Monday, September 7, 2009

If, then

Ekev means, IF, as in “If you do obey these rules and observe them carefully your God will maintain faithfully the covenant made on oath with your fathers.”

This parsha is basically an algorithm. If this, than this. Rabbi Lippmann tells me that this is the origin of the name Jacob, the ekev can mean heel, as in Jacob holding on to Esau’s heel at birth, then supplants him. If Esau, then Jacob. If this condition is met, this this result will ensue. For every action, there is a reaction.

This entire parsha is about God’s reaction to Hebrew actions. Do the right actions and the rewards are many. The land of Israel, prosperity, happiness. The parsha even cites God’s resume as proof, goodies already received: freedom from slavery, water and manna in the desert and my personal favorite, after walking for forty years in the desert, no swollen feet. Clearly, this is a God who knows how to deliver. And punish. If you don’t obey commandments then you will lose everything. Live stock will die, mothers will be barren, plagues, famine, all the bad things that can happen will happen. If, then.

So if God is If and people are then and Judaism is about how Jewish people mold that action, so what are the actions that God requires? Here’s the basic plan, Ekev 10:12, in Robert Alter’s translation, “And now, O Israel, what does your God ask of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, paths, to love him, and to worship the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your being, to keep the Lord’s commands and His statutes which I charge you today for your own good?”
So there it is. We are required to Fear, Walk, Love, Worship and Keep.

Fear God, Walk in God's ways, Love God, Worship/Serve god, Keep God's laws

Fear. What does that mean, Fear God? I fear many things but God isn’t one of them. God isn’t some inexplicable divine being looking to punish me personally. I fear random acts of cruelty, I fear unemployment, I fear loneliness, I fear lack of meaning, I fear death, but God? God is an abstraction, most of the time, or God is Ultimate Connection, That which is Before, During, After and not In time, God is beyond my petty ability to comprehend, how can I fear that which is so completely and utterly beyond what I could ever hope to understand but which I firmly believe is not a being, not something that takes a personal interest in me, not something that wants to punish and reward me and yet, during the silent Amidah, I pray to that God. I do. I don’t want to, I don’t think I’m every going to get an answer, but I pray to that god who rewards and punishes. Go figure. Plaut translates this word not as fear but as revere. And somehow, fear and revere, turn into respect for me. Healthy respect. Hmm.

Walk. Walk in God’s way. What way, the way of the torah, Derekh Torah? I’m not sure that’s God’s way. I don’t think God, whatever God is, is Jewish, but my way is Jewish, if I walk that path, will God, whatever that is, see I’m headed in the right direction? Kindness, Healing, Compassion, I try for those, is that the way. Yes, but also all these obligations and laws. Does God really care if I wear tzitzit or eat bacon? I mean, really? Really. The Jewish way, the way of my people, a lasting way, often a good way, but is it God’s? and if not God’s, then whose? The American Way? The Kolot Chayeinu way? Do I walk the Kolot Chayeinu walk, and when I do, is that godly? Or is it just loop thinking, us sitting around congratulating ourselves on how clever and good we are.

Love. Love God. Again, too abstract. I love my friends, sometimes I love my family, I love my pets, I love vintage costume jewelry, I love Lost and Mad Men, I love Brooklyn. I love to learn, I love to laugh, I love Kolot Chayeinu. When I love all these things, because all these things are God, if they are, do I love God? Or must I obey these commandments to love God?
Worship. Worship God? That sounds like idolatry, to my modern self, like worshipping crossed sticks, or Zion, or Baal or America Love it or leave it. Golly, I don’t begin to know where to go with that. I don’t even know what it means to worship. What is that? Like the way I felt about the Beatles when I was nine? Or is if blind faith, complete belief? My first reaction is to scorn blind faith, but if I think about it for even a second I realize I have blind faith in a zillion things. I believe my computer will work, the TV will come on, that the internet exists. I have no real actual idea how any of these things work, but I believe they will work and most of the time they do. I believe in the shining ideal of America. I know much of the time it’s a farce, but dammit I believe in it, I do. So if I can believe in technology and America, why can’t I believe in God? And maybe I do, I think I sort of do, actually. But with all my heart? All? The mind boggles. Part of me aspires to that. But it seems beyone possibility or maybe even to be desired. And yet, there’s a part of me that knows, I have been in God’s presence, I have been in the overwhelming Is and Was and Will Be for a secnd or two, and I know it’s there, I do know it’s there, but worship it? Worship? The very essence of God’s presence is that it just…Is. that’s not something to worship. Worship separates you from God, I think.

Keep. Keep God’s laws. I keep human laws, mostly. And I think Halacha is made by humans, but I don’t keep those. How do I answer to these rules which can seem so arbitrary and absurd, how can I keep God, or my conscience, or my community, or myself, from punishing me when I’m too lazy or indifferent or bored or angry to even think about a way of life that has served my people for thousands of years? How do I fear, walk, love, worshp and keep as an individualist mindful progressive Brooklyn Kolot Chayeinu Lippmanner Jew?

Weirdly, I find that the more I learn Jewishly, the more I want to explore these obligations and perhaps, maybe, find an individualistic progressive Brooklyn Kolot Chayeinu Lippmanner Jewish way to obligate myself, to walk the Derekh Torah.
What are the obligations? What are the choices? What does halakhah mean for me? Do I imbue the legalistic requirements with meaning, do they already have all the meaning they need and I just need to discover it? Do I have the discipline for those obligations? If I don’t, would I if I believed it to be derived from revelation? Would I, if I immersed myself in a community where they are followed without question? Is there any universe that exists where I would actually choose that life?

Hell no, and yet. If then.

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