The What, How, and Why of Jewish Life

Posted on July 28, 2023 by Dave Cohen

This week’s parshah can be compared to a Cliff’s Notes for the entire Torah – it starts with Moses beseeching God one more time to allow him to enter the promised land, then quickly moves into a re-telling and elaboration of the Ten Commandments. This is followed by the Shema and Ve’ahavta, and finally concludes with an exhortation not to mingle with the people of the land.I would classify the various parts of the parshah into three basic and related categories: 1) here are the rules you must follow (the Ten Commandments); 2) here are some things you can do to help yourselves follow the rules (the Shema and later command to avoid mingling); and 3) here is what will happen if you don’t follow the rules (exile). Overlaid on these three themes is the constant refrain of WHY you should love God and fear God and follow God’s wishes. To boil it down even further, this parshah encapsulates the What, How, and Why of Jewish life.

Of course, this is an oversimplification – many of the guidelines for How to live a Jewish life are not just suggestions, they are rules themselves. At least one of the Ten Commandments, the ban on idolatry, is both a What and a How. But I still think it is a helpful framing.

In this moment of stress for our people, what guidance can be found in the Cliff’s Notes to help navigate the conflict in Israel over judicial reform? Years ago, my rabbi brother did a drash on the Shema and Ve’ahavta in which he linked the inward focus of the prayer, which is traditionally recited with eyes closed and covered, to the central concept of God’s oneness. We assert God’s oneness while looking into our hearts because we ourselves want to be one and whole, to find the divine spark within that is unified, unconflicted. I love this teaching, but couldn’t it coexist beside the equally important notion that K’lal Yisrael, the people of Israel must seek oneness, too? In chatting with Cantor Wallach about this parshah, she recalled a recent meditative service in which, slowly chanting the Shema, she was suddenly struck by the phrase Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, the Lord Our God. Not my God, not your God, but our God.

Liz and I were part of the group that journeyed to Israel last month with Rabbi Arnie and Cantor Wallach. One of the most difficult moments during the trip was the morning we visited the Kotel to participate in and support the monthly Rosh Chodesh service conducted by the Women of the Wall. We knew there would be haredi schoolboys there provoking conflict by blowing shrill whistles and shouting at us. We were advised before we got off the bus to avoid engaging. If we felt we needed to say something, we should just tell them “anachnu achim, we are brothers.” Unfortunately, the members of the group, including our leaders, were not able to follow this advice and engaged in debate with the orthodox boys and their teachers. The whole experience devolved to the point where our guide, wearing tallit and tefillin, was obstructed from reciting yahrzeit for his son at the wall, and other members of the group were kicked and spat upon. We were all surrounded threateningly and followed by the youths as we made our way back to the bus after the service.

Does this make you angry? I relate the story not to raise your ire, but to share that I know the idea of K’lal Yisrael is not easy in this moment. I am not naively advocating for a fantasy. But what is the alternative? On this day after Tisha B’Av, when we recall the destruction of both the first and second temples, we must remember the teaching that the second temple was destroyed because of the sin of baseless hatred among the Jews. And in recent days I have heard teachings that say the baseless hatred was between religious zealots and assimilationist Jews. In 2000 years, have we learned nothing? I think we have no choice: we must embrace the teaching of the Shema, modeling our oneness as a people on God’s oneness, and keep striving to realize the evasive ideal that “anachnu achim.”

Shabbat Shalom,

Dave Cohen,

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