Be-Ha'alotekha: Scattering our Enemy

D’var Torah Be-Ha’alotekha

Given at Congregation Moreshet Yisrael, Jerusalem, June 3, 2012

I have a good friend who is “ultra-orthodox.”   Only, he is not haredi; quite the opposite.  You might say that he is ultra-orthodox in his secularism.   Or, to put it another way, he “religiously” avoids and is even hostile to religion. 

Recently, he said to me “I want to ask you a question, not as a friend, but as a rabbi.”  (Whether this meant that, in his mind, the two are mutually exclusive, I don’t know).   Here was his question: “Why do otherwise intelligent people engage in absurd religious rituals?”  He was referring, of course, to the other kind of “ultra-orthodox.”

Now, perhaps this question would be best put to a psychologist, psychiatrist, sociologist, folklorist, cultural historian, etc.  No doubt there are many cultural, sociological, historical, psychological, political, economic, and other reasons for religious rituals, and such specialists could address those.   But he put it to me, as a rabbi.  So, I’ll try to answer it as a rabbi.  Not, of course, that religion should or can be separated from any of these other fields of humanities analysis, but for our purposes I’ll pretend that it can.

The first and most obvious “religious” answer to why “otherwise intelligent” people engage in religious rituals is that the rituals are, or are considered, Divine commandments.  G-d commanded us to do them and that’s it.  For example: וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָֹה אֶל־ מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר: דַּבֵּר אֶל־ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם וְעָשׂוּ לָהֶם צִיצִת עַל־ כַּנְפֵי בִגְדֵיהֶם לְדֹרֹתָם

But, of course, many, if not most, religious rituals are not actually commanded in the Torah.  Indeed, as I’ve recently heard Rabbi Joshua, Rabbi Hillel, and Rabbi Joel Roth say from this podium, some of them are directly contrary to what Torah states.  Clearly, these rituals are an attempt to effect what we understand to be G-d’s will under what we consider changed circumstances.  So, for example, we have the ritual of praying three times a day plus mussaf because we can’t bring sacrifices to the Temple.

Then, there’s the “Tevya” reason for ritual.  Tradition!  We’ve been doing it this way for hundreds or even thousands of years, these rituals help define us as a people and embody our values, and we honor our tradition, values, and ancestors by continuing them, as well as doing our best to transmit our values to future generations.  If we don’t perform and teach our children our rituals, what are we passing to them?  Text?  Philosophy? Food?  We need to transmit more than these; we need to transmit ways of life.  We can’t be a people without rituals that embody our sense of what being a people means.   One could also call this the “reconstructionist” reason for Jewish ritual.

But you might have noted, why hasn’t he said anything yet about the Parashah?   What’s the connection?  This brings me to one of the most important reasons for Jewish ritual. 

When we [Conservative and Orthodox ritual] remove the Torah from the Ark, we recite a verse from this week’s Parashah:

קוּמָה יְהֹוָה וְיָפֻצוּ אֹיְבֶיךָ וְיָנֻסוּ מְשַׂנְאֶיךָ מִפָּנֶיךָ

“Arise, G-d; May your enemies be scattered and those who hate you flee.” 

This short sentence, and the one that follows it, sometimes called “the Song of the Ark,” are so crucial that they constitute, according to Rabbi Judah Ha-Nasi, the complier of the Mishnah, an entire separate book of Torah, set off in the scroll by inverted letter “nuns!”

Who are these enemies and who is it that hates G-d? 

According to Rashi, the “enemies” whom we wish G-d to “scatter” are those who are assembling to attack the Jewish people but haven’t yet done so.  “Those who hate You,” whom we wish G-d to make flee, refers to those who are in the process of attacking the Jewish people.  Unfortunately, there have been and still are many in both groups: actual external physical enemies.

But those aren’t our only enemies, and they aren’t the kind of enemies that rituals are designed to counter.   Although, as I’ve suggested, Jewish rituals have many purposes, sociological, political, etc., they are all ultimately intended as extensions of Torah. 

And what is the fundamental purpose of Torah?   The Talmud, Tractate Kiddushin 30b, tells us expressly:

The Holy One, Blessed Be He, created the Yetzer Hara, (the inclination to do evil), and He created the Torah as its antidote.”   I repeat: Judaism regards the Torah, including the rituals that are intended to reflect it, as the antidote for the inherently negative aspects of human nature.

Why do I say that human nature is inherently negative?  Remember what the Torah itself tells us about our nature.  G-d told Cain: “Sin crouches at the door, Its urge is toward you, Yet you can be its Master.” (JPS translation, Gen. 4:7)   But Cain didn’t take this advice to heart, and instead murdered his brother.   Then, when G-d saw the evil of Noah’s time, and that “Every plan devised by his mind was nothing but evil all the time,” G-d regretted having created humans.  (Gen. 6:6). Noah was only righteous in comparison to them; he wasn’t a different kind of human. 

None of us has murdered anyone, so far as I know, but sin still crouches at our door and inclines toward us.  I doubt that all of our thoughts are evil, but some are.  We must constantly work to Master our bad inclination, or it will become our Master.   

Religion, generally, and Torah, mitzvot and, by extension, rituals, are all efforts to master, or at least to mitigate, the negative impulses of our nature.  I suggest that it is the Yetzer Hara that is the enemy that we seek to scatter, the one who hates G-d that we wish to flee through removing the Torah from the ark, reading it, and living it through rituals. 

When we say a blessing before we eat something, we want to counter our inclination to just gulp it down and not think about how fortunate we are to have food or how it is that food exists!   And when we wear a kippah, or tzizit, we should be reminded not to go “whoring after false g-ds,” as the V’hafta says, those false gods including narcissism and materialism.     These are also the enemies that we seek to scatter and make flee. 

In short, religion seeks to counter anything that stands between us and our attempts to become more, in a word, holy.  Kiddushin t’hiu

And how do the “absurd” rituals do this?   Of course, absurdity is in the eye of the beholder.  But their purpose is to infuse every activity with some sense of higher purpose, or, to counter a more base inclination. 

Chances are that the beholder who finds the rituals absurd has little or no understanding of its purpose, and may not care to understand what meaning the ritual observer finds in it.  

And so, I would tell my friend, however absurd rituals may seems to you, and even to me sometimes, let us try to accept that they are, to those who created them and those who follow them, actions in service of a great and moral purpose: to be more holy people and to do the right and the good, rather than follow our inclinations.

וְלֹא תָתוּרוּ אַחֲרֵי לְבַבְכֶם וְאַחֲרֵי עֵינֵיכֶם אֲשֶׁר־ אַתֶּם זֹנִים אַחֲרֵיהֶם

Ken y’hee ratzon and Shabbat Shalom.   

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A bird that you set free may be caught again, but a word that escapes your lips will not return.
Jewish Proverb