January 23, 2019

The Laws of Life

Among those who left Egypt, there were two — Berel and Shmerel. As slaves, these two had grown so accustomed to looking down at the ground, they could no longer lift their eyes.

And, so, when Moses brought Israel across the Red Sea, Berel asked Shmerel, “What do you see?”

“I see mud,” he responded.

“I see mud too. What’s all this about freedom? We had mud in Egypt; we have mud here!”

When Israel stood at Mount Sinai, Shmerel asked Berel, “What do you hear?”

“I hear someone shouting commands,” he answered.

“I hear commands too. What’s all this about Torah? They shouted commands in Egypt; they shout commands here!”

Finally, after 40 years, when Israel arrived at the Promised Land, Berel asked Shmerel, “How do you feel?”

“My feet hurt,” he replied.

“My feet hurt too. What’s all this about a Promised Land? My feet hurt in Egypt; my feet hurt here!”

Removing the external chains of slavery doesn’t make a person free. The body is unfettered, but the mind remains in bondage. “One of the great liabilities of life,” declared Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in one of his last sermons, “is that all too many people find themselves living amid a great period of social change, and, yet, they fail to develop the new attitudes, the new mental responses, that the new situation demands. They end up sleeping through a revolution.”

Freedom, in the Torah, comes in two parts: the exodus from Egyptian slavery and the revelation of law on Mount Sinai.

Why law? Law seems an odd place to find spirituality. Law is technical and dry. Law is about conflict and confrontation. Law is a restraint on the lowest parts of ourselves. In Western culture, law is an instrument for achieving social order — a way to keep us from killing one another.

Now consider a law from Maimonides Mishna Torah, Code of Jewish Law: You must give charity to the poor. You must give at least one-tenth of your income, but may not give more than one-fifth. When you give charity to the poor, the dignity of the poor must be respected. You may not humiliate the recipient of charity. Anonymous giving, where neither donor nor recipient are aware of one another’s identity, is best. Even better is to provide employment or business opportunity, thus alleviating the need for further assistance.

Notice how this is phrased. It doesn’t say the poor have a right to receive charity. This isn’t an entitlement program. It says you have an obligation. It is a mitzvah, a commandment. This is the core concept of Jewish law: You are obligated because you are covenanted.

This law speaks not to the lowest in us, but to the highest. “You shall be holy, for I the Lord Your God am Holy.” The purpose of law in the Torah is to cultivate the holy, the compassionate, the just, the sensitive within us — to cultivate the divine within us. Law is educative.

Law is a nexus between what is and what should be. Law rests upon a paradox: Because we’re human, we need law. Because we have drives, because we often forget who we are, because we have the agility to rationalize any behavior or attitude…because we’re human, we need law. But we can live up to the law only because we have the divine with us. Every “ought” implies a “can.” The command to be holy — to live a life of justice and compassion — is the strongest possible confirmation that we have the capacity to be holy. We have Godliness in us.

“The great danger facing all of us,” wrote the Preacher Phillips Brooks, “is not that we shall make an absolute failure of our life.

“Nor that we shall fall into outright viciousness. Nor that we shall be terribly unhappy. Nor that we shall feel that life has no meaning.

“The danger is that we shall fail to perceive life’s greatest meaning, fall short of its highest good, miss its deepest and most abiding happiness, be unable to tender the most needed service, be unconscious of life ablaze with the light of the Presence of God, and be content to have it so.

“The danger is that we will wake up to find we’ve missed life itself. Satisfied too soon with too little — with a life that falls short of the best.”

Ed Feinstein is rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.