Nitzavim: The Pink Ostrich of Life

This week I heard an intriguing radio short story.  A travel writer narrated his visit to a strange land populated by two peoples.  One lived entirely to serve the other.  The servant-people were neither slaves nor employees; they were motivated entirely by religious faith.  Their god was a great pink ostrich that they believed was pleased with their devoted altruism to the Others.  These Others regarded the notions of any god and of altruism as equally absurd.  Yet, since the arrangement suited the interests of both groups, their society functioned harmoniously.  

On the one hand, this story ridiculed religious faith; on the other hand, it characterized rationalism as immoral, selfish, and exploitative.  Perhaps the author (who, unfortunately, was identified before I tuned in) was suggesting that our values and motivations are and need be diverse and complex; that we need rationality and self-interest, but also belief in, or at least motivation from, existential forces that we can’t empirically explain.     

During the next two weeks, Jews worldwide will engage in their own balancing of reason and faith.  Many will reject the ancient liturgical allusions to an omnipotent, omniscient G-d of judgment and mercy.  Even so, it is likely that they will privately acknowledge some type of reality beyond their experience, beyond pragmatism, and beyond their ability to explain, from which they nevertheless will derive inspiration to improve their behavior.  Perhaps this inexplicable “reality” is G-d, but they will reject that notion because the liturgy, and other “descriptions” of G-d they’ve heard, do not speak to them.  If so, perhaps a statement in this week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim, will be meaningful:

הַנִּסְתָּרֹת לַיהוָֹה אֱלֹהֵינוּ וְהַנִּגְלֹת לָנוּ וּלְבָנֵינוּ עַד־ עוֹלָם לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת־ כָּל־ דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת:

The hidden/concealed/underlying/secret (depending on the translation; the Conservative Rabbi’s manual translates as “mysteries”) things belong to the Lord our God; but those things which are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this Torah. (Deut. 29:28)

Even if we, like the “Others” in the story, reject the idea of any god, we are likely to concede that life and existence are full of mysteries that science and reason can’t explain.  We can also be inspired, and be guided in our lives, by those things that are revealed to us by our reason, by our experience, by our tradition.  As in the story, it seems that to lead lives that are meaningful, sensible, and moral, we need both rationality and an appreciation for the hidden truth beyond rationality.  

During the coming Days of Awe, may we contemplate both mysteries and revealed things, rationality and faith.  May we take from both of these renewed inspiration and gratitude for our lives and for our tradition.  

Shabbat shalom from Edinburgh, Scotland.  May you and your loved ones be inscribed in the Book of Life for a healthy and prosperous year.   

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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