Be respectful – it’s a mitzvah
The portion of Bechukotai contains the warnings of the tragedies that may befall the Jewish people if they stray from the ways of the Torah. The section begins with the words, “Im bechukotai timasu (If you consider my laws loathsome).
Rabbi Rodney Richard, Emmarentia Shul
The obvious question is, does anyone really consider the mitzvot “loathsome”? Understandably, there are those less committed to the dictates of the Torah and less religiously observant, but do they despise Torah and mitzvot?
Perhaps the verse isn’t referring to the hatred of mitzvot. Perhaps it refers to the cynicism that some may have towards more observant members of the community.
We can be proud of our strong ba’al teshuva community in South Africa (the return of secular Jews to religious Judaism). I, too, am a ba’al teshuva, and, like me, you may have encountered a degree of hostility, scorn, and derision from friends or family members when you embarked on your journey of self-growth. Thank G-d, my immediate family was supportive.
All too often, when people choose to become more observant or to take on additional stringencies in their Torah observance, they are met with contempt. You may have chosen to dress more modestly or refrain from listening to certain types of music. Rather than being shown respect and admiration, you may have been ridiculed and accused of fanaticism. You have probably even been asked, “Are we no longer good enough for you?” or “Do you think you’re better than us?”
The Torah is telling us to be more tolerant and respectful towards each other.
And, of course, it works both ways. Those who have chosen a more religious lifestyle must show tolerance and understanding of those who haven’t embraced such a lifestyle.
Thus, when Hashem speaks of a time when you “consider my laws loathsome”, perhaps He doesn’t refer to direct hatred of the mitzvot but rather contempt of those who adhere to a religious lifestyle. However, if we really think about it, such an interpretation doesn’t veer dramatically away from the simple explanation of the verse. You see, if we despise people for their diligent observance of mitzvot, we are effectively despising Hashem, who gave us the Torah and commanded us to observe mitzvot. Surely none of us want to be defined in such terms?
If you aren’t perhaps as religious as your fellow person, don’t despair. By respecting his ways, you are according the greatest respect to Hashem and His Torah.
We have just celebrated Lag Ba’Omer, a day that symbolises Jewish unity. Unity doesn’t denote sameness. However, we need to realise that we are all the children of Hashem and, thus, one big family.
Let’s draw inspiration from this reading and from Lag Ba’Omer, and be more respectful and tolerant towards our brothers and sisters.
Slave to the Omer – why counting makes us free
We are in the midst of counting the Omer – a commandment to count the days and weeks from the second day of Pesach until Shavuot.
Interestingly, the very first commandment we perform, marking our transition from slavery to freedom, is to count time, to count days.
Why is this? Rabbi JB Soloveitchik, in his essay, “Sacred and Profane”, offers a profound insight, as follows:
“The basic criterion which distinguishes free man from slave is the kind of relationship each has with time and its experience. Bondage is identical with passive intuition and reception of an empty, formal time stream.
“When the Jews were delivered from the Egyptian oppression and Moses rose to undertake the almost impossible task of metamorphosing a tribe of slaves into a nation of priests, he was told by G-d that the path leading from the holiday of Pesach to Shavuot, from initial liberation to consummate freedom, leads through the medium of time. The commandment of sefirah was entrusted to the Jew; the wondrous test of counting 49 successive days was put to him. These 49 days must be whole. If one day is missed, the act of numeration is invalidated.
“A slave who is capable of appreciating each day, of grasping its meaning and worth, of weaving every thread of time into a glorious fabric, quantitatively stretching over the period of seven weeks but qualitatively forming the warp and woof of centuries of change, is eligible for Torah. He has achieved freedom.”
A slave owns no time of her/his own. Every second of life is owned by a master, and therefore a slave can have no concept of responsibility because they have no ultimate choice of action. A slave may “choose” to go for a walk at 17:00 on Friday only to have that choice countermanded by the master at 16:59. Inevitably, a slave has no concept of their own time, their ability to choose to act in one way at a particular time, and to take responsibility for those actions in the fullest sense of the word.
So, the Jews needed to learn to own time, to feel its contours and use it so that they could learn responsibility.
One of the signs of real maturity is this time-responsibility awareness – just think of a child saying they will clean up their room “later”. Children lack a sense of true responsibility because they feel that there is always an infinite “later”, a period in which every wrong can be righted, every desire fulfilled, every mistake corrected.
A free adult recognises that they own a very limited amount of time, and that the gift of freedom is the choice of how to use that time. The burden of that self-same freedom is the responsibility for the consequences of that choice.
Finding faith in the hippo
This week’s parsha details the laws of kashrus. The Torah makes a brave statement by enumerating the one and only animal that has split hooves but doesn’t chew the cud. It’s a “brave” statement, because if a human being wrote the Torah, how would they know that the pig is the only one on the “face of the planet” with this characteristic?
