Parashat Nitzavim: Deuteronomy 30:11
“(The Torah) is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond your reach”
Why is Judaism so complicated?
As I look through the volumes of Jewish customs and interpretations, sometimes I wonder, “Why does religion have to be so complicated?”
Last year, the theme of my second-day Rosh Hashanah sermon was “Jewbarassment — creating a humiliation-free Jewish environment.”
It is so true, isn’t it? So many Jews are reluctant to make eye contact with the rabbi when they enter a synagogue.
I can hear many say: “What if he or she asks me to do something? What if I mess up — especially in front of my children or all those other people — who obviously know more than me?”
To quote Archie Gotessman, founder of JewBelong — an organization dedicated to reclaiming the spirituality in Judaism — “Everyone wants meaning in their lives. If Jews don’t find it in their Judaism, they will find it at yoga. Why not help Jews find the meaning in Judaism?”
She notes that often, there are “secret handshakes” and “rules” that are rarely taught, but too often enforced. Rather than reinforce Judaism — they actually make Jews nervous and ultimately turn them away.
For example: The subtleties of being kosher. What you can do or not on do on Shabbat. Which way to face or bow. When to speak and when to remain silent.
It’s enough to make you — stay home.
As my mentor Rabbi Joseph Ehrenkranz, of blessed memory, once shared with me, “Judaism is the most beautiful way of life, too often ignored by those who teach it.”
I dream of a day, where the basics of Judaism remain so instinctive and intuitive, that there is no reason to fear Jewbarrassment — or for that matter depend on the words of rabbis or great theologians.
It is perhaps why this week’s Torah portion is my favorite among the 54 in our yearly cycle. It insists that Judaism is not that “baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach.” (Deuteronomy 30:11)
“No,” the Torah continues. “The thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart to observe it.”
Is there anything else to be said? We, as human beings, know when we have committed a wrong. Our tradition says that speaking gossip makes our own skin crawl. Taking a bribe pollutes us. Emotionally hurting someone dulls our own soul. Holding a grudge, keeping score on others distracts from our life force.
On the other hand, being kind, reaching out to those in pain, assisting someone before we are asked — that elevates us and moves us closer to happiness.
The Torah gets this and reminds us this week, in Parashat Nitzavim (“You stand this day before God”) that religion need not be complicated at all.
President Abraham Lincoln is quoted as saying, ”When I do good I feel good, when I do bad I feel bad, and that’s my religion.”
This week, the Torah takes the point further. It reminds us that true religion, true spirituality, true closeness with God does not require you to ascend to the heavens or swim across some great sea. In fact, as many Jewish philosophers have noted, there is no requirement within Judaism to believe in anything — only to do.
Doing means — raising our children with kindness, care and compassion.
Doing means — showing intolerance towards hatred and prejudice.
Doing means — providing charity for those in need.
Doing means — in the words of Isaiah — “to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter-- when you see the naked, to clothe them.”
And, when we do these things, we experience a closeness with God. It’s a matter of lowering our egos, allowing God to fill the space.
From this Sunday evening, through Tuesday at sundown, we will begin a ten day period of reflection.
Are we happy with the way things are going in our lives? Are we angry, resentful or discontent? Are there those we are not speaking to? Must we always be declared the winner?
How much of our soul is being taken up by negativity?
You don’t need a rabbi to tell you the answer to this.
This week’s Torah portion inspires us to consider that religion need not be that complicated. If we follow Judaism’s central values of kindness, care and compassion — as we move another year closer to the completion of our lives — we can enjoy fulfillment of purpose.
Notes the Parashah this week — and in many ways I consider it the punchline of the entire Torah, “I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life. (Deuteronomy 30:19).
Indeed, rabbis can guide us with stories, interpretations and insight. They can bring forward the wisdom of our tradition or help us to observe Shabbat, festivals and other culturally and spiritually rich occasions.
But the fundamental fact of living a good life — a life we will contemplate Monday and Tuesday — cannot be found solely in the fixed pages of a book. The prayers help, but in the end our actions will define us.
As the Torah tells us, it’s really not that complicated at all, rather, “the thing is very close to you.”
May we take the simple message of this week’s Torah reading and carry it forward into our thoughts and reflections during these upcoming High Holidays.
Let us choose to inscribe ourselves in the Book of Life.
We do so first, as the Torah commands this week, by choosing life.
It’s really not that baffling.
On behalf of Patte, me and our entire family, best wishes to you and your family, for a Shannah Tovah U’Metukah — a year of happiness, sweetness and peace. Shabbat Shalom.
Rabbi Irwin Huberman