Just How Religious?

A "character" in this week's Torah reading is none other than the earth itself. According to the Midrash, when God gave the Torah to Israel, Earth was concerned. "If they observe the laws, all is good. But if not, I will be the one to pay the price, just as happened when I was cursed for Adam and Eve eating from the tree of knowledge."

In other words, the Earth was concerned that she would pay the price for any sin that Israel would commit. So God reassured Earth. "Already in the time of Noah, I promised that day and night, hot and cold, winter and summer will not be suspended anymore." In other words, the Earth shall continue to follow its regular cycles without interference.

Thus, Earth was placated. It seems to me that this evolved to the point where God defends the Earth's right to a sabbatical rest by punishing the people. We have come full circle.

What changed? King Solomon said, "One sinner can cause great good to be lost." The Medrash applies this to the sabbatical year. They if the people fail to preserve the sanctity of this year, the consequence is the loss of the land as the people go into exile.

Why is this mitzvah different from all other mitzvot?

The secret is Order. Our sages tell us of the phases of world history. The first 2000 years are chaos. The next 2000 are Torah. The final 2000 are the days of the Messiah. We see from this that there is, indeed, a form of evolution from chaos to order to redemption.

Now I can understand why the Earth could be punished in the early generations, but be promised Order after the flood. Initially, the world was impulsive. Just as the physical creation proceeded from chaos to order, so too mankind. Man was impulsive. He was capable of great spiritual and intellectual accomplishments, and repulsive behavior at the same time. There was no order, there was no stability.

As the world approached the Epoch of Torah, order and stability began to be present. God's world was created to be one of order and stability. Thus, the more orderly the world, the more in line with God's intention it is, and the more enduring it will be. Noah represented the end of chaos, and the beginning of stability. Hence, God's promise to Earth that order and sequence will now reign.

Another Medrash tells us about Abraham's journey to the holy land. Outside of Israel, he saw people "eating and drinking and behaving impulsively." He did not wish to live in such places.

But when he passed The Ladder of Tyre, and entered the Land of Israel, he saw people clearing their fields at the right time, plowing the fields at the right time, harvesting at the right time, etc. He said, "May my portion be with the people who live in this Land."

Abraham saw a land of order and stability. The Land of Israel, for the Jewish people, is where our order and stability are based. Violating the sanctity of the land, in a fashion that does violence to order, is a grave sin. The sabbatical year symbolizes that order, as it shows structure to the years. King Solomon said, "for everything there is an appropriate time." Violating the sabbatical year is an attack on order and stability, and causes "great good," the continued presence of Israel and her land, to be lost.

For this reason, the sabbatical year is not obligatory outside the land of Israel. For, as Abraham saw, those are lands ruled by impulse.

The prophet Isaiah (Chapter 26) is critical of those people whose approach to the word of God is, "a commandment here, a commandment there, a line here, a line there, a little here, a little there." These are people who keep Judaism impulsively. They are not consistent. It is not ordered or structured, it is whatever they feel at the moment.

The defining text of Jewish law is called the Shulchan Aruch, which means "The Set Table." This name screams out the importance of structure and order! Our Judaism must be structured and organized. Our days, our weeks, our years, our lives require structure. When they have it, they are in harmony with Creation and, especially, the most ordered and structured land in the world – The Land of Israel!

Let us reevaluate the way we keep Judaism. Let us not pick and choose, jump from inspiration and neglect from boredom. Let us make it part of our daily order and routine, our weekly rhythms, and our life plan.

Why Be Religious?

Is it better to be nonreligious than to be religious for the wrong reasons? Judaism says no, that it is better to observe the religious commandments even for the wrong reasons. Our tradition says, "It is better to observe the commandments for other reasons, because the person will come to observe them for the right reasons."

In other words, when one lives the religious lifestyle, one's heart will eventually find the right place.

It is implied, therefore, that being religious for the wrong reasons is not a healthy or sustainable situation. The person must grow into the right reasons, rather than stagnate in a damaged relationship with religion. So what are the right reasons, and what are the wrong reasons?

I had an interesting conversation recently. The person I was speaking to told me that they have great respect for religious people. He is not religious himself, but understands how religious people truly enjoy the religious lifestyle. He told me that his version of the Sabbath, where he does creative work and goes on family outings, gives him lots of pleasure. He is sure, though, that religious people enjoy their version of the Sabbath, complete with Synagogue, ritual, and refraining from weekday labors, no less than he enjoys his.

In other words, from a consumer perspective, some consumers prefer Kmart and others prefer Wal-Mart. You, as a consumer, he implied, enjoy a religious version of the Sabbath, while he, as a different consumer, enjoys a more secular style Sabbath. It all depends on "What do I enjoy more."

That's the unhealthy approach to religion. I reminded him that religion implies belief in God. God makes demands. While it is certainly true that the religious Jewish life is deeply fulfilling and deeply joy-inducing, that is not the reason we follow it. We observe the Torah out of a sense of faith and responsibility. We are commanded to enjoy it, for sure, but our own enjoyment is not the yardstick by which we judge the religion. We don't pick and choose only those commandments which we like.

The test is when a ritual observance is not so pleasant. For example, if somebody were to describe how they would observe the most important day of the year, I'm sure they would not choose to fast, to stand on their feet for long hours in the synagogue, to not wash their face or hands, to not wear comfortable shoes and so forth. Rather, there would be some beautiful ceremony or performance, a toast, a feast, a celebration.

And yet, Jews choose Yom Kippur. When we choose to observe the religion properly, even when it is not pleasant, we are stating that our devotion is to God, not just our own consumer pleasures. When one has the ability to deny oneself a more pleasant experience in order to fulfill a religious duty, then one has achieved the healthy relationship with religion.

And that feeling and devotion creates an even deeper spiritual joy. As the sages say, "Do not be as servants serving the boss in order to get a bonus, but rather do it in order not to receive a reward." Don't refrain from speaking evil speak today because you have a big baseball game that you need to win, and you want to score points with God. Rather, refrain from speaking evil speak even if God will make sure that the other team hits three grand slams and beats you 12 to nothing.

In other words, be a godly person. That's why to be religious, to sanctify and elevate your life and this world.