Shabbat Evening Service
From the desk of Rabbi David Lyon
In Torah this week we read the Ten Commandments. The Tablets of the Law were given in the wilderness of Sinai. It was a wide open public space. The Law was given in public where everyone was welcomed to receive it. Why? The Rabbis teach, “In order that the [other] nations of the world should not have an excuse and say, ‘Because it was given in Israel’s land; therefore we did not accept it.’” In a public place there was no exclusive title to God’s Law and no excuse not to embrace its sacred value.
Another explanation teaches, “To avoid causing disagreements among the tribes.” Otherwise, one might have said, “In my territory the Torah was given.” Can you imagine the sense of entitlement that would have been assumed by the tribe in whose land the Law was given? There would have been no peace between them. Instead, each of the twelve tribes was given particular roles and responsibilities in the community.
From tribal heads to water drawer, God sealed the covenant with all of them. There they said in one voice, “Na’aseh v’nishmah” we will faithfully obey all that God commanded. A closer look at their commitment reveals that first they said “Na’aseh” which means “we will do”. Then they said “nishmah” we will hear (understand/obey). There’s nothing else in the world we’re permitted to do before we understand it; not medicine, law, teaching, psychiatry, architecture, etc. Only at Sinai do we learn that we can participate in God’s Law without first having to understand all that it means. Therefore, the rabbis concluded, “The understanding comes through the doing.”
When a young bride asked what she was supposed to feel when she kindled the Sabbath lights on Friday night, her rabbi taught, “The understanding comes through the doing.” Week after week, she understood more about how to increase holiness in her life when she participated in the commandment “to kindle the lights of Shabbat.” As she lit the candles, drew her hands to her eyes, made a personal prayer for her family, and recited the blessing, she felt the presence of her mother and her grandmother and those who came before them. She was more than one person who kindled lights on Shabbat. She was every woman who ever kept the tradition to sanctify the Sabbath day.
After the death of his wife, a husband asked what difference do the rites of the burial service and shiva make? The rabbis explained, “The understanding comes through the doing.” At the graveside, he lifted the heavy shovel in his hand and placed some dirt into the grave. When shiva ended he recalled the moment at the graveside when he placed dirt in the grave. He learned that it was the greatest mitzvah because his wife couldn’t do the same for him nor could she thank him. Since that day he never had any regrets about how he loved her in life, how he accompanied her to her final resting place, and how he participated in closing the grave. Now his only task was to honor her life with his own.
Judaism is the pursuit of meaning. But, we arrive at any meaning in life through participation in life. If we studied everything we needed to know before we lived it, Judaism would wither. We are commanded to choose life and then to seek meaning in every encounter. Dr. Eugene Borowitz, world renowned Reform Jewish theologian, died this past week. In his book “Renewing the Covenant” he taught, “When we seek God as partner in every significant act we invest our doing and deciding with direction, hope, [and] worth, and where we fail, we have the possibility for repair.” Dr. Borowitz’s brilliance is found in his clarity. “Doing and deciding” come first. “Direction, hope and worth” follow as natural and obvious contributions of our obligation to a covenant we make with an unconditionally loving God. We know that God loves unconditionally because “where we fail” we have the “possibility for repair.”
To be Jewish means that we come “pre-certified” to perform mitzvot, deeds of loving-kindness. Torah tells us that the mitzvot are “not so far that you have to send someone…to get them and bring them back and impart them to you. They are [already] in your mouth, in your heart, and in your hands [to do them].”