them and observe them faithfully! (Deuteronomy 5:1. The second version of the Decalogue – the Ten Commandments – follows.)
And this is the Instruction – the laws and the rules – that the Lord your God has commanded [me] to impart to you, to be observed in the land that you are about to cross into and occupy, so that you, your children, and your children’s children may revere the Lord your God and follow, as long as you live, all His laws and commandments that I enjoin upon you, the end that you may long endure. (Deuteronomy 6:1-2)
Committed Jews struggle with the desire to live fully in covenant with God and the community, without ignoring or dismissing moral and social values we have come to embrace such as freedom, human rights, egalitarianism and much more. Living in the tension between our sacred text and moral values assures that will always ponder deeply, re-interpret, and struggle with God and tradition. After all, we are Yisrael, who strive with God. But the struggle sure is like running a race without a finish line.
Sometimes, however, it’s helpful to read our sacred texts – especially the ones we’re sure we know well – through a different lens. Parshat V’etchanan includes the first paragraph of Shema, which many of us have recited by heart in Hebrew since we were youngsters.
Hear, O Israel! The Lord is your God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. Take to heart these instructions with which I charge you this day. Impress them upon your children. Recite them when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up. Bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead; inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on yours gates. (Deuteronomy 6:4-9)Later generations sought to understand this paragraph concretely:
- Heart: the heart is the seat of our intellect and passions, which we should harness to serve God alone.
- Soul: Rashi tells us this means our very life, “even if He should take your life.”
- Might: our physical and financial means.
- Children: pass tradition on to the next generation.
- Lie down and rise up: recite Shema evening and morning.
- Bind [these words] to your hand and forehead: tefillin.
- Inscribe [these words] on your doorposts: mezuzah.
- Love God with your heart, soul, and might – every aspect of your being.
- Internalize and assimilate this love.
- Make it so much a part of your being that your children inherit it.
- Make it part of you at all times and everywhere you go – fundamental to who you are continually becoming.
- Make it the way you act in the world (your hand) and the way you think, perceive, and respond emotionally (your forehead).
Read this way, the first paragraph of Shema is not only about adherence to a strict code of laws and regulations. Rather, it might read this way: God alone is the ground of Existence and Becoming in the universe. Therefore, everything is part of a larger tapestry whose threads are interwoven inextricably together. Raise your children to understand this so that their lives, too, are a blessing. Everything you do – your thoughts and feelings, your very life, your strengths and abilities to affect change – all will have a ripple effect in this universe. Know this at all times and in all places, lest you separate yourself from the universe. Remind yourself night and day – as you lie down at night and consider what you have become that day, and as you rise up in the morning and ponder what you will do and become that day. Let God’s love and your continual becoming ground you always – let it be your home base.
As a community, we adopt standards of behavior and observance that reflect our moral values, our sense of purpose, and our need to be a community connected to one another. Torah’s authority comes not only from God who met Moses on Sinai, but from hundreds of generations of Jews who affirmed, cherished, lived loyally by, and interpreted its sacred words. Every generation reaffirms Torah and sets standards through a process of halakhic inquiry informed by the best of science, psychology, sociology, and ethics so that the mitzvot as we understand and interpret them continue to impart meaning, purpose, and communal coherence – and help us become the very best we can become. The Shema has been, and remains, the core we come home to.
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman