Shabbat Shalom with a Heart Healthy Dose of Torah–Behar/Bechokotai

I grew up hating professional students. I always thought, pejoratively, that people who spent their lives studying needed to get a life. What a waste!!!!! Then, I went to law school. At that point, I added some more letters to my name and committed to a career of study (UGH!). If one does not keep up with the ever-evolving (or devolving) legal world, one commits malpractice. So, in addition to the many hours of mandatory Continuing Legal Education credits, I had to continue ongoing growth in the fields of law in which I practiced. This study was different, though, I had to do so to make a living. All sorts of horrible things would happen if I just stopped studying.

Religious study is “a whole nother” animal. Studying for the sake of studying. I can promise you that this idea was not in my DNA pattern growing up. I never understood the Rabbinic commitment to spending all day in the Yeshiva (house of study). There was nothing to gain from spending time pouring over books and debating texts.

Well, of course, we know “I saw the light!” Seriously, as I began tutoring Bar/Bat Mitzvah students in Little Rock, I quickly experienced the powerful impact and enlightenment that results from text study. No, I am not an “uber” religious fanatic. In fact, I am not a religious person. Through engagement with our tradition, I learned faith, and I believe that I am devoutly faithful. I came to understand that the psychology of the world is eternal and the human condition wrestles with many of the same challenges as did our ancestors, thousands of years ago. Over two thousand years ago, a sage understood that if one in the community is oppressed, none are free. Another figured out that one cannot serve God by throwing food on an altar, as though our function was to fatten the God of excess. No, the food on the altar went to the people who spent their time governing, hearing complaints, solving problems, These priests, in turn, shared it with the poor in the community. While we have not solved the problems of ego and insecurity, we continue to passionately find relevant ways in which to help people overcome themselves and each other. It is through the Torah debate that a group of people create a synergy, finding better answers as a group than anyone could have imagined on his/her own. I understand that religion is a concern in this generation. I understand how badly it gets abused, and that religious dogmatism may be the single greatest enemy against faith. Even if I believe that religion struggles for relevance in this generation, it remains crystal clear to me that faithful study continues to open our eyes (and keeps religion from idolatry).

This week’s parsha includes an interesting word construct: B’chukotai. The context of the verse has God instructing Moses, “If you walk in my ways and obey my laws, I will give you rain in its season.” The word “chok” means laws, but the type of law that one observes through discipline, not because it ties strictly to a result. Don’t speed so that you get fewer accidents. Don’t withhold the wages of a laborer. These rules make sense. While “Dinim” and “Mishpatim” involve definable practice with definable goals, “Chukim” are matters of faith. Issues of mixing linen and wool, kashrut, or the red heifer are radically different. In fact their only value is to study and interpret, but in that process, worlds open up. To debate whether an animal is fit to eat, one has to first debate whether we should be eating animals, and if so, we need to understand the value of life-giving life and the responsibility we have not to abuse that meal. Ultimately, for many, it has nothing to do with the narrowly focused rituals and everything to do with the moral values that come out of these conversations. These conversations only happen, when we get together to study … just for the sake of studying.

More valuable than gold are these conversations for they impact how we see and treat the world, including how we are supposed to interact in the business world, the familial world, and the faith world. The nightmare revolves how many abuse this process and give it a bad name for the rest of us.

“I will give you rain.” If we are diligent in our study and our conversations, if we struggle to grow, then life fertilizes our spirit no differently than the rains grow the grains in the earth. Join in holy conversations around study; it helps to make a lot of sense of rituals that seem to exist for the sake of existing. Some you will accept, some you will not, but for each, you will have made an informed choice as to which help you focus and which only serve as distractions. Shabbat Shalom.