Thursday, September 6, 2012

Commitment or Choice ?

When I was a boy my friends and I would gather each Shabbat afternoon at one or another's house for an Oneg Shabbat. The formal time together, under the supervision of an oneg leader, usually lasted an hour. It was a prelude to the real 'oneg' for us, the main event, when we got to read the latest comic books and engage in boy banter. We were a bright group and often we engaged in rather serious reflection. One topic that intrigued us was the nature of our identity. We pondered, "Are we really Jews by choice? Do we have a right to feel good about keeping Shabbat and the other mitzvot?" We wondered, "If we had been born Christian instead of Jewish would we be just as faithful to that tradition? Is our Judaism simply a product of our upbringing?"

In this week's parsha of Kee Tavo, we find Moshe again calling Israel to be mindful of its national agenda. The People are told that when they enter the land they need to take on the covenant anew at Mt Grezeem and Mt Aival in a compelling ceremony.
The blessings and punishments, the consequences of observance and waywardness respectively, are laid out before them in stark detail.The narrative is full of challenge. We can never say we were not forwarned.

One word comes up no fewer than 8 times in Moshe's powerful address. And the word is "hayom" "today". Over and over Moshes contextualizes his message by making it immediate. "Today you are commanded by Hashem your G-d to keep the statutes..."
"Today you made Hashem your G-d..." "And it will be if you will listen to the will of Hashem your G-d to keep all the commandments that He commands you today..." "And Hashem has not given you a knowing heart and seeing eyes and ears that hear until this day..."

And this portion is not unique. If one studies the Book of Devarim, this final address of Moshe before his death, repeatedly Moshe frames his imperative with the immediacy of "hayom".

Why? Why is Hayom so significant? Is it not enough if the command was given yesterday? or that the awareness in question had its roots in a tradition?

Let me go back to where I began the blog this week, to the question we ten year old boys posed to ourselves. Let me ask you, as an adult, why are you a Jew? Why do you keep the Torah, pray daily, maintain the Shabbat, eat kosher food? If you were born of another faith would you be just as likely today to be a loyal adherent to that religious expression? Is your lifestyle simply a matter of carrying on the tradition, a commitment to the past?

Explore with me a moment. We who are committed to a Torah lifestyle want our children to do likewise. We send them to Jewish schools and to Jewish camps. We seek out an environment that will foster their continuity in the path of our faith. We try to minimize the risk that they will marry out of the faith or assimilate.
I ask you, if I had a pill you could put in your child's cereal that once taken would guarentee that s/he would be a good Jew and stay faithful to Torah, would you give it to him/her? Would you protect your investment? Do you think G-d would want you to give him/her the pill? How about taking it yourself?

On reflection I think most of us would say that tempting as it might be we would not administer the pill to our kid not take it ourselves. And why? Because observance only has meaning in the context of choice! If I make no choice there is no merit to the good I do. If I make no choice I show no love of G-d nor deference to His will.
If I make no choice I do the right thing but without meaning.

So now that we have agreed that commitment without choice is empty, we may wonder how much choice do we need to make our religious expression meaningful. If we reduce the possibility that we could stray, say by taking away the options , as the Hareidim do in their isolated communities, have we done well or compromised the integrity of observance? What nachas does G-d have from those who do not waver from His law if they really don't feel they could stray if they wanted to, either because the consequences are too severe or the possibilities are removed.

I don't have good answers to these questions? But I know they beg consideration!
The Torah this week and over and over in the readings of Devarim calls on Israel to see their mandate as immediate, "hayom". Moshe rarely invokes tradition to augment his message. The names of Avraham Yitzchak and Yaakov and the loyalty to the past as a reason to be faithful is not found. Moreover the call of Devarim is a call to choice. On several occasions Moshe tells the People the good and the bad is present before them. He challenges them to choose, "uvacharta bachayeem".

It is clear from the Torah that a spiritual life only has meaning if it is fresh and alive and renewed each day. To keep the faith as a ode to the past defeats the whole purpose of observance. It neither brings pleasure to our G-d not enobles us.

As we get ready for Rosh Hashanna its not enough that we pat ourselves on the back for our "kosher" way of life. We need to be choosing anew each day. Over and over we need to be saying "yes" to the faith we were born into. Is that risky? What if one day we say "no"? The answer is, of course it is a risk. If there is no risk than one way or another, we swallowed the pill.

The danger we confront in our life is not that we will not be faithful. Rather it is that our faith has gone stale. It has lost its livining edge.
Choice keeps things alive. If you are married simply out of a commitment to the past your marriage is dead. We need to be choosing our spouse, to be parents, to be caring people, over and over. I don't mean that if we wake one day in a bad mood and would rather be single that we leave home and family. But I do mean to say that if the price of a secure marriage is that we surrender our choice to be in it instead living off the agreement of the past, then the price is too high!

We need to trust ourselves and the ones we love. We need to believe that given the right circumstances and encouragement we will make the right choices.
Even as ten year olds we knew that to give up choice it to make a mockery out of our life and loves.
There is only one commitment we need to make...that we will give ourselves the best chance to make the right choice.

It is choice that is the elixir of life!

Shabbat Shalom

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