Ours Is To Reason Why
BY AMY JOSEFA ARIEL
PARSHAT KI TAVO DEUTERONOMY 26:1-29:8
4 SEPT 2017 / 13 ELUL 5777
Pay attention! Commands our text. Set your heart and soul to hear the words of Torah! Become smitten with Torah! Incline your heart to these words! Shema!
Moses and the levitical priests spoke to all Israel saying, "Silence! Shema, Israel, today you have become the people of Adonai your God! Pay attention to your God and observe God's commandments and laws which I enjoin on you this day." Deuteronomy 27:9-10
Dramatically, Moses's speech continues and sets apart Mount Gerizim for the blessings and Mount Ebal for the curses should we do or not do as we are commanded.
In the parshiot approaching Rosh HaShanah, we are enjoined time and again to do as we are told. We are threatened with curses, we are enticed by blessing, we are urged with exile, we are invited by forgiveness. These words are often translated as demanding obedience, and yet a quick reflection on our history and our relationships both with Moses and with God not only makes obedience seem to not be our strong suit, obedience - at least for its own sake - doesn't even seem to be a significant part of our story. And story matters.
Halakhah [legal text] deals with details, with each commandment separately; aggadah [non-legalistic text, story] with the whole of life, with the totality of religious life. Halakhah deals with the law; aggadah with the meaning of the law. Halakhah deals with subjects that can be expressed literally; aggadah introduces us to a realm that lies beyond the range of expression. Halakhah teaches us how to perform common acts; aggadah tells us how to participate in the eternal drama. Halakhah gives us knowledge; aggadah gives us aspiration. Between God and Man Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel
613 times we are commanded to do or not do. Doesn't that mean we are being told to comply or to submit to authority? The Commander commands; the commanded obey.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks teaches that while it would be reasonable to assume that any language that contains the verb "to command" must also contain the verb "to obey," there is no such word in biblical Hebrew. Take that in. In the entire Torah, there is no verb that means "to obey." In the nineteenth century when Hebrew was revived as a spoken language, the word letsayet was borrowed from Aramaic.
A word that is used often in the Torah and usually in the sense of what God wants from us in response to the mitzvot, the commandments, is the root shin-mem-ayin (sh-m-a). In Deuteronomy alone, we can find it 92 times! One way to better understand this root is by exploring it in other contexts.
Abram heard that his relative [Lot] had been taken captive. (Gen. 14:14).
Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree. (Gen. 3:17)
Then Rachel said: God has vindicated me; he has listened to my plea and given me a son. (Gen. 30:7).
Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.(Gen. 11:7).
First we will do, then understand. (Ex. 24:7)
Through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you were willing to obey me. (Gen. 22:18).
Do (respond in deed to) whatever Sarah tells you. (Gen. 21:12).
In these contexts, attending is different from submission. Attending necessitates understanding. It asks of us humility in the sense of taking up our right space, and that requires engaging our intellect and curiosity. Mitzvot in our tradition come with explanation, are interwoven with narrative, and are given in the context of the relationship between law and holiness. Even as we are commanded, as Jews it is our responsibility to ask why.
If attentive questioning with the intention of understanding is a Jewish value when it comes to Jewish life, how might that apply to the way we engage with our secular world and the legal systems of the countries in which we live? "Samuel, a native of Babylonia . . . became instrumental in building a center of Jewish learning in Babylonia, and it was he who formulated the much-cited principle of dina d’malkhuta dina, the law of any country is to be considered legally binding on the Jewish residents of that country." The Observant Life: The Wisdom of Conservative Judaism for Contemporary Jews, pp. 440-41 Martin Cohen and Michael Katz Eds. However, Judaism also dictates that people must choose to defy the government, even at the cost of their own lives, rather than obey a law or decree that would otherwise require them to commit murder, to engage in immoral sexual relations, or to worship idols. (449) We could be here for days sorting out what each of those means.
For now, I would like us to attentively consider: Should we be paying more attention to and asking more questions about the actions of our government and of the laws or customs under which we live, and, arguably, because of which so many of us die? In what ways might we be complicit in people being killed by the police or enslaved in sex trafficking? What about the sexual assault and disappearance of Native American women? Violence against people experiencing homelessness that results in death? Deaths because of climate change?
We would do well to pay attention and to incline our hearts in these directions because before us there are indeed mountains of blessings and of curses. Moses and the Maccabees, Deborah and Yael, the daughters of Zelophechad and Abraham, Jeremiah and Isaiah - we have been questioning authority and asking why and how and when and where for as long as we have been a people. Longer. We are not here to be thoughtlessly obedient. We are here to know and understand, to learn and teach, to question and to pursue justice.
We are here to pay attention.