Shabbat Shalom with a Heart Healthy Dose of Torah – B’har

When approaching a religious ceremony, two schools of thought do battle. One argues that if you do the ritual and make it a habit, you will come to understand the value of the ritual. The “doing” creates and/or fosters the “understanding.” The other school argues that one must sense value in doing before participating or the action lacks substance. “Blind faith” or obedience … “because” … is a bracha l’vatalah – a prayer without value.

Believing in full transparency, I am of the latter school. For many of my nearing 25 years as Rabbi, I observe people performing a host of rituals in worship. For many, I ask why they do them, and I receive the most transparent and honest answers, “I saw other people doing it” or “It looked REALLY Jewish.” These answers are not universal (and certainly not unique to Judaism or even religion), but they are pervasive and curious.

I have a favorite story of a long-standing business in the community. A new hire started working and noticed that every day, as people walked into the offices, they bent over to the left, and as they left, they bent to the right. He thought it was odd, but so many people followed this ritual. By the end of the first day, he was so curious that he asked the supervisor about this bizarre ritual and why it was important to the industry. The supervisor’s first thought was, “Well, that’s what we do.” On further reflection, she started to laugh. She added, “Until three weeks ago, there was a ceiling mounted air conditioner there, and we always bent to avoid hitting our heads on it coming and going.”

We understand the rules of the game “Telephone.” We know that people will pass on the message that they think they received, irrespective of whether or not it is accurate. We do the best we can, and perpetuate the most interesting renditions of ritual where we simply “do,” as we then begin looking for meaning.

I serve my congregation, but also serve as a consultant with other houses of worship and non-profit organizations. Some people call me a deconstructionist because I believe that, when looking forward, one has to understand how and why something is; before we can discern whether or not it has value. Two excellent textbooks for understanding this philosophy are “First, Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently,” by Marcus Buckingham and “From Good To Great,” by Jim Collins.

Theologically, I find the same ethos in Torah, this week. As we will move into the land (after traversing the wilderness), Torah tells us that our first obligation is to take time to reflect. “When you come into the land which I give you, the land shall rest a Sabbath unto God.” (Lev. 25:2) The working of the land (performance of the ritual) comes only after the time of reflection and appreciation. Torah understands that our first instinct is to dive in and attack challenges. We run races giving the most credit for the quickest success, not for the best process. My tradition teaches that quick success can come by accident and may or may not be replicable. A good process will yield longer term and more assured good results and will provide us with a better-established frame of reference from which to continue growing our process; achieving even better results.

In this ethic, I find the value of prayer. Praying words is easy. Praying to expand one’s vision and understanding is quite different. One’s intentional turn to partner with Divinity helps Heaven and Earth touch. While I have never been a huge fan of St. Augustine, he said some profound truths. One of my favorites is, “Pray as if everything depends on God. Work as if everything depends on you.”

Of course, the real benefit of understanding the process and makeup of decisions before making them is that we end up making fewer knee jerk responses to each other, fewer destructive statements in the community, and become more thoughtful in all our interpersonal deliberations and experiences. For this benefit, even if none other, Shabbat is the most sacred of days. It is our real opportunity for a “do over” each week. More importantly, it is the organic instruction manual that mandates us to process and reflect on our potential best (most valued) results before we act.

Shabbat Shalom.