Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Actions Speak Louder Than Words (Otis Redding "Hard To Handle")

          I drove down to Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains last week. I was visiting my wife and kids at a summer camp and spending Shabbat with them. It also happened to be our son’s 9th birthday so it seemed like a nice idea to spend Shabbat and the weekend with him.  The drive was about 6 hours and since I left on Thursday morning, I did have the pre-Sabbath rush to deadline. Pennsylvania is a unique state. There are two large, major league cities. In the south eastern part of the state lies Philadelphia. On the western border with West Virginia and Ohio where the Allegheny, the Monongahela, and the Ohio rivers converge lies Pittsburgh.  In between the two cities are about 310 miles of mountains, rivers, and small towns, including the state capital, Harrisburg. James Carville, the campaign director for former President Bill Clinton, described Pennsylvania’s politics as: Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and in between is Alabama. Needless to say, the camp was located in the “Alabama” part of the state. Because of a small problem with my car I stopped at a mechanics shop to have him look at my car. We began talking and when he asked me what I did for a living, I told him that I was a Rabbi of a congregation in Toronto. His wife, he works with him, as well as the mechanic proceeded to tell me that they were “Christians”, they loved the Jewish People, they were very supportive of the State of Israel, and they give charity to International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, and claim that they are Christian supporters of Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, the head of this charity. They asked me lots of questions about being a Rabbi and then the conversation turned to their faith and their acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah.  They asked me what I thought of Jesus and I explained that from my perspective and belief, he was a Rabbi, a teacher and his disciples made him into something much more. They then asked me I could accept Jesus as my Moshiach. I politely said, “No”. Then they asked me something fascinating. They asked if it would be possible for me to accept Jesus as the Messiah privately and personally while continuing publicly as a Rabbi. I smiled and said that would be impossible because any acknowledgement and acceptance would be “spiritually out of bounds”. I would not be able to reconcile the personal and the public and my words would be irrelevant.

This week's Torah portion is Ki Teitzei. Moshe continues with listing laws such as: rights of the first born for inheritance, the wayward rebellious son, lost and found property, sending a mother bird from the nest when procuring the egg from the nest, tzitzit, false accusations, forbidden marriages, charging interest, divorce, workers rights to timely payment, honesty in weights and measures and remembering Amalek. That is just to name a few. Quite clearly, all these laws reflect one extremely relevant idea. Judaism is not just a ritualized religion that takes on import three times a year, or only at life cycle events. Judaism is a way of life designed to elevate holiness within us, even when we are engage in activities that may not be construed as particularly holy. While Moshe reminds Bnai Yisroel of the limits of charging interest and the importance and sanctity of vows Moshe makes the following statement.  In Deut 23:24 we read Motzah S'fatecha Tishmor V’Asita Ka’Asher Nadarta L’Adoshem Elokecha You shall observe and carry out what emerges from your lips just as you vowed a voluntary gift to Hashemn your God…. Within the context of the Parshah, the law is talking about taking oaths and vows and upholding those oaths and vows.  Rashi, the 11th century French commentator explains that Torah is strengthening the importance of vows by using positive language. However the Or HaChaim, the early 18th century great Moroccan Talmudist and Kabbalist offered a slightly different understanding of the verse. The Or Hachaim explains that verse actually implores us by being careful to not to make a vow unless we are certain that we can fulfill the vow by the designated deadline.  

Our words matter. Vows are inherently public, they involve the individual and God. Vows might involve a third party but a vow at the very least involves two parties: the individual and God.  Also, we could understand the verse as reminding us that any vow suggests  a “voluntary gift” to God. Vows are not only words but are supposed to be backed up by deed and action – the gift. Vows have a time frame which suggest that we could be late in giving our gift to God.  During my conversation with the husband and wife from the “Alabama” part of Pennsylvania, the vow that they asked me to make privately, according to the Or HaChaim, would be not only spiritually impossible for me but Halachically (according to Jewish Law) impossible. I had no intention of fulfilling that vow within my lifetime.  The couple understood and were nothing but polite and appreciative the time we spent talking and more importantly listening to each other.

Rav Yitz

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