25 Shevat 5778/ Feb. 10, 2018
Parashat Mishpatim: A Balanced Relationship with God
"...Warm yourself by the fire of the sages, but beware lest you are burned by their embers..." Pirkei Avot 2:10
As the people of Israel experienced the revelation at Sinai, they were overwhelmed by God's presence. They beseeched Moshe to speak with God on their behalf, afraid for their very lives (Exodus 20:16). In a way, they felt the "burn of God's embers." Yet when Moshe ascended Mt. Sinai for 40 days, they couldn't deal with the absence of their physical connection to God, Moshe, so they built the Golden Calf as a substitute. They felt cold from the distance from God. This week's Torah portion, Mishpatim, challenges us to find the right balance in relationship with God: not too cold, not too hot, but just right.
What does it look like today to be so distant from God that we feel cold? Or, on the flip side, what does it mean to approach too closely to God getting burned by God's embers?
For many of us, God language itself is problematic. How can we use such human terminology, anthropomorphism, to describe God? Furthermore, after the Holocaust, it becomes even more challenging to talk about relationship with God unless we do so in a traditionalist judgmental manner. Hence, it is easier not to deal with such questions. That leaves us, however, with poor resources to understand our place and purpose in the world. Perhaps we should just accept the new reality: We are distant from God and need to battle against the chills of reality the best we can.
There are others who claim to know God's truth. Their book, be it the Torah, the New Testament, or the Koran, prescribe the way to relate to God. Those who are blind to the one absolute path are blind stubborn sinners who refuse to let God into their lives. Such religious zealotry burns by holding God's coals in their bare hands. In the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel: "To equate religion and God is idolatry ('No Religion is an Island,' p. 13)."
So how do we find that balance of engaging in a humble relationship with God? Can we pursue ultimate meaning with an open heart by not only listening to the experience of others, but by studying the wisdom inherent in our respective traditions? Can we seek to live a righteous life by not only abiding by the norms of our society, but by being brave enough to experiment with counter-cultural religious practices that may critique or restrain our lifestyle, i.e., pausing on Shabbat or refraining from non-kosher foods?
Living in America provides the beautiful freedom to make independent choices to live according to our own values in our own way. I know many good Jewish people who choose to live apart from the community. I respect their choices, because I don't feel like Judaism has the monopoly on the truth or the "good" way of life. However, I choose to dedicate my life as a leader and as a member of a Jewish community because I find meaning in this communal path as we perpetuate our balanced relationship with God, like a fiddler on the roof.