Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

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

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk



            Yeah!!!  The Diaspora and Israel are back on the same weekly Torah reading schedule.  I can't imagine many people feel the same sense of relief that I do over this issue, but we all must celebrate the little victories of life.  There sometimes don't seem to be enough big victories.   This sort of leads into the idea I'd like to discuss with you this week.  Do you ever think about the concept of Utopia?  That word, of course, was coined by Sir Thomas More in 1516, and really means 'no place' in Greek.  More's theoretical perfect society was located on an island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.  Over time most literary and entertainment attempts to describe these Utopias end up as dystopias or civilizations which have gone horribly wrong.  I think that there is skepticism about the possibility of a perfect community on earth.  We don't expect humans to achieve ideal harmony.  Again, we must celebrate the little successes because we're too pessimistic to ever expect total success.  This week's Torah reading presents us with just these two possibilities, either the world will move towards perfection or towards absolute disaster.  The bad option is very vividly described both here and at the end of the book of Deuteronomy.  But I'd like to look at the elements which the parsha presents as a Torah Utopia.


            The description is very short, just 10 verses.  Here it is in its entirety:  "If you obey all of my commandments, I will give you regular rains, and the land will yield bumper crops, and the trees will be loaded with fruit long after the normal time! And grapes will still be ripening when sowing time comes again. You shall eat your fill, and live safely in the land, for I will give you peace, and you will go to sleep without fear. I will chase away the dangerous animals.  You will chase your enemies; they will die beneath your swords.  Five of you will chase a hundred, and a hundred of you, ten thousand! You will defeat all of your enemies. I will look after you, and multiply you, and fulfill my covenant with you. You will have such a surplus of crops that you won't know what to do with them when the new harvest is ready! And I will live among you and not despise you. I will walk among you and be your God, and you shall be my people. For I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, so that you would be slaves no longer; I have broken the bars of your yoke so that you can walk with dignity (Leviticus 26:3-13).   There are three major features in this scenario.  First of all the crops will be sufficient to feed the entire community.  Secondly there will be peace and tranquility, without fear of violence from either human or beast.  And, finally, there will be a sense of God's presence in the land.


            What's missing from this picture?  There is no promise that the country will be poverty free.  There is no mention that no humans will be malformed or challenged.  The discussion is about the perfection of society not the perfection of every individual within it.  Actually the Kli Yakar (writing in the 17th century) wrote that the blessings are for the nation as a whole, not for the individual.  Other attempts at formulating Utopia assured us that there would be no unsightly people blighting the beautiful landscape.  We see this in many fictional Utopias like the recent movie Elysium or The Hunger Games.  In these pieces the poor, the hungry and the ugly are just kept out of sight, so, the beautiful need not be offended by the sight of them.  In the real world, the Third Reich promised a society of blond, blue eyed paragons through a combination of eugenics and mass murder.  Not only does our vision not include any of these assurances, the Torah elsewhere promises us that there will always be the poor and helpless, as it says: There will always be poor people in the land (Deuteronomy 15:11).  What kind of Utopia is that?  Who enjoys encountering poor people with their hands out?


           I think that the critical idea is expressed in the final verse of the blessing.  God will break the bars of our yoke.  What does that mean?  Previously we were locked into two negative situations.  First we were yoked like cattle to a strict regimen of controlled thought and outlook.  We were shackled to the perspective of the ruling powers.  Next, that strict control forced us to only look down at the lowest common denominator of societal norms.  We could neither look up nor aspire to more than our enslaved place in the social hierarchy. With the exodus those yokes were broken and we could walk komemiyut or upright.  This is the way humans should move about with the opportunity to see the sky.  We could look up to new possibilities and prospects.  In the translation above I called this 'walking with dignity.'  This is referred to as 'walking with God.'  Animals shackled to their place in the hierarchy of existence walk beneath God; humans who aspire to a life of morality and spirituality can walk with God. 


            The greatest challenge of this vision is guaranteeing that everyone can achieve dignity.  Needing the help of others must not be viewed as a detriment to society but as an opportunity for society to engage them with dignity and afford them self-esteem.  We don't want to hide or discard those who may require assistance.  We want to embrace them and assure their self respect. 


A society which has enough resources to share and then engages in this level of kindness and concern for all its inhabitants, both citizen and stranger, would truly be a Utopia.  Our Utopia isn't perfect; it's a dynamic opportunity to strive for perfection.