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The Torah In One Sentence #613

02/07/2020 05:00:00 PM


Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Pirkei Avot

The Torah in One Sentence

Hardly a day has passed since I became a rabbi that someone has not introduced themselves by saying, “Rabbi, I'm really not that religious.” Frequently, as I meet with a family before eulogizing a mother or father, I hear, “He (or she) didn't believe in religion, still, they were a good person with a sense of right from wrong.”

Do we see any problem with this picture? Pirkei Avot, our 2000-year-old collection of oral teachings, consistently notes that it is not platitudes, praise, prayer or sacrifice that God wants — but rather that we are good to each other.

This is a critical week in our reading of the Torah, as Moses leads the newly liberated children of Israel across the Sea of Reeds.

It is one of the Bible's most celebrated scenes, captured in this week's Parashah titled Beshalach (When Pharaoh let the people go).

After the Israelites successfully cross the sea, Moses launches into a fabled song of thanks and praise, known as the Song of the Sea. In its honor we call this Shabbat, Shabbat Shira, the Sabbath of Song. But what makes these 18 sentences so significant — if not mysterious — is the way they appear on the page. There are spaces between many of the words. Why? There are many interpretations.

Some commentators posit that the combination of words and spaces mirrors the path the Jewish people must have followed as they navigated among the rocks and debris. Some note that the road to freedom is paved “brick by brick.”

Some have focused on the words and phrases — many of which form the core of our daily and Shabbat liturgy. But the commentaries that move me the most, are the ones focusing on the spaces between the words — the “silence” of Moses' message.

For as many have noted, those blank spaces within our lives can be the most glorious and significant. Can we imagine the Israelites' joy and trepidation, as — after 200 years of brutal captivity — they embraced the potential for a future not controlled by a taskmaster, but by their own capability?

Silence. Can we imagine, the pounding of their hearts, as those walls of water arched over them, wondering if faith would sustain them to the other side? Silence. Can we imagine the agonizing self-doubt as the Israelites left the structured life of slavery, walking into the unknown? I imagine that all of this was contained...within the sound of silence.

Friends, these days, we are surrounded by a never-ending flood of words. Hardly a task is undertaken without oral or written noise. At the checkout counter, at the gas station, we are messaged. At home, at work, while driving, during times of our most meaningful contemplation, we are pinged and drawn into the addictive lure of words.

This week's Torah reading — and its remarkable layout — reminds us that some of our deepest, perhaps most religious, moments can come through the blank spaces of our lives.

They come as we enter each day with its infinite and open potential for newness and joy. This week's portion also reminds us that the core of Torah is not based so much on a fixed code of rules and regulations, but rather on how we conduct ourselves in the spaces between the lines.

Within that white space, we possess the ability to make our lives and the world a better place. Two thousand years ago, our rabbis were concerned that Jews were not fully following the laws of our tradition. They feared that Judaism was being “diminished” by assimilation and modernization.

Our Sages noted that perhaps the number of commandments in the Torah — 613 — were too many to remember. So, they tried pairing the 613 down to 11 and then to six. But even those proved too many. Our Sages asked, “What is the central message of the Torah and how can we condense the Torah's 613 mitzvoth (commandments) into one sentence?”

It was their quest for the perfect tweet. Quoting the prophet Micah, the Talmud asks, “What does God really require of us?” the answer: “Only to do justice, to love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God.”

Truly, is there anything else? Based on this teaching, within this frantic world, filled with words, tweets, pings and other noise - it behooves us to ask, “How do we define being religious?”

Perhaps it comes by embracing the pure and open spaces of our lives. Perhaps it can be found in the way we extend kindness to others or raise our children and grandchildren to distinguish between right and wrong.

Whether in synagogue, or through our interactions with family, friends, workmates and strangers, each of us strives to find our own true religion. No one can define it for us.

For indeed, when we lower our veils and embrace the silence, we create space for God to enter. This is my 613th e-sermon. I began writing these comments 13 years ago, and it is the prophetic teaching, which reduces our 613 commandments to once sentence that I wish to embrace:

True freedom — true religion — extends well beyond words. It is found through genuine moments of silence and reflection. It can be realized within the open spaces, through the values of our tradition — within the sound of silence.

“Only to do justice, to love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God.”

And that, my friends, is where true religion can be found.

Shabbat Shalom, v’kol tuv (with all goodness)

Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Tue, June 2 2020 10 Sivan 5780