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Special Guest D'var Torah!

08/14/2020 11:30:34 AM


Shabbat Shalom! My name is Ava Gadon and I am a second year Education Fellow at the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life. I currently live in Jackson, MS, but I am originally from New Jersey. If you have questions about how I got from there to here or want to tease me about being from New Jersey, feel free to reach out to me through the rabbi. I’m always open to some good-natured ribbing about the Garden State. 



    But today I’m not here to talk about me. I’m here to talk about this week’s parshah, which is, uninspiringly, about rules. The Israelites are about to enter the Holy Land, and they are receiving law after law, commandment after commandment about what they need to do and how they need to live once they get there. It’s….arguably…..not the most exciting content, but it is important, something that I had to squish my six-year-old self’s opinion regarding rules to acknowledge. 

    First, the Israelites are instructed to destroy everything from those who had occupied the land before them. Then, they were told to keep the commandments, and warned not to fall prey to false prophets. Then we get to the truly thrilling piece of the parsha, where they are given all of the specific laws of Kashrut, or keeping kosher, like not boiling a kid in its mother’s milk, or only eating fish with fins and scales, and details of when and how holidays should be celebrated. 

    Rules are a tricky thing, especially when they are so highly specific. They can feel bureaucratic, unnecessary, but at their foundation rules serve an important purpose. They instill discipline in an otherwise chaotic society, community, or general unit of people. But I want to talk about a word I just brought up that we commonly associate with rules. The word “discipline” has obviously religious roots (please see ‘disciple’). When thinking about this torah portion, I thought this was odd. I had always associated the word ‘discpline’ with punishment, when the true definition is ‘instruction’ or ‘teaching’. This led to an ah-hah moment for me about these rules that God gives the Israelites before they enter the Holy Land. The instruction that the Israelites were given before they got to this point was never meant to last. They had received tasks like the incredibly specific instructions regarding building a beautiful, transportable House for God, but like many other rules they were given as they wandered around the desert, it wasn’t meant to last. Details on how to build a movable temple become obsolete when you want to build a permanent one, right?

    As any one of my fellow fellows, and I’m sure any number of you can attest, there is a difference between how you live when you travel, and how you live when you’re at home. You could say….different rules apply? Maybe when you know you’re gonna be packing up and moving on the next day, you never bother to fully unpack and reorganize. Maybe you eat differently, have different sleep patterns, and have different responsibilities entirely. Now remember where the Israelites were coming from before they enter the Holy Land that they are meant to settle. They have just spent 40 years wandering the desert. They are led by a generation that has never lived only in one place, that has never settled and has no framework for what that means. They’ve never farmed, rarely hunted, never even had to keep a calendar. They’ve spent 40 years guided around the desert by God, having food and water and structure provided for them. These rules that God has given them now that they are about to settle aren’t without intention at all. They are simply some of the best practices for a people who don’t know that when you move somewhere new, it’s best to give a fresh start so you can live more peacefully and productively, let alone how to farm, and which animals are safe to eat or not. 



    You might be thinking “Ava! We are in a society far past that of the Israelites! Why are you telling us why those rules were important?” You may also...not be wondering that at all. But I’ll tell you why anyway. Around March, this crazy thing happened. All of our lives changed. We became moving parts in history rather than spectators of it when the first world-wide pandemic of our lifetimes struck our country hard and fast. It’s been many months now, but I know that I have found myself still scrambling to find order, structure, and meaning in how drastically my life has changed. If you’re in the same boat as me there, this parshah I think comes at a perfect time. The rhythm of the Israelites lives is about to change. The rhythm of our lives already has. We may not need to know how to farm, and the dates of the holidays may only be a cursory google away now, but the Torah is rich with instruction for how to find structure and meaning in our lives as Jews. Maybe find some time and space to take a look at some of that, and see if you feel drawn to a tradition you haven’t tried, or lost touch with years ago. See if you find anything to reinterpret to make more sense in our modern-day lives. There have never been more online resources to do just this. We are facing a brave new world, and where the Israelites have not yet entered theirs, we have begun trying to make lives in ours. The Israelites found guidance in the laws presented to them by God, and I bet if we look now, we might be able to as well. Shabbat Shalom. 

Fri, October 23 2020 5 Cheshvan 5781