When I was young, the most powerful religious memories for me were of our Friday night ritual before dinner. Of the singing we did. Of the special feeling, the holiness of Shabbat, that we created. We had our own way of doing it in our house. And I was convinced it was the very best and only way of doing it. I still am.
For many people, this is what religion is about. A collection of memory, song, feeling, nostalgia, of the way it was. It becomes planted in our minds. Even if we veer from that ideal or encounter others, it remains there, as the very definition of tradition.
And there is a part of us that will do anything to preserve it, to keep it the way it was. A part of us that wants to hand it over to our children. As a father for one month, I already am dreaming of my grandchildren carrying on the rituals I had growing up around the Shabbos table.
Tradition, ritual …
But this is not the only side of religion.
Our parashah this morning, Bechukotai opens with the verse, im bechukotai telekhu, if you walk in my commandments.
According to the Chassidic master Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, this verse conveys the essence of Judaism, of the religious life. Im bechukotai – if you live by My commandments, by My mitzvoth, by good deeds, by choosing to live rightly, telekhu! – you will walk! You will move forward!
And walking forward, Rebbe Levi Yitzchak says, is the entire purpose of religious life. From madreiga to madreiga, from one level and way of living to another. It defines what it means to be human beings. In the mystical tradition, we are known as ha’holchim, the walkers. As opposed to the angels, who are called ha’omdim, the ones who stand. For them nothing ever changes.
Judaism, with all of its rituals and commandments, and practices is there to help us walk, to help us move forward. Move forward in our growth as human beings. To become broader and deeper people – to become more thoughtful, more compassionate. More subtle. More loving.
This is why we have all of these laws and customs.
It is why in our parashah, we are presented – as we are throughout the Torah – with that choice. Good and evil. Blessing and punishment. Walking or falling back. Forging ahead or becoming stagnant.
I was once talking to my wife Rachel about this very subject and I remarked that Judaism, and religion in general, is about growth and moving forward. She said, no, that’s not religion, that’s spirituality!
I thought about it, and she’s right! –this is how people think about religion.
That it’s about preserving, never changing. Fighting the new.
People forget that at its core religion is about walking. About striking a new path that gives people and nations the means to evolve and move forward in their journeys.
This is what we will celebrate in two weeks at Shavuot, at Matan Torah, the giving of the Torah.
When an ancient tribe of slaves, a primitive people, were handed a mission to live differently than the people who surrounded them. A demanding mission that was – in truth – almost beyond their grasp. Ethics, morals, religious and spiritual ideals, all far beyond what they were used to. And much of the rest of the Torah and the rest of the Tannakh, the Bible, is about the Jewish people’s struggle to live by those ideals and not fall into old modes of being that were more familiar and comfortable.
To live a religious life that was centered on worship, on the sacrifice of animals, not human beings. A just society where we take care of others. A dedicated life with a very strong distinction between what is holy and what is not.
These ways of moving forward became embedded into our way of being, so that over time – animal sacrifice became prayer; a day of forced enclosure became the beautiful experience of Shabbat. Laws for maintaining a just society were interpreted and re-interpreted to fit the evolving social norms.
As our parashah says – Im bechukotai telekhu, if you walk in my commandments. If you follow my commandments then you will move forward. You will receive bounty, prosperity, all good things.
If you live by good actions, by reaching beyond yourselves to help others, if you deepen your self-understanding, if you strive to live by high ideals… then telekhu – then you will walk. You will walk forward, you will advance.
Walking and moving, is the very nature of life. Always searching and finding ways to become better and more fulfilled human beings.
These are the words that begin the last parashah in Leviticus because evolution and growth is so important to the Torah and to God.
Religion is beautiful. The ancient rituals resonate with a power that evokes eternity. They help us find our center in an ever changing world. But we must never forget the purpose of these rituals. Why it is that we are holding on to them and why we want to pass them on to our children. Because they help us grow and evolve.
(to Bat Mitzvah) Sivan – in your dvar torah, you talked about how God is a demanding and pressing parent. You clearly understood what the Torah is trying telling us about religion. How deeply it and God cares for us and wants us to move forward in our lives. As individuals and as a people…
The Torah is there to help us move forward – to walk in the direction of goodness, compassion, and peace – one step at a time.