You Shall Pursue

March 20, 2014

Sermon: Celebrating the Joy in Ritual Obligation

Filed under: D'var Torah — Tags: , , , — marleyweiner @ 9:33 am

This week in class, I am reading the Mishneh, which is a collection of Jewish laws and stories, about looking for leavened bread on Passover. These rules are endless in their specificity, down to what time of day you have to look. I don’t know about any of you, but I have tried to follow these exacting rules while cleaning for Passover in the past, and they are exhausting.

And this is true of much of Jewish law. The rabbis care deeply about minute details, and try a thousand different cases in order to figure out the exact parameters of each individual law. For many Jews, this attention to minutiae and detail is a hurdle to be overcome in participating in Judaism. I have heard so many times, from the mouths of friends and family, “It’s too much! It’s needlessly complicated!” And sometimes I agree with them! But what strikes me when reading these laws is how living in this system is, in its way, profoundly spiritual.

We have just finished with one of our most raucous holidays, Purim. And Passover is one of our more rigidly structured holidays. And moving into this period has me thinking about ritual and spirituality, and how to find meaning in a religion of rules.

We in America tend to think of spirituality as intensely inward focused. We consider how any given ritual makes us feel, and how it transforms our inner landscape. But for our ancestors, spirituality was about conforming to God’s law.

This wasn’t always easy for them. Obligation didn’t always lead to profound spiritual insights, as is evidenced by this quote from the Jerusalem Talmud, “Rabbi Chiya said: All the days of my life, I never had kavana, which means spirituality as we think of it, a deep emotional connection to the prayers. He continues: One time I tried to have kavana and focus my attention and ended up wondering about who would meet the king first: a Persian leader or the exilarch. Shmuel said: I count birds. Rabbi Buni the son of Chiya said: I count people. Rabbi Matnayah said: I am grateful to my head that it knows when I get to “modim” that it bows on its own.” Even the greatest of our rabbis got bored in synagogue. I think this lets all of us off the hook a little bit if our mind should wander from time to time!

But these rabbis still went three times a day and prayed, even if they were bored or frustrated. And similarly, the fact that connecting to ritual can sometimes be a challenge doesn’t mean that we should abandon these hard practices at first opportunity. Our rabbis teach us that Torah is not just about studying the book; ideally, it should lead to the practices of lovingkindness, caring, and connection that make for a holy society.

To take the example of Passover, since we are coming into that season in a little less than a month, the holiday, with a seder full of long winding digressions in Hebrew and Aramaic and severely proscribed food rules, seems like a strange ritual to the non-Jews in my life, especially when they have to listen to me complain about the taste of matzah for a week straight!

But Passover has provided me with endless growing and learning opportunities. Giving up bread on Passover was one of the first acts of piety I took on independently from my parents. In college, the LGBT feminist seders at Columbia Hillel introduced me to new ways of reading our texts that gave voice to those who traditionally had none. And hosting my own seders in my own apartment helped me create joyful Jewish practice, and bond with chosen family of close friends. This practice, which I must do every year because I am commanded, has expanded my life more than I ever could have thought possible.

While we may or may not get a warm fuzzy feeling practicing kashrut or coming to shul on the Sabbath or cleaning our house top to bottom on Passover, there is a method to the madness. In Reconstructionist Judaism, we say that the past has “a vote but not a veto.” This means that we do not believe that halakhah, or Jewish religious law, as handed down by Orthodox rabbis is binding without question. Rather, it means that these traditions are profoundly important for our sense of community, our sense of history, and our sense of self. While certainly there are some Jewish laws that we must reject because they are sexist, or unethical, or prevent us from participating in the world, we should see the Jewish law as an opportunity, rather than a painful burden.

Because at their best, when done with the proper intention, these practices help us to get outside our own heads and needs, to remind us that we are beholden to our tradition, our communities (whether they are Jewish communities or not), and to God. That it is our job to put things other than our own personal satisfaction at times, in order to build the sorts of communities of which we would like to be a member.

In Hebrew, the term Mitzraim means “the narrow place.” And so in the spirit of getting out of the “narrow place,” I encourage you all to seek out some way to use the rituals of Passover to break you out of your routine. Maybe you will have a chametz hunt, and search for leavened bread all over the house with your children. Maybe you will bring some new personal stories to your seder, to inject it with some new questions, because the seder is a time when we are commanded to ask questions. Maybe you will use the memory of our plight in Egypt to donate to those in our communities who are less fortunate. Whatever you do, do it because you are commanded, and do it regardless of how it makes you feel. If you try something and you don’t feel particularly moved, commit to trying it again next year. Our rabbis teach us that it is the system, and being willing to live within the system, that brings the transformation.

Many Jews think that God brought the Jews out of Israel so that they could be free. This is not actually the case. Rather, Moses tells Pharaoh that the Jews must go out from Egypt so that they can worship God. The people move from service to a tyrant to service to an ethical and loving ruler. And as we come into this season of testing, of waiting for that inevitable Exodus, I would like to encourage you all to think about how and why you take on obligation, and how it might set you free.

Advertisements

Leave a Comment »

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: