Sign In Forgot Password

The Essence of Judaism  #794

09/08/2023 03:29:00 PM


Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Parashat Nitzavin-Vayeilech 

"Surely this instruction which I enjoin you today in not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach." -- (Deuteronomy 30:11)    

The Essence of Judaism

Not a day passes without my sharing a favorite quote from my late mentor, Rabbi Joseph Ehrenkranz:

“Judaism is the perfect religion, too often ruined by the people who practice it.”

In many ways, what makes Judaism so meaningful is also why so many have issues with it. For Judaism is based less on Biblical quotes than on rabbinical interpretation.

Often in consultation with communities, rabbis interpret the Torah so it can continue to apply to our daily lives. That is Judaism’s beauty. It continues to remain relevant, reshaping itself as humanity evolves.

But there are also pitfalls. Humans are not perfect. Moreover, today’s radical and dynamic religious ideas can easily evolve into tomorrow’s stagnation and empty repetition.

Within Judaism, there are rules and guidelines—established 2,000 years ago—that don’t always speak to newer generations. The prayers are usually in Hebrew, and frequently seem redundant. Also, a lot of guilt is involved—especially as we ponder our future during the High Holidays.

Indeed, at the end of Yom Kippur, during the Neilah service—as time runs out on our time of introspection—are the Gates of Life closing, or are they opening to new and optimistic opportunities?

Why is it that while more young people than ever proudly identify as being Jewish, a smaller percentage attend services?

They don’t reject a belief in a higher power, but rather how Judaism—as well as other organized religions—are presented or put into practice.

But then comes this week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim/Vayelech, which presents—in a few simple paragraphs—what Judaism is truly about. Those words inspire me every day.

Spoiler alert! I’m going to reveal how the Torah ends.

Moses dies.

But before Moses enters the world of souls, he shares a series of final teachings the most significant of which are contained in this week’s parashah.

Moses gathers the Israelites and delivers some advice that has sustained the Jewish people for thousands of years.  I view it as “the Torah’s punchline.”

Moses says, “Surely this instruction which I enjoin you today is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach.” (Deuteronomy 30:11)

So many of Judaism’s rules, rituals and regulations “Jewbarass” modern Jews. Have we made the practice of religion too complex? In some ways, I believe, Moses agrees.

He warns us against looking outside of our hearts to find God. Moses teaches that religion is more instinctive and connected less to faith and more to our behavior.

Moses continues: “It is not in the heavens that you should say, ‘Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us, and impart it for us?’…nor is it beyond the sea that you should say, ‘Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it for us…’

“No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth, and in your heart to observe it.” (Deuteronomy 30:12)

Abraham Lincoln once said, “When I do good I feel good, when I do bad I feel bad, and that's my religion.”

And yes, while the Torah and our tradition provide us with a sacred blueprint through our holidays, our ethics, our eating habits, our observance of a day of rest, our respect for all—it really boils down to this:

Judaism is more than a series of prayers and practices, it is a system of life—to love, to learn, to show kindness, to forgive, to practice patience, to do our best to help God heal this imperfect world.

Too often, we get caught in the weeds. Every day, I get asked questions concerning minutiae. Should we face this way or that while praying? Is this kosher enough? Should we dip our apples at the Rosh Hashanah table in honey or in sugar?

I’ve had to referee more than my share of disputes that too often possess the power to distract us from what really matters.

We are on this earth for such a short time. Moses lived to 120. Few of us will survive that long. So, what can we learn from perhaps the longest living person in human history?

Moses shares this profound advice:

 “Choose Life—if you and your offspring would live.” (Deuteronomy 30:19)

Is there anything more we need to know?

We live in such a fractured world. Too many adults have become cynical and share that pessimism with younger generations.

Indeed, Moses teaches us to “choose life,” but that doesn’t make us naive or blind to the world’s imperfections.

As I awake each morning, I feel a sense of rebirth. What will this day bring? How can I make it into a blessing? How can I choose life?

The choice is central to how we approach the upcoming High Holidays. It is a time to reflect upon how we engage with life, and perhaps the types of beliefs and philosophies that we are modeling to our children and grandchildren.

Optimism or cynicism—life or death?

As Moses instructs this week, how we interact with God, family, friends and the world, does not require gazing at the stars, swimming across a great sea, or becoming overly obsessed with rules and rituals.

“No,” says Moses. “The thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart.” Does it need to be more complicated than that?

In spite of humanity’s instinct to make religion and Judaism overly complex, the core of Judaism rests most within our hearts and through our actions.

As Moses teaches this week at the end of a long life:

“It’s really not that baffling at all.

Shabbat Shalom from Jerusalem. Kol tuv.

Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Wed, February 21 2024 12 Adar I 5784