By Rabbi Aaron Gol...
March 18, 2013
This past Shabbat saw the graduation of our year 10's who celebrated their Kabbalat Torah (accepting Torah) with a creative service written by the group and then leading the Shabbat Morning service. I was so proud of Max Seymour who produced this marvellous D'var Torah.
The Ten Commandments are contained in two of the Books of the Torah: in Exodus and Deuteronomy. Though similar - they provide the same fundamental laws; they differ in certain important aspects, especially relating to the commandment to rest on Shabbat. In Exodus, this commandments is strict and simple. It comes straight from God as an order. No mortal justification or explanation is given, rather, God rested on the seventh day after creating the world; therefore we should do likewise. It leaves no room for question, just ‘Remember!’ It is absolute.
In contrast, the Deuteronomy commandment for Shabbat provides a human rationale. It explains that we were once slaves in the land of Egypt and that the Eternal One freed us. It is because of this we must actively ‘observe’ rather than passively ‘remember’ the Sabbath day.
What does observing by understanding or explaining a rule or law, add to that rule or law? What does understanding add to the one who does obey the law? And what does it add to a society in which the rules are to be enforced?
Asking questions or seeking enlightenment about rules can be seen as a sign of maturity. In youth, it is important to obey, sometimes blindly. It is thought by our parents and teachers that they know best. And most of the time they do.
Therefore it made sense that when first presented with the laws, the Hebrews as a new ‘society’ obeyed without question or need of a reason. God acts autocratically, to try to develop and form the newly escaped group of slaves into a society. However, as the Hebrews developed into a nation, with complicated, new social structures including in which they themselves kept slaves, it meant that people began to reflect upon these seemingly autocratic rules and to seek a deeper understanding of them.
They found this understanding as recorded in Deuteronomy with a reminder of where they had come from: ‘Remember’ that you, Hebrews, were slaves. So now you are ‘Israelites,’ you must ‘observe’ the Sabbath not only for yourselves but for everyone who lives with you, even and perhaps especially, your slaves.
It was important for the legitimacy of both the laws and those who were to enforce them to make the commandments both relevant and meaningful to their newly sophisticated and more mature society. Mindless obeying of laws can ultimately create feelings of resentment. It has connotations of an overbearing and potentially arbitrary power. It can lead to questions about whether power is deserved . But comprehending, reflecting and understanding the law and the source of the power from which it is derived, gives us insight. It creates equity, thus making the law ethical.
As societies reflect upon the legitimacy and ethics of their rules and laws they sometimes challenge previously accepted notions of justice, duty, place in the world and relationship with others. People begin to ask for justifications for the laws. It sometimes is a sign of a mature society that no longer follows its leader without question, when the people seek information. Of course, what they will do with that information is then up to them. The important thing, though, is that they have the moral right to ask and to receive explanation.
Thinking about, reflecting upon and discussing with others that which we are taught mirrors our journeys in Judaism from Bar and Bat Mitzvah to KT. For our Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, not only did we pretty much unquestioningly plod along through it, it was important that we did so. Learning the laws as they were written was important. But with Kaballat Torah, we’re older, more mature and more sophisticated (at least as thinkers and Jews) and we’ve worked through it, asked questions, and certainly challenged some parts of it. And, what we do with those insights is up to us. Like the group of Hebrew slaves who became a society through their understanding of their laws, we’ve each come to our own personal understandings of what it means to us to be Jewish, but it now is an informed and reflective understanding. It is rooted in an ethics of justice, awareness, and importantly, community.