D’Var Torah: D’varim, Commanded-ness
“And I commanded you, at that time, about the various the things you should do” (Deuteronomy 1:18).
The phrase “as God commanded” is repeated over and over again in the Book of Deuteronomy (D’varim Rabbah 1:1). It is a constant reminder that there is a God behind the mitzvot. As Reform Jews, we are constantly considering and reconsidering what motivates us to pursue a life of mitzvot—both ritual and ethical. What is it, really, to be commanded?
For some, the commanding voice comes from the past. We may ask: “Who am I to turn away from 4,000 years of devoted ancestors and tradition? I’m not going to be the weak link in the chain.” The commanding voice of history can be quite powerful—enough to claim us. I know an impressive woman, an accomplished physician with real ambition. After her two daughters were old enough for their family to settle into a steady pattern and life was balanced and good, she was eager to get back to her research. And yet, despite herself, she felt obligated to have another child for the sake of the Jewish people: one to replace herself, one to replace her husband, and one for the Six Million. She said it just that simply. Despite her personal preferences, she could not ignore the commanding voice of history. And now her family has a son.
For some, the commanding voice comes from the present-tense community. We may ask: What will friends and neighbors think of me if I do not live by a certain ethic? Today’s emphasis on individuality teaches us that doing something for the sake of what the neighbors will say is false, hollow, backward somehow. But in the eyes of our tradition, caring about the community and one’s place in it is a core value. There’s a difference between doing something for the neighbor’s sake and doing something for the sake of being a good neighbor. Community standards can keep us honest and upright.
For others, the commanding voice comes from the future. Our children and grandchildren make us want to do better and be better. On the opening night of our “adult bat mitzvah” class, I asked each student to share why she’d enrolled in the two-year course. Many explained that their study was motivated by their children in one way or another. They were proud to tell their sons and daughters that one night each week they couldn’t help with the homework because they had to go study some Torah for themselves. They wanted to make an impression on their children by “walking the talk” and creating a path of mitzvot for them to follow.
And for some, the commanding voice is none other than the Voice of the Living God.
There is a well-known teaching about mitzvot and freedom. It is written: “Gadol hametzuveh ve’oseh mi’she’eino metzuveh ve’oseh,”“Greater is the one who is commanded and does it, than one who is not commanded and still does it” (Babylonian Talmud, Kiddushin 31a). That is, “It is better to do something under command than by choice.” This seems counterintuitive. We might think it is better to do something voluntarily, out of the goodness of our hearts, because we want to do the right thing rather than because Someone commanded us. But no, our Sages speak of ol hamitzvot, “the yoke of the mitzvot.” Like a beast of burden, we are to feel the weight of the commandments on our shoulders, and carry them because our Master drives us to do so, because God has expectations of us. Jews of all stripes like to talk about the “how-tos” of mitzvot. It’s interesting: Are lentils kosher during Pesach? What if you’re a vegetarian? What if you have one Sephardic grandparent? The how-tos of mitzvot are enough to keep us busy for a lifetime. Since Reform Judaism took root in this continent, its hallmark approach of informed choice and personal autonomy has led to another collection of interesting questions. But the foundational question, the more challenging question, and in my opinion, the most interesting question of all is: What is it that claims us so strongly that we have no choice but to say yes? What is the Origin of that commanding voice? Let’s take the example of nichum aveilim, the mitzvah to comfort mourners. Making a shivah call is an awkward, inconvenient, emotionally difficult thing to do, and yet, without much thought or planning, we find ourselves walking up those front steps. We are duty-bound. More often than not there is no choice in it. There is only a call and a response. There is only the mitzvah to be fulfilled or ignored. What gets us to “yes”?
Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf, z”l, a leading light for our Movement, challenges us to consider the great contribution Reform Judaism can make to the Jewish world by “ethicizing the ritual mitzvot and ritualizing the ethical mitzvot.” What could this mean?
When Reform Jews refrain from eating t’reif, they fulfill the ritual mitzvah of kashrut. When in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, many Reform Jews boycotted California table grapes and called them t’reif, because the migrant field workers were being treated as slaves, they “ethicized the ritual” of keeping kosher. Or more recently, when there was a movement to boycott Israeli products and my synagogue’s Israel Committee responded by arranging for only Israeli wines to be served at Temple functions, they “ethicized the ritual” of making Kiddush.
When Reform Jews turn our synagogues into homeless shelters, they fulfill the ethical mitzvot of “feeding the hungry” and “welcoming the stranger.” When the volunteers recite a prayer to start their preparations, when they wear kippot as they serve the warm meal to the hungry guests, they “ritualize the ethical.” When a circle of friends support a woman through her battle with cancer, they fulfill the ethical mitzvah of bikur cholim, “visiting the sick.” But when she completes the regimen of chemotherapy and radiation, and her friends shower her with heartfelt prayers of hope for a healthy future and accompany her to the mikveh, which “cleanses” the poison from her body, they “ritualize the ethical.”
These are examples of Reform Judaism at its best: serious Judaism—ready to take on the mitzvot and carry them with integrity, sincerity, and a good measure of imagination. No mitzvah is off-limits to us. The relevance of each mitzvah is only waiting to be discovered, as is the God who offers it.
For more on this topic see, Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf’s “Back to the Future” in Duties of the Soul: The Role of the Commandments in Liberal Judaism, by Niles Elliot Goldstein and Peter Knobel, (New York: UAHC Press,1999).