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Friday, April 15, 2011

Parshat Aharei Mot/Shabbat Ha'Gadol: Can Irrational Rules Help us Connect with God and our World?

This week's parashah is Aharei Mot (Vayikra/Leviticus 16:1-18:30). In addition, it is Shabbat Ha' Gadol, the Great Sabbath, which is the name for the Shabbat that immediately precedes Pesakh/Passover. That means that, following Shabbat, there is technically only one brief day left to finish preparing for Passover.

I was thinking about this when I read R. Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev's 19th century commentary on a verse from the parashah: "You shall observe My statutes and My laws which, if a person do them, that person shall live by them; I am the Eternal" (Leviticus 18:5). In the rabbinic tradition, the hukkim/statutes are viewed as commandments that have no apparent rational reason, while the mishpatim/laws are those that do have rational reasons. The prohibition against murder is one of the mishpatim. The prohibition against mixing linen and wool or meat and milk are among the hukkim.

In his interpretation, Levi Yitzhak states that the observance of the "irrational" hukkim "purifies" a person's mind so that they can then truly understand the meaning of the mishpatim, or "rational" commandments. By looking at the commandments this way, Levi Yitzhak says that a person then come to "live by them," meaning that they will "come to understand that they are the source of their vitality."

In his analysis of this text, R. David Blumenthal discusses how the essence of this teaching is that all of the mitzvot/commandments are part of God's plan and God's will. It doesn't matter whether or not they have an apparent reason.  Furthermore, being subservient to God's will is what is at the core of observance and this too must guide us through the path of mitzvot.

In reviewing these comments, it seems that Levi Yitzhak is trying to say that the observance of the 'irrational' mitzvot somehow purifies or clears out our minds so that we can then view the 'rational' mitzvot in a new light. This new light allows us to realize that the "rationality" of these mitzvot is unimportant. Instead, what matters is that the mitzvot are the tools by which we create holy lives for ourselves and through which we connect ourselves to God. All the mitzvot are as one and their purpose is one - connection with the Divine and the Divine will.

The concept of Divine will is something with which many of us struggle, including me.  I often say that I try to do God's will in my life, even though I am uncertain exactly what that means. In the broadest sense, it means to do those things that make the world a better place and improve the lives of others. God's will also means doing those things that make us feel connected to God and help us to realize that we are all a part of God and God is a part of us.  All is one.  All are connected.

Sometimes doing 'irrational' mitzvot can serve this purpose in a unique way. Refraining from eating leavened bread may seem "semi-rational,” when considering the Pesakh story. However, cleaning out every crumb of leaven from one's house and changing everything around for the holiday, certainly can seem irrational. Yet, the intensive work involved in doing this work can enable us to connect to the Divine in the world, just as much as eating matzah.

This Shabbat in preparation for Passover can also allow us to appreciate and experience this connection in a deeper way. Shabbat is a day of mindfulness during which we are commanded not to do anything that interferes with the natural order of the world.  As we prepare ourselves for the last preparations for Passover, even if we don’t prepare in the traditional way, we can also take Shabbat as a day to pray and meditate.  As part of this process, perhaps we can see how the "irrational" preparation for Pesakh can indeed purify and clarify our mind so that we can then observe the somewhat more "rational" mitzvah of the seder and eating matzah (though, even they are not totally rational). In the end, we can see that the preparation, the Shabbat of rest, and the observance of Pesakh are all one whole unit that prepares us for the spiritual experience of recreating our people's moment of redemption and salvation.

Even if one does not prepare for or observe Pesakh in the traditional way, a person can still use this Shabbat as a time for contemplation. One can take this day as a time to acknowledge that activities and observances in our lives, whether we see them as rational or irrational, are all a part of the Divine whole. They are all part of what it means to be living our lives in pursuit of holiness and connection to the Divine.  Whatever that means to each of us.

So let us all keep that in mind as we leave the workweek behind and prepare to enter the period of soulful repose that then leads into the week of joyous celebration of our freedom from slavery. For, freedom has enabled us to have luxury to live our lives in pursuit of connection with the Divine and in pursuit of a deeper understanding of God's will for each one of us.  May the day come when every human being is free enough to participate in this endeavor.

Shabbat Shalom and a zissen Pesakh - a sweet Passover - to us all.

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