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Why Jews Believe in Doing #663

02/05/2021 04:45:00 PM

Feb5

Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Parashat Yitro

“Do, or do not. There is no try.”  – Yoda

Why Jews Believe in Doing

There is a fundamental difference between Judaism and many western religions.

While the Christian Truth Center declares on its website, “To be called a Christian you need faith,” Jews have struggled for centuries with the issue of belief.

We have within our congregation those who lean strongly toward Conservative, Reform and Orthodox Judaism, while others proudly identify as Jewish atheists. 

Our congregation embraces — and cherishes — all Jewish traditions. We are enriched by these customs, prayers and melodies.

But, what about belief?

The Torah and other core texts seem to be more concerned with action, as opposed to affiliating with fixed religious philosophies. As the saying goes, “Two Jews, three opinions.”

Perhaps, that is why we are known as the children of Yisrael — literally, strugglers or wrestlers with God. This dynamic tension is perhaps what has kept us arguing, disagreeing, debating and evolving for thousands of years.  

And, in many ways, our dynamic journey begins with this week’s Torah portion, Yitro. It is the section of the Torah where we receive the Ten Commandments.

It is, perhaps, the most important section of the entire Torah — for it changed the world.

Along with ten ancient commandments emblazoned upon sapphire, there was an additional instruction to act for God needs our help to repair this imperfect world.

What each commandment means has always been up for discussion.  What does honoring parents or the Sabbath truly mean? What does, “You shall have no other God but me?” mean during these complex cultural times?

Within the Torah and many of its supporting texts and commentaries, we are often taught that being a good person does not necessarily require us to compliment God or provide sacrifices, or burn incense, or even sit in a pew.

Rather, being a good Jew, first and foremost requires us to act in a godly way.

At one point in the Bible, the prophet Jeremiah, channeling God, bemoans that the Children of Israel “…have forsaken me… and did not keep my Torah.”

But one of our ancient commentaries, Pesikta D’Rav Kahana, notes that God would have been satisfied, “If only they had forsaken me and kept my Torah.”

Indeed, belief in God is a good thing. Belief grounds us. It centers us. I don’t know where I would be without my belief in God — but it is not the prime requirement for being Jewish.

A teacher once taught me, “When we behave a certain way, and belong to those who behave in the same way, then the belief comes to us. But it begins with the doing.”

Behave. Belong. Believe.

A story in the Talmud tells of how God initially offered the Torah to other nations, but each rejected it based on commandments concerning murder and adultery. 

But, when it was offered to the Israelites, they accepted it with words we will read in next week's parashah — Na’seh V’nishmah — roughly translated, “We will do and then we will understand.”

Embedded within this expression is the understanding that a close connection with God — with good — does not come about merely by studying words, or through thoughts and prayers, but rather through action.

If you are feeling a bit removed from God during these challenging times, our tradition advises us to “do something.”

Consider calling someone who is ill or otherwise homebound, and help them feel less isolated.  

Light candles on Friday night, and at the dinner table, talk about five things that are going well.

Take on a project, attend a virtual class, turn off cable news, take a walk alone or with someone you can share with.

There is a scene in the Star Wars movie, The Empire Strikes Back, where the sage, Yoda, is coaching a whiny student, Luke Skywalker.

Yoda stamps his foot in irritation, scolding, “So certain are you. Always with you it cannot be done. Hear you nothing that I say?”

To which Luke Skywalker responds, “All right, I'll give it a try.”

“No! Try not,” chides Yoda. “Do. Or do not!! There is no try.”

Over the past four decades, many articles have debated whether “Yoda” and his “Yodish,” closely resemble Judah and Yiddish. But one thing is certain, there is a focus within these movies upon action.

In seven weeks, around the Passover table, we will be discussing the 10 Plagues afflicted upon the Egyptians. The conversation will lead us to consider, “What are today’s 10 Plagues?” Perhaps more importantly, “What are the antidotes?”

After almost a year of weathering the Covid storm, many of us are tired. Days and weeks often feel the same. It’s sometimes hard to feel enthusiastic and optimistic — never mind connected to a higher power.

But I assure you one exists, and there is purpose for everything under heaven. 

Sometimes it is difficult to act. Sometimes it is difficult to see the light. Sometimes — especially these days — it is hard to sense the meaning.

But, we are not the first generation to experience challenge. This week, the Torah provides a blueprint for our physical and spiritual wellbeing. It is called the Torah.

It compels us to take action, even when we are weary, or feeling small. For there is a spark of God in each of us. Action will bring our sparks closer to God’s flame.

Whether you believe in Moses, Jeremiah or Yoda — truth and faith emerge through action. 

That light has guided us through challenging times.

Even when life seems difficult, we, as Jews, are taught to act. And when we do, we become stronger. We become closer to God.

Behave. Belong. Believe.

This formula has sustained our people for centuries. Perhaps now more than ever.

Shabbat Shalom, v’kol tuv.

Rabbi Irwin Huberman

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Tue, May 18 2021 7 Sivan 5781