Monday, January 03, 2005


The Abnormal Is Not Courage

Jack Gilbert

The Poles rode out from Warsaw against the German
Tanks on horses. Rode knowing, in sunlight, with sabers,
A magnitude of beauty that allows me no peace.
And yet this poem would lessen that day. Question
The bravery. Say it's not courage. Call it a passion.
Would say courage isn't that. Not at its best.
It was impossib1e, and with form. They rode in sunlight,
Were mangled. But I say courage is not the abnormal.
Not the marvelous act. Not Macbeth with fine speeches.
The worthless can manage in public, or for the moment.
It is too near the whore's heart: the bounty of impulse,
And the failure to sustain even small kindness.
Not the marvelous act, but the evident conclusion of being.
Not strangeness, but a leap forward of the same quality.
Accomplishment. The even loyalty. But fresh.
Not the Prodigal Son, nor Faustus. But Penelope.
The thing steady and clear. Then the crescendo.
The real form. The culmination. And the exceeding.
Not the surprise. The amazed understanding. The marriage,
Not the month's rapture. Not the exception. The beauty
That is of many days. Steady and clear.
It is the normal excellence, of long accomplishment.

This poem, written by Jack Gilbert, explains succinctly an idea that we find in this week’s Torah portion. So much of history is taken up with the extraordinary: with battles, with great men, with moments of transcendence, with the dark moment about which we swear “Never again.” Yet, to say that history is truly these turning points or those individuals seems to me to be missing the heart of history. Sure, it’s true that reading about the daily lives of a serf in the Middle Ages is hardly as exciting as reading about a king ordering his knights off to the Crusades, but those pivotal moments of history – as we think of them- rise and fall upon what the little people do behind the scenes. Without the serfs working the land, there is no bread to eat, and no taxes to be collected by those kings to raise the funds to go off and conquer other lands. It isn’t that there aren’t great men (and women) or that there aren’t moments in history when everything changes, but those people, and those moments are dependant upon an entire river of events and people which came before, and follow after them.

Judaism agrees with this idea. There is a midrash that every Jewish soul is a letter in the Torah. The Midrash (Genesis Raba) says: If the Jewish People were lacking just one person from the 600,000 Jews at Mount Sinai they would not have received the Torah.

Why is this? The Kabbalists point out that just as 600,000 Jewish souls stood at Mt. Sinai, so too there are 600,000 letters in the Torah (including the white spaces between letters). We are not permitted to read from a pasul Torah, a Torah from which even one letter is missing. And just as a Torah Scroll is invalid if even a single letter is missing, so too the Jewish People are handicapped if even one Jew has fallen away from our people.

Yet, today, we are more and more distant from one another. We come to shul, but we don’t know the person sitting next to us. We root for Jewish politicians, but many of us don’t keep kosher or shabbat. And why is that? Deep in our souls, many of us say to ourselves, we’re Jewish, but does it really matter if I have a cheeseburger? Does God really care if I go out for Chinese or go shopping after shul? After all, I’m a good person, isn’t that enough?

Of course, God cares for good people, whether they’re Jews or not. And it counts to be a good person. There’s no question of that. But what is a good Jew? It’s true that “ritual” mitzvot by themselves do not make a good Jew, but neither do “ethical” mitzvot. Because there is no separation between ritual and ethical mitzvot. God calls upon us to be holy in many ways. We don’t, it is true, always know the point of a given law which seems to be ritual in nature. But it is, for certain, teaching us something, and it has a reason, whether or not we not what that reason is. Some of our commentators explain that the reason we aren’t given the reasons for laws is because when we have reasons, we can find excuses for them not to apply to us.

In the talmud, it says, {Sanhedrin 21b} R. Isaac also said: Why were the reasons of [some] Biblical laws not revealed? — Because in two verses reasons were revealed, and they caused the greatest in the world [Solomon] to stumble. Thus it is written: He shall not multiply wives to himself, whereon Solomon said, ‘I will multiply wives yet not let my heart be perverted.’ Yet we read, When Solomon was old, his wives turned away his heart. Again it is written: He shall not multiply to himself horses; concerning which Solomon said, ‘I will multiply them, but will not cause [Israel] to return [to Egypt].’ Yet we read: And a chariot came up and went out of Egypt for six [hundred shekels of silver].

When taken separately, many mitzvot don’t seem to have a meaning, but a single puzzle piece that you find between the cushions of the couch doesn’t seem to have meaning, either. Like the letters of the Torah, like the people Israel, it is taken together that mitzvot are powerful and meaningful, part of a system to set us apart in relationship to God.

This morning when we read the sh’ma, we read, ואהבת את יי אלוהיך בכל לבבך ובכל נפשך ובכל מאודך: you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and might.

Rashi says that God created the world for the sake of the Torah. Each person has 248 limbs which corresponds to the 248 positive commandments in the Torah and 365 main veins which corresponds to the 365 negative commandments in the Torah. God designed each human this way to indicate to us that each person is part and parcel of the Torah and each person must fulfill it in order to function properly. Because each person's body is so strongly linked to the Torah, the foundation of the universe, the Talmud teaches: "Each person must say about himself: The world was created exclusively for me." Rabbi Nachman of Breslov interprets this to mean that each individual is responsible to correct any physical, spiritual, or moral deficiency that is found in the world. Just as the body cannot function properly if a limb is missing, the body is also unable to function properly if it is missing a spiritual limb which is nourished through faith and Torah observance.

