This is an updating and revisiting of a musing from 5762 and 5766, entitled “Trifles.”
There’s a lot to consider. All the words spoken to the people by Moshe, not just in the swan song that comprises Ha’azinu, but in the entire discourse of D’varim. Indeed, in all of Torah, and that’s “big T” and “little t” Torah.
Things we should do. Things we shouldn’t do. Things we must always do, and things we must never do. (It’s interesting how the Hebrew language has grammatical forms- “lo” and “al-” that allow one to express a “do not” and an emphatic “absolutely do not.” I wonder what we are to make of that? Are some negative mitzvot more important? Also, oddly enough, while one might think that black and white things, absolute yes and no statements, would be easier to deal with, that’s not always the case, is it?)
So, do the less emphatic yes and no become less important? Are we free to pick and choose from among the less emphatic commandments which ones to observe, but not free to do the same with the absolute ones (like the Aseret Hadibrot?)
Reform Judaism claims to embraces the “informed choice” concept. (It often becomes in practice, unfortunately, the “we don’t have to” concept.) Reconstructionist Judaism does just that – attempts to reconstruct Judaism from its constituent parts, giving the past a voice, but not a veto. Conservative Judaism, and please understand I do not mean this in a pejorative sense, has become the contemporary inheritors of the story of the oven at Akhnai, using an informed rabbinate to control the sluice gates of slow, deliberate change. The orthodox remain the protectors of the original usurping rabbis of the Akhnai story. (They too, control sluice gates, and do not be misled into believing they don’t allow any leaks or change. How do you prevent change of a tradition that is already based on allowing competing interpretations to exist?
Each takes a very different approach to the question of how to approach the mitzvot, and the subtle difference between “lo” and “al” negative commandments. But I;ve digressed. I don’t want to debate the relative merits of liberal informed choice versus traditional adherence-that wasn’t my point in 2002 and it’s not my point today.
We are told something very important in D’varim 32:47, after Moshe reminds the people to heed the words he has spoken:
כִּי לֹֽא־דָבָר רֵק הוּא מִכֶּם כִּי־הוּא חַיֵּיכֶם
“This is no trifling matter for you, it is your very life.”
The Hebrew word translated by the JPS committee as “trifling” is “reik” and it comes from a root (resh-yod-qof) that actually means empty, or sometimes vain. The verbal form can mean to empty, or even to pour out. The analogy is thought-provoking. If we simply empty ourselves of the mitzvot, or pour them out of ourselves, then we may be truly empty. Mitzvot can give our lives meaning, so we must be careful how we deal with them.
Using this Hebrew word “reik” also allows us to caution a Jew who blindly observes the commandments, or some rabbi or posek’s particular understanding of the commandments- for that can be just as empty or trifling an approach.
As expected, there were exposes again this year from animal rights activists exposing the stark and harsh realities of the ritual of kaporet. As usual, I was shocked by what I read – that the chickens had been clearly mistreated, that despite assurances, many carcasses were discarded and not used to create meals for the poor, and the general sanitary conditions were substandard. So for me, the people participating in this ritual were violating so many other principles of Judaism that it renders their attempt to be rid of their sins meaningless and void. Not only that, but how it makes the Jewish community look to the rest of the world – both Jewish and non-Jewish violates the principle of “marat ayin.” (Put simply, how it appears to others. “Marat ayin” is one of the rationales for not eating fowl with dairy, even though fowl is clearly not “basar” as the Torah meant it.) The whole practice of kaporet, to me, feels like trifling-it demeans Torah, it demeans G”d, it demeans humanity.
On the other side, we still have countless Reform congregations where the “Yom Kippur” appeal is normative. To me, this practice looks no better to the Jewish and outside world than kaporet. It is trifling. If synagogues can only survive by tarnishing this sacred day with an appeal from the pulpit for the filthy lucre needed to sustain it, then perhaps they don’t deserve to survive.
Yet again, I digress. Back to
For the liberal Jew, it’s not simply a matter of saying “that’s too inconvenient and not relevant, I hereby discard it utterly.” (Dare we criticize Kim Davis for her hypocrisy whilst we are mired in our own?) And for the traditional Jew, it’s not simply a matter of saying “that’s exactly what it says, so that’s what I must exactly do.” Either of those choices trivializes the words and their meanings. We are meant to engage the mitzvot. Grapple with them. Struggle. Search for meaning and understanding. We ignore them or blindly obey them at our own peril. Engaging with them does not mean pretending there is only Torah and Tanakh, either. The Liberal Jew did not inherit a Karaite Judaism – it inherited a Judaism in which the Talmud, Shulkhan Arukh, and countless other texts are a core part, and cannot be callously discarded. Engaging with them does not mean that one blindly accepts the supposed “oral Torah” as being of Divine origin, simply because the very authors of the books in question are the ones making the claim. If that doesn’t give one pause, what should?
The words of Torah (big T and little t) are no trifles, they are pearls. Let us value them.
We may each find a different meaning in them, but when we dig no deeper than a superficial reading, we haven’t really found anything at all. When we allow others to determine the meaning for us, with no input of our own, we haven’t really found anything at all.
It is time to start digging deeper. This Shabbat, grab those literary and intellectual shovels and start. Just don’t dig yourself into a hole. (However, if you somehow manage to dig yourself into a “whole,” that’s another thing entirely.) Well (pun intended,) before I dig in any deeper, I’d better extricate myself.
I wish you a Shabbat Shalom, and a Chag Asif Sameiakh.
©2015 (portions ©2001 & 2006) by Adrian A. Durlester
Other Musings on this Parasha:
Ha’azinu-Shabbat Shuvah 5775 – Who’s Got the Last Laugh Now
Ha’azinu/Shabbat Shuvah 5774 – 5774: A Torah Odyssey
Ha’azinu 5772 – An Insincere Hymn?
Ha’azinu/Shabbat Shuvah 5570-Pur Prayers Aren’t Bull
Haazinu 5766-Trifles (Updated from 5762)
Haazinu 5765/5763-How would It Look If…
Haazinu 5764-More Bull From Our Lips
Haazinu 5760-Bull from Our Lips