Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk


People like to say that they're their own man.  We seem to hear it most often from politicians. What does that mean?  Usually, I think, that this refers to their independence of thought.  Even though others around them might believe one thing, they can think for themselves, make their own decisions and be independent of outside influences.  Sounds cool, but is it true?  John Donne already taught us four centuries ago that no man is an island.  Donne is right; total independence is an illusion.  This is especially true for modern humans, who don't feed or clothe themselves.  Just a few hours of a blackout reminds us how dependant we are on outside forces.  I almost panicked when my television reception went down during an NFL playoff game.  So, if true autonomy is impossible, how much control do I have over myself and my destiny?  Am I without any options, totally controlled by forces beyond my control?  Well, not that either.  I think that we must find the middle ground between these two extremes.  This week's Torah reading, I believe, gives us some guidance on this critical issue.

After almost seven weeks of difficult travel in the desert, the Jews arrive at the foot of Mt. Sinai on the first day of the third month, what we call Rosh Chodesh Sivan.  This period was important and formative.  Rashi points out that the verse specifies that this arrival is after the encounter with Amalek at Rephidim, because those events are significant for the preparedness for what is to happen at Sinai.  They clearly knew that a major event was in the offing; Moshe ascended the mountain and brought back instructions.  But I'm sure that they had no clue what would transpire, perhaps the most dramatic rendezvous in history.  Their first inkling into the enormity of the incident came with Moshe's first communiqué from God:  So shall you say to the house of Jacob and tell the sons of Israel, You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles' wings, and I brought you to Me. And now, if you obey Me and keep My covenant, you shall be to Me a treasure out of all peoples, for Mine is the entire earth (Exodus 19:3-5). 

Embedded in those three sentences are many crucial ideas, which have had a lasting effect on our people.  Perhaps most famously this is the definitive declaration of the choseness of the Jewish nation.  We are God's treasured people.  However, for our present project the most important idea is that we became God's people because God owns everything.  Now, there are two problems with that statement.  In what way does God own the entire earth?  And shouldn't that make everyone God's, not just us?

This idea that God owns everything is very ancient.  Back in Genesis, Avraham is blessed by Malkizedek, king and cohen of Jerusalem with the words:  Blessed be Abram to the Most High God, Who possesses heaven and earth (14:19).  This last phrase, which has entered our liturgy in the Shmoneh Esreh prayer as konei hakol, is translated by Rabbi Art Scroll as Maker of heaven and earth.  This explains the ownership.  It's like an intellectual property law.  You produce it; it's yours.   Only this title lasts forever.  But how come this ownership, according to the verse in Exodus, only extends to us?

First of all, I don't think that it's only true of us.  God has the deed on absolute everything.  However, it's only enforceable on us.  That's because we are the only ones whom God clearly declared this Divine right of ownership.  You see, one can own many things, but this right is moot unless and until claimed. 

Why doesn't God make this claim for everyone else?  I believe that this idea is essential to the point I want to make.  The answer is because God only made us independent of others by the exodus miracles.  You see, God only makes this claim for those whom the Deity performed this significant act of freedom from oppression.  At this historical juncture the Jews are in limbo (not to be confused with Limbaugh, which is a terrible place to be).  We are in the Wilderness in every sense; geographically, philosophically and spiritually.  No one can survive long in this unstable state without connection to anything else.  In this fragile state, God says, "You're mine!"  That's why we must remember the exodus from Egypt everyday.  We only remember the Creation on Shabbat.  That's why the Ten Commandments state that our possession by and allegiance to God derives from the exodus, not the Creation.  No one else had this experience, and, therefore, God makes no such claims on the bodies and souls of others.

This recognizes the truth with which we began this article.  No man is an island.  No human exists in a vacuum.  We must connect with other humans, and societies, and ideas.  No person is absolutely independent.  That's why God is informing us that we must connect to the Torah and the laws that God is now giving us, because if we don't latch onto those precepts now, we will soon find other ideologies to which we would attach ourselves.  This was, therefore, a precarious period, when the now free Jews had to connect to something.  God says let it be Me.  There are concepts circulating in the world at large which complement our allegiance to God, and we embrace them.  There are principles which are antithetical to our connection to God.  We call them idolatry.

Joan Baez used this idea to state:  No man is an island, We need one another, So I will defend, Each man as my brother, Each man as my friend.  I agree with Baez and Donne, but we Jews add one more ingredient to the mix.  When we say that no human is an island, we also demand that we admit that God owns us, because if we don't recognize God's rights over us, we will concede those rights to another.  And there is no Master worthy of our allegiance more than our Maker.         



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