Rabbi Nachman reminds us that just as the Torah must be whole, and our bodies function best whole, redemption requires wholeness from us both as individuals, and as a people. When God obligates us to love with all our hearts and our souls and our might, God asks us to take on a great responsibility: the responsibility of making the world whole. No other nation was asked to do this. For others there are other paths to God, but we are commanded to be a nation apart, with a task to make the broken world whole, not only materially, but spiritually. We must love God with our entire being, to be a letter in the Torah of redemption for the world, not just for ourselves. Unlike other religions, Judaism does not focus on personal salvation, but on national salvation, and in that context, we also carry the task of universal salvation. We are not out for ourselves – there is no limitation on how many can be saved: we hope, as a people that all the world will come to know God, and in knowing God, to love God.

So let me ask you: Do you really love God? Take a second and ask yourself this question honestly. Don’t answer what you think you should say, but take a second and really search your soul. DO you love God?

It’s a big thing to undertake, this “loving God.” It’s not a commandment to have a feeling, or to believe something; when God commands “Love your God!” it’s no different than the pleas of a beloved, “Say my name!” or “Love me forever!”

Of course you can’t command feelings, but when we get married, as we did to God at Sinai, we are committing ourselves: we’re committing to do certain things, and refrain from certain others. For example, we’re promising to be intimate only with our partner. Different marriages might have different promises, but every one of them has a deal, with actions that we have to do, whether or not we feel like them. And we go one doing them every day, whether or not we feel like them. There is no marriage on earth where both partners take joy and delight every day of their life without being bored, or angry or sullen, at least once in a while. And yet, in successful marriages, we get past those moments, by carrying on doing the things that we are obligated to do, and then the joy and love and emotion comes back – not because we are commanded to feel, but because feeling comes from the result of doing the hard work of acting, of being responsible for our partners.

But what happens when we stop doing those things that we’ve promised? When we stop talking to each other every day? When we stop discussing not only the important things of life, but also the mundane details –of eating, of paying the bills? We drift apart and hardly notice when the one we loved enough to commit to them forever has left the room. Until one day we turn around, and they’re gone, and we’re bereft. And suddenly we think, where has our marriage gone?

When we do mitzvot, we are creating a place for God to join us in the world. We are creating channels for God’s goodness to flow into the world. When we live in the system that is Jewish law, obligating ourselves to a life full of mitzvot, we are loving God. We’re living in the house that we built together to be partners in. God has an ultimate agenda for us, and that agenda is one in which we realize the vision of the prophet Hoshea (2:18) who says, “And it shall be that day, says God, that you shall call me “Ishi” my husband, and shall no longer call me “Baali” my master.” God sees a world in which we are together, in which we move towards a world of more holiness and more understanding. God believes that we are capable of attaining greater perfection. But perfection is a holistic thing; we can’t pick and choose it in parts. If we want a redeemed world, we can’t redeem here, and not there.

We need every letter in the Torah or it cannot do its job of bringing redemption to the world. We need every letter doing its part to create enough channels of holiness into the world. In the talmud it says that (R. Johanan said in the name of R. Simeon b. Yohai) If Israel were to keep two Sabbaths according to its laws, they would be redeemed immediately, (for it is said, Thus saith the Lord of the eunuch that keep my Sabbaths, which is followed by, even them will I bring to my holy mountain, etc.) (Shabbat 118b).

You might think to yourself, how could my keeping shabbat make that much of a difference? Yet the Torah portion this week tells us that it does. Shifrah and Puah, the midwives who saved the Jewish babies, are not anyone special. We don’t know much about them, except that they were midwives to the Hebrews. And yet, these two women were able to ensure that Israel was redeemed. They didn’t do anything grand. They merely made the choice, over and over again, to do the right thing. They weren’t spectacular rebels. Heck, when pharaoh asked why the boy babies didn’t seem to be being killed, they lied: the Hebrew women are like animals, they said, they bear before we even get there. I.e. there’s nothing we can do.

And yet, we know that there was something they could do, and they did it. Rashi suggests that the comment that the midwives “feared God” to be more than simply not killing the baby boys, but that they providing food and water. Again, this is not revolution: it’s a simple act of courage, being repeated over and over again. Within the simple act repeated daily lie the seeds of redemption. It’s true that it’s an inconvenience to keep kosher; it’s difficult to not work on Shabbat; it’s expensive to give to tzedaka, but since when has the right thing ever been easy? Love and redemption don’t depend upon the grand gesture; to the contrary, God doesn’t require grand gestures from us, but constancy. As our poet noted

Not the Prodigal Son, nor Faustus. But Penelope.
The thing steady and clear. Then the crescendo.
The real form. The culmination. And the exceeding.
Not the surprise. The amazed understanding. The marriage,
Not the month's rapture. Not the exception. The beauty
That is of many days. Steady and clear.
It is the normal excellence, of long accomplishment.

But we can’t write a Torah of redemption without every letter. It matters that I, as an individual keep kosher. It matters that I as an individual release the sparks of holiness that I come across, because who knows which baby will be Moses, the one that will bring redemption? Who knows which mouthful of food that I provide for a hungry man will keep him from starving? Who knows but that if you keep this shabbat with joy and care, refraining from work, that this one will be the one that brings redemption to all of us?

May we be blessed in this new year with the strength to do over and over again, the simple, the plain, the boring -the obligatory. May we find within the daily act of dedication the seeds of redemption which will bring redemption to all of Israel, and to all the world.

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