Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Choice of Your Life - Reflections on Parashat Nitzavim

What to make of this odd phone call?

Shortly before we made aliyah, I received an urgent call from an old family friend (we'll call him Otto.) Otto was one of the fortunate few on the kindertransport, the impromptu effort to rescue as many Jewish children as possible from Central Europe between Kristallnacht and the start of World War II.

After the war, he moved to Israel, and later made yerida to the US.

I was glad to receive Otto's call. He knew that I was a passionate religious Zionist, that we were living our values and beginning a new life in Israel, and what I expected was a warm phone call filled with sweet wishes for our future. 

What I got instead was an earful from a very troubled old man.

"Shuki," he pleaded, almost to the point of tears, "the religious must never be allowed to take control of the government. You must hear me on this. Israel must always remain a democracy. The religious will turn Israel into an Iran-style theocracy, a Jew-istan. 

"Shuki, I am not religious, and I know that you are religious, but promise me that your generation will always work to ensure that Israel is democratic and free."

Wow. Talk about a non-sequitur. Did Otto, did Tel-Avivians, did most people think that Orthodox Jews seek the reins of government in order to compel others to religious conformity?  

Much later in my life, I read an insightful biography by Alan Bullock called Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives. In it he describes Stalin's early attraction to the Russian Orthodox priesthood and "...the requirements of orthodoxy: the exclusion of doubt, the intolerance of dissent, and the persecution of heretics..."

Otto was terribly afraid that rabbis, if given half a chance, will behave like ayatollahs.  But Bullock's definition is most decidedly not the Jewish definition of orthodoxy. 

In this week's Torah Portion, Moses defines the elemental requirements of Jewish Orthodoxy. He pleads: "I bear witness before you today, with heaven and earth as my witnesses, that I place before you life and death, blessing and curse; and CHOOSE LIFE that you and your descendants may live." (Deuteronomy 30:19)

Emphasis on the word CHOOSE. 

Moses is saying that in order for any authentic spiritual impulse to arise in the human heart, there must exist a background, a societal infrastructure, of absolute free will. If coercion is present, the spiritual ember that smolders in all of us is snuffed out.

Yes! Of course I urgently long for my fellow Jews to observe the mitzvot - to observe the Sabbath Day and keep it holy; to keep kosher; for people to treat one another with dignity, integrity and respect. I plead guilty as charged on all counts, your honor! We pray for these things every day. But the way to achieve these lofty goals is not to legislate respect, or compel prayer, or to force someone to observe the mitzvot against their will.

Back in parashat Chukat, Moses hits the rock instead of speaking to it, as Gcd had commanded. Water still gushed out, but for this seemingly minor infraction, Moses is (disproportionately?) punished by being barred from entering Israel. Poof! - the crowning achievement of a lifetime of hard work and self-sacrifice - gone in a moment. 

What did he do that was so horrible so as to deserve being barred from Israel? Rav Kook teaches that Moses, in his impatience, introduced religious coercion into the world. Instead of speaking to the rock - using the gentle influence of logic and persuasion and example - he impatiently hit the rock, used force to get the desired result. It is for that reason that Moses is punished so severely.

It is a stark truth that most of the pain in our lives is self-inflicted. Almost all human suffering is a consequence of bad decision-making - most people choose the path of least resistance, the path of instant gratification, the path of the lie - the path of death. And like Moses and the rock, the impulse of the illuminati, born of the pain of seeing our fellow man suffer, is to force people to make better choices, in their own self-interest.

But that is not Gcd's plan. Gcd wants ritual observances to spring naturally from a desire to connect with the Lifesource. 

When our hard-won life's lessons bring us to a place of wanting "to love the Lord your Gcd and to cling to Him," at that moment a religious person is born. And the complex string of life choices (and their consequences) that can bring a person to that place of spiritual enlightenment can only happen in a framework of human freedom and dignity, where each and every one of us is free to sort these issues out for ourselves.

No thoughtful, authentic Jew wants to create a society where the irreligious are compelled to perform mitzvot under duress. To the contrary, we wish to create a just society, based on the norms of ethical, compassionate monotheism which protects the widow and orphan, upholds human freedoms, and gives everyone the unfettered opportunity to choose for themselves life or death, blessing or curse.

Otto need not have been concerned; religious Zionists are no threat to democracy and freedom. Yes, we will educate, persuade, advocate - and blog - for our fellow Jew and our fellow humans to choose life - but ultimately, the decision of your life is in your own hands.

U'vacharta B'Chaim - Choose the path of Mitzvot, the path of Torah, the Path of Life.

Shabbat Shalom.