April 29, 2022
Do we follow laws because it’s simply the right thing to do? Or do we follow laws because we’re afraid of the consequences? Maybe we follow laws because we trust the intent and motive of the lawmaker? Or maybe the law just makes sense or is easy to follow so we simply don’t give it much attention?
What about when we break the rules? Do we do it because we don’t care; because we’re lazy; maybe we disagree with the intent or the premise, or maybe we doubt its source? How about the question of whether some laws should apply to some individuals and different laws to other groups? Is this fair? Should it be fair?
No matter which questions we stop to consider, and no matter what our specific answer to any of these questions, this week’s Torah portion, Achrei Mot, gives us an interesting insight into how Gd introduced us to this challenge.
“My rules shall you observe, and My laws you will keep, so that you will walk in their ways: I am the Lrd your Gd. Keeping My laws and My rules, which the people shall observe and live by: I am the Lrd.”(Leviticus 18:4-5)
Our great sage Rashi explains this seeming redundancy as Gd’s direction to follow the spiritual laws of the heavens with equal conviction to our material earthly laws. To have a spiritual certainty and ignore society’s laws or vice versa is not what Gd wants of us. In fact, the reversal to “keep” and “observe” in verse 5 from the requirement to “observe” and “keep” in verse 4, is specifically letting us know that one should never take priority over the other.
Years ago, before deciding to go to graduate school, I found myself seeking wisdom from a rabbi, whom I was hoping could help clarify the vision toward my journey’s unclear destination. As I sat outside the rabbi’s office, having arrived early for my meeting, I sat across from the synagogue chapel and heard the gathered minyan recite the morning prayers. At the conclusion of the service, the rabbi entered into his study and invited me in. While sharing my story, interests, and potential pursuits, we discussed the many possibilities for my future. The rabbi poked and prodded my narrative, constantly seeking a deeper understanding behind the “why” of all the what I was sharing.
At one point in our discussion, the rabbi asked me, what I thought was a complete non sequitur, “Why did you not join the minyan while you sat waiting for me this morning?” At first, I was both embarrassed and defensive, but when I realized I was there to seek guidance I shared my honest reason. “Services don’t really work for me. I tried connecting through prayer years ago. I once made a concerted effort to attend with great regularity and commitment, but eventually, it just didn’t work.”
The rabbi looked at me and simply asked, “What didn’t work? Being able to fulfill a mitzvah when given the opportunity?”
“Of course not.” I stammered. Feeling the rush of blood again and a new lump in my throat. “The connecting with Gd through prayer didn’t work.”
The rabbi looked at me and explained his question, “As human beings, we have spiritual responsibilities as well as physical ones. Neither one is more important than the other, but both need to be nurtured for us to locate where we stand so that we can know where we are heading.” The rabbi continued, “Imagine one set of these responsibilities as your longitude and the other as your latitude. If you only focus on one, how will you know where to head?”
Today, over three decades later I still find myself struggling to maintain that balance of following our spiritual obligations as we do the physical ones. Yes, the street signs and traffic lights on the road while driving help. Yes, the consequence of a ticket keeps me in check when I’m in a rush. But so too should the opportunity to join a minyan if it exists; to offer an unrequested helping hand when available, or to offer an ear to a friend or loved one when needed.
So, no matter what laws we face, whether they are large or small, easy to follow or difficult, spiritual or physical, and no matter from where these laws originate, the critical thing to remember is that their purpose is to support, protect, encourage, and respect a shared world that we both see and feel.
This week, I wish us all some greater clarity in knowing where we are, or where we are heading. May we all have the opportunity to seek out those moments to improve our spiritual bearings. And if you happen to have an hour or two tomorrow (Shabbat) morning, please join us for one of our community-wide Stronger Together Federation Shabbats. We would love to see you there because we are…