Friday, January 24, 2014

Sorcery: Not A Life Worth Living

Among the many laws delineated in Parshat Mishpatim is the prohibition of sorcery. In this week’s Parsha the prohibition is expressed as (22:17): “Mechashefa Lo Techayeh,” generally translated as “you shall not permit a sorceress to live.”

When describing prohibitions that are liable for the death penalty, the Torah usually uses a language of “death” ie “Mot Tamut”, “you shall surely put them to death.” The phrase “Lo Techayeh” is unusual and caught my attention.

Though this may not be the literal interpretation, I think the usage of this phrase can teach us some important lessons about life.

Two of the characteristics of sorcery are that 1) it alleges that it can predict the future and 2) it alleges that it can control events that Judaism believes are within the exclusive purview of God.
When we recall these attributes about sorcery then I think the Torah may be teaching us something relevant for all of us, even in societies in which sorcery is not common:

A life in which we are fixated on the future and trying to predict what will happen next- Lo Techayeh, is not real living. We must never ignore the present, nor take the present for granted as we plan for the future. The present is a gift (that’s why the two words are synonyms) and if we forget this and focus only on the future- there is a distinct possibility that we will never be able to experience that future that we look forward to; for once it’s the present we again look ahead. As my quote in my high school yearbook goes, "Today is the tomorrow we worried about yesterday."

Second, a life in which we believe we can and shall exclusively control our destiny, without making any room for God, is also Lo Techayeh, not a viable life plan. We must do our part, but then we must surrender and admit that we are not in total control. Though this may be difficult for us control freaks at first, in the long run it allows us some freedom, knowing that no matter how much we worry or perseverate over matters we still are not always in control.

In these ways, the prohibition of sorcery in Mishpatim helps us think about what it means to live and not to live and what is the path towards the life worth living.  

Friday, January 17, 2014

Faith and Commitment

After the revelation at Sinai and the Ten Commandments, we are told that the Jewish People were afraid of the awesomeness of the experience and asked Moshe to cut it short. They could not handle the “voice of God” and asked that Moshe serve as intermediary. Moshe responds (20:17): “Don’t be afraid; for Hashem revealed Himself today to nasot you.

There is some debate as to what the word nasot means here. Rashi claims that it is the verb form of nes, miracle. Moshe tells the people that God revealed Himself as an indication of the unique status of the Jewish People and God’s love for them. The Sinai Revelation was a sign of God’s involvement, just like a miracle.
Ramban objects to Rashi’s interpretation. He notes that we rarely ever find the verb form of miracle in Tanach, if anywhere at all. Instead, the Ramban suggests that nasot is a verb form of nisayon, test. The Revelation at Sinai served as some sort of test for the people, as to whether or not they would keep Torah and mitvot in the future.

The question then becomes: in what way is revelation and test for the Jews? One would think the exact opposite: the revelation at Sinai put to rest any doubts that the people may have had as to the existence of God; from this point forward, commitment to God’s laws should be easy, now that they people know that Hashem is real.

In his notes on the Ramban Rabbi Chayim Chavel writes:
“In this comment, the Ramban fundamentally alters our understanding concerning the relationship between faith and commitment.”

Conventional wisdom teaches that the reason why Jewish observance is lacking is related directly to the degree of faith in God. If you believe in God, then you will of course follow His commandments.
According to the Ramban, the revelation at Sinai teaches us that our test of commitment BEGINS after our questions of faith have been answered. In other words, Hashem is saying at Sinai, “You now have proof of the existence of God. Realize that there is still a challenge to follow My laws.”

Experience shows that people will often act against what they know to be the truth, or that which is good for them. Health and food intake are just one example. A person can have multiple health problems due to their diet and still not change. What the Ramban is saying is that commitment to Torah is the same thing: Just because we know that God exists, doesn’t mean that we will commit to act in accordance with that knowledge. Our humanity can very well get in our way.

The challenge does not end with a resolution of our faith questions, it merely begins there.

The lesson of the Ramban is an important one for many areas of our lives: We must strive to ensure that our actions reflect our deeply held beliefs.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Now It's A Party

At the beginning of Parshat Bo, Pharoh asks Moshe who he envisions leaving Egypt for a few days of worship? Moshe responds “With our youngsters and our elders, with our sons and our daughters…..because it is a festival of Hashem for us.”

There is no better proof of the Torah’s inclusive vision for society than this verse. It is only a Chag when the young and old participate together; when the young look to their elders with reverence and when the elders look to the youngsters with hope and optimism. It can only be a Chag for Hashem when old and young learn from each other and share with each other their knowledge and experience and insights. It can only be a Chag for Hashem when men and women participate, and each contributes to the community in their unique and essential ways.

It is only a Chag for Hashem when everyone is not only invited, but everyone shows up, everyone participates and everyone celebrates together. Only then is it the type of party to which Moshe refers to and to which Hashem is proud to lend His Name.