November 7, 2019


11.8.2019 Weekly Torah Portion

Lech Lecha 5780

When I was in middle school I remember this television show that I used to watch. The first episode of the show opened with a scene that was supposed to be heaven.  There was Saint Peter who was shepherding the people as they came in, trying to help them figure out if they were going to go to heaven or hell.  First a beauty queen came in who, we find out, had just been tripped after winning her crown.  She went to a platform and the heavenly scales starting lighting up, and after figuring out that she was to go to heaven a green arrow lit up and she walked through the doors to heaven.

The next person was a terrorist who, after lighting up the red arrows pointing well downward, was to spend eternity exploding every seven minutes.

After the laugh track ended another person appeared – a man in his forties.  He took his place on the platform just as the previous two people had done.  After the scales settled, it turned out that his sins and his good deeds, his mitzvot, were actually equal, and therefore heaven was left with a conundrum of what to do with this man.  Finally, they decided that he should go visit himself as a young man and help guide his younger self into doing the right thing.

For many years, fear of punishment has been a normative motivation to keep the commandments.  The fear of hell, of balancing the scales towards damnation, has long been used as a threat in motivating people to adhere to religious principles.  This is what leads people like Karl Marx to call religion an opiate for the masses.

Judaism is not about control. The core of Judaism is not  setting up rules and regulations; it’s about using those rules to create concentric circles of relationships: between us and our authentic selves, us and God, then our families, our community, the people of Israel, and the world as a whole.  Brit (“covenant”) and relationship, these are the building blocks of our religion.

This week we saw the start of a relationship that is much more than judgment or reward.  We see the bond between God and Abraham, the first great love affair in the torah.  Our story begins with God introducing Himself to Abraham and starting in with some sweet talk.  God asks Abraham to go somewhere for Him; actually God asks Abraham to go somewhere with Him: the verse states, “to the place that I will show you” (Gen. 12:1), implying that God would be there with Abraham.

This relationship becomes the basis for the covenant between God and the Jewish people.  While we were given the Torah and mitzvot at Mount Sinai, that event would never have been possible without the relationship, the covenant between Abraham and God.

We do not do mitzvot because we are afraid of the punishments that will befall us if we don’t.  We follow the covenant because living a life of mitzvah gives our lives meaning.  We find meaning in the relationships that we form here in our community.  We find meaning in the relationship that we, together, have and that each one of us has with God.

Our Judaism is a Covenantal Judaism, a Judaism that mirrors the Judaism created by the relationship between Abraham and God.  It is a Judaism that demands action from its participants, not out of a fear of punishment but out of a desire for a relationship.  As Rabbi David Wolpe writes in his piece enititled “Covenantal Judaism,”

When we light Shabbat candles, God “knows” what we mean – we have been doing it for thousands of years.  It is part of the grammar of relationship.  Our past is the platform from which we ascend.  The covenant at Sinai is the first, reverberating word.

That’s great, God knows what it means.  It is one of our private rituals, our inside jokes, that we as Jews who do mitzvot get to have with our Creator.

In order to have a true commitment to do mitzvot it must come from inside of ourselves.  Imagine a parent who hears their child crying in pain in the middle of the night.  The parent could physically stay in bed – there is no outside force compelling that parent to go and check on their child – but that does not make the obligation any less real.  Personally, I may not do mitzvot because I am afraid of what catastrophe God might send my way if I don’t.  I perform mitzvot because I want to be in a relationship with God and with the Jewish people.  Every relationship comes with obligations, and we can begin to see our relationship with God not as master and servant but as two people in a committed, loving relationship or as a parent to a child.

This view of Judaism says that we do have obligations.  We have obligations to God and to our fellow man but they are not born out of a fear of reprisal.  They come from a desire to be in a relationship.  We do mitzvot because we want to be part of a relationship with God, because we want to be in a relationship with the community.  My obligation to be a part of this covenant is no less real today than it was when I could be coerced into doing so.  The difference is the motivation: it has to come from inside and not from outside.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Ben Goldstein