I gaze at the news and am speechless. I have no answers to the barrage of questions in my head. I can’t imagine what motivates terrorists to sink to the depth of depravity. Do they eventually have an epiphany and realize the absurdity of their mission? How does a radical extremist cope when they find their aspirations and dreams in tatters? I can’t comprehend how they have fashioned human life to become so inconsequential. Hundreds of thousands of mangled corpses produce nothing but a sigh of insignificance.
I am perplexed by how we have allowed the unimaginable images of terror to disrupt and dull our senses. We start our day by reading a newspaper or watching TV and images of death are allowed to permeate our heads, hearts, and homes. Is our silence and acceptance collateral damage? This question only leads to more questions that gnaw at my soul.
Unfortunately my questions have few answers. I can’t fathom death, but it is life that really troubles me. Am I so focused on impossibly idealistic pursuits that I am no longer able to grasp what is realistically attainable? Is Jordan’s retaliation against ISIS for burning their pilot alive a worthwhile endeavor for me to pursue? Is Greece’s reneging on commitments to repay tens of billions in debts something that I should delve into? How about Russia invading Crimea, Iran and its nuclear weapons, or Cuba’s reentry into the 21st century? By comprehending these matters will I achieve prominence or enlightenment? Will these pursuits ensure that after 120 years I will enter the pearly gates with angels escorting me to the heavenly throne? Sadly I know the answer. So why do I still feel the gnawing pain of the unanswered question?
Are these even the question I should be asking? Should I not be more concerned with deviant sexual behaviors that are an existential threat to our society? This week in Australia a Royal Commission is investigating twenty years of abuse and neglect in certain Chasidic schools. Should I not be more concerned that a previous Chief Rabbi of Israel was arrested this week on charges of fraud and financial irregularities? Does my obsession with global terrorism cloud my ability to focus on our own issues? I gaze at our Jewish world and I am less than pleased. We seem to exert so much energy on outward manifestation of observance while accomplishing so little for our inner soul.
Perhaps I can gain a better understanding of Judaism by taking a page out of economists’ play book. Some economists examine financial data by focusing on a microeconomic prospective, taking the position that only micro issues are true catalysts in determining future growth. Others dismiss micro issues and focus solely on the macro – the larger picture. By using a similar process one may gain a keener insight into Judaism. Last week’s Torah portion focused primarily on macro Judaism: the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments held aloft by Moses as he stood majestically on Mount Sinai. Some consider these ”big” ten to represent all that is essential and important in Judaism while relegating the remaining laws to the second tier of theological significance.
Rashi’s comments on this week’s opening verse are illuminating. The portion states: And these are the laws…” Rashi questions why the portion begins with the conjunction “and.” His answer proposes a broader perspective of Jewish life. He believes the “and” indicates that just as the Ten Commandments were given by God on Mount Sinai, so too are all the laws found in this week’s portion. In other words, both the macro and the micro are equally important. To pursue a true Torah we don’t have the latitude of giving greater credence to certain laws while ignoring others. As important as “I am your God” may sound, it is no more significant than laws related to the treatment of widows and orphans and other humanistic mitzvot.
Many erroneously think the Torah is a book of legislation. They often blindly follow the leader while being impervious to the Torah’s true intent. They see only what they are told to see and are often oblivious to the deeper purpose and more meaningful philosophies. The laws and stories are a means and not an end. Its primary purpose is to shine a light of understanding upon those who study. Our sages write that true study is l’haven davar m’toch davar – the ability to comprehend laws and ideas from established precedence.
The opening words of this week’s portion, a discussion of the laws related to the purchase of slaves, will shock modern man. But this shock also catapults the reader to open their minds. Is this Judaism? Am I comfortable sharing these teachings with my children? We condemn radicals, but wouldn’t it be hypocritical if we failed to condemn ourselves? The subject is so shameful that the prophet Jeremiah (as read in this week’s Haftorah) adjures the Israelites to free all their slaves. If the Torah is correct, how could it promote something so wrong? Why would Jeremiah be so strong in his resistance to slavery?
Perhaps looking at the micro laws allows one to see the bigger picture. The laws of slavery show how easy it can be to subject another individual to a dehumanizing existence. Its purpose as a Torah law is limited, but it may give us a new lens through which to look at our inner selves. When we are able to fathom our own potential to act inhumanely (and inhumanly), then we begin the process of trying to understand and react to the challenges facing our Jewish world. When we begin to address the repugnant immoralities of our leaders, then perhaps we can hope to fathom more of the macro issues facing today’s world.
Rabbi Jack Engel