Moses was born in Egypt, spent some time as a fugitive in Ethiopia, and died somewhere near modern-day Jordan. If we presume that he was the author of the Five Books without any divine inspiration, and he sucked the whole thing out of his left thumb, then how could he be so confident that there wasn’t a marsupial or wallaby in the furthermost corners of the planet that didn’t have at least one of these characteristics? This was almost 3 000 years before anyone even knew there was an Australia. If he was inventing the whole religion, he would have taken the more prudent course of being rather vague. He wouldn’t have blatantly listed the only four exceptions “from all the animals on the earth”.
With this great piece of Torah veracity in my mind, my faith was shaken when, on a trip to London’s Natural History Museum, (I know, it’s a pretty nerdy thing to do), I discovered that there was a hoofed animal, classified by zoology, that seemed to be an exception “overlooked” by the Torah – the hippo. It’s classified as an “ungulate”, a split-hoofed animal without a ruminant stomach that isn’t listed in the Torah as another exception!
I thought about this problem for a while, and then the solution came to me. Why should we allow zoology to dictate the classification of animals? The more I thought about it, the more I realised that hippos don’t have hooves like a pig or cow, they have toes (like camels). I know it’s more fancy to talk about ungulates, phylum, and genus. It even makes us look clever, but if we are really honest with ourselves, we won’t let zoological classifications stand in the way of our emunah in Hashem and His Torah.
Let’s start talking about Pesach
For the past few weeks, my family and I have been doing something really special. We’ve been getting together every Sunday night, sitting around the table, and going through the Pesach Haggadah.
It’s just me, Gina, and our children – our eldest, Mordi, his wife Avigayil, and Levi, Shayna, and youngest Azi. We have supper together, and then we get stuck into the Haggadah, discussing, debating, sharing as a family, covering everything from the four sons, the four questions and the ten plagues, to matzah, maror, and the four cups of wine.
It has been a truly memorable experience. We started this family tradition a few months ago, setting aside the Sunday night slot to connect as a family and share Torah ideas. It’s an open forum, a space for every member of the family to express their thoughts, ideas, and opinions. We’ve covered the Rambam’s 13 Principles of Faith and the weekly parsha, and now, most recently, the Haggadah.
Going through the Haggadah, which tells the story of the Jewish people and goes to the very heart of who we are as Jews, has been particularly special. We’ve fine-tuned our understanding of the story, and gained so many new insights and ideas. Just as importantly, we’ve grown closer as a family, and feel more connected to each other and Hashem. Now, as we head towards Pesach, we all feel that this is going to be a dramatically different seder experience. Our mindset is different.
The Pesach seder is perhaps the formative Jewish experience. The seders we had as kids seem to stay with us. Even as we grow older, we recollect them fondly and vividly. It’s so much more than a ceremony, a procession of rituals, it’s the rich soil in which our families and our very Jewish identity are formed.
Of course, as we grow older, there’s the temptation, given how familiar the story is, to slip into autopilot on seder night. But if we prepare, we can avoid this and enter the seder charged with inspiration and filled with rich new perspectives. In doing so, we can transform it into an incredibly powerful spiritual and emotional experience that changes us, that truly frees us from our tired routines and habits and brings us closer to one another, to G-d, and to our true selves. A rebirth in the deepest sense.
That’s why I would like to call on all of us to start these meaningful family conversations in preparation for Pesach, to discuss the ideas and themes and get a deeper understanding of the seder itself. Of course, we need to prepare our homes – cleaning and cooking are incredibly important because they help us to fulfil all the mitzvot of this special chag and ensure we have a proper, kosher Pesach. But the seder, too, needs preparation, and the more we prepare for it, the greater the experience is going to be.
There’s something that can help you get the process started. My family and I were so excited and inspired by our Sunday night learning sessions, we decided to record our Haggadah discussions. We’ve turned these recordings into a special Pesach series, called The Goldstein Family Podcast, which you can access via my website or wherever you get your podcasts. The sessions have been cut and edited into eight episodes ranging from 10 to 30 minutes each to make them as accessible as possible.
There’s not much time left before Pesach, but I would like to encourage you to devote some time to preparing for the seder, and our podcast can be a good place to start. Even just a couple of hours can make all the difference to your seder.
Especially at this time, after a year of being battered by a pandemic, we need the healing, the meaning, and the deep inspiration of the seder more than ever – the message of faith in Hashem, connection to generations past, the sense of rootedness it gives us in an uncertain world.
Let’s take this opportunity to prepare so that we can connect with the ancient words of the Haggadah – with the great origin story of our people – in ways we’ve never done before.
Gina and I wish you all a chag kasher v’same’ach – a beautiful Pesach – and deeply meaningful, enriching seders.
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