Things we should do. Things we shouldn't do. Things we must always do, and things we must never do. (It's interesting how the Hebrew language has grammatical forms- "lo" and "al-" that allow one to express a "do not" and an emphatic "absolutely do not." I wonder what we are to make of that? Are some negative mitzvot more important? Also, oddly enough, while one might think that black and white things, absolute yes and no, would be easier to deal with, that's not always the case, is it?)
So, do the less emphatic yes and no become less important? Are we free to pick and choose from among the less emphatic commandments which ones to observe, but not free to do the same with the absolute ones (like the Aseret Hadibrot?) Liberal Judaism embraces the "informed choice" concept. It often becomes in practice, unfortunately, the "we don't have to" concept.
And that's just not good enough-at least, not for me. (I don't want to debate the relative merits of liberal informed choice versus traditional adherence-that wasn't my point in 2002 and it's not my point today.)
We are told something very important in D'varim 32:47, after Moshe reminds the people to heed the words he has spoken:
"This is no trifling matter for you, it is your very life."
The Hebrew word translated by the JPS committee as "trifling" is "reik" and it comes from a root (resh-yod-qof) that actually means empty, or sometimes vain. The verbal form can mean to empty, or even to pour out. The analogy is thought-provoking. If we simply empty ourselves of the mitzvot, or pour them out of ourselves, then we may be truly empty. Mitzvot can give our lives meaning, so we must be careful how we deal with them.
Using this Hebrew word "reik" also allows us to caution a Jew who blindly observes the commandments - for that can be just as empty or trifling an approach.
So, for the liberal Jew, it's not simply a matter of saying "that's too inconvenient and not relevant, I hereby discard it utterly." And for the traditional Jew, it's not simply a matter of saying "that's exactly what it says, so that's what I must exactly do." Either of those choices trivializes the words and their meanings. We are meant to engage the mitzvot. Grapple with them. Struggle. Search for meaning and understanding. We ignore them or blindly obey them at our own peril.
The words of Torah are no trifles, they are pearls. Let us value them.
We may each find a different meaning in them, but when we dig no deeper than a superficial reading, we haven't really found anything at all. When we allow others to determine the meaning for us, with no input of our own, we haven't really found anything at all.
It is time to start digging deeper. This Shabbat, grab those literary and intellectual shovels and start. Just don't dig yourself into a hole. (However, if you somehow mange to dig yourself into a "whole," that's another thing entirely.) Well (pun intended,) before I dig in any deeper, I'd better extricate myself.
I wish you a Shabbat Shalom, a Tzom Qal, and a G'mar Khatimah Tovah.
©2001 & 2006 by Adrian A. Durlester
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