A modern photograph by Roie Golitz | "Shofar"
"Before he began his lesson to the scholars," says the Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 30b), "Rabba used to say a joking word, and the scholars were amused. After that, he sat in dread, and began the lesson."So the rabbis did have a sense of humor. But is something like the following passage humorous, or just ridiculous? I mean, it does include a "Why does the chicken ..." question.
Rabbi Zera encountered Rabbi Yehuda standing by the door of his father-in-law’s house. He observed that Rabbi Yehuda was in a very cheerful mood and understood that if he asked him the secrets of the universe, he would tell him. Rabbi Zera asked: Why do the goats go first at the head of the flock and then the sheep? Rabbi Yehuda replied: It is in accordance with the creation of the world. First there was darkness and then there was light [the goats are dark colored and the sheep are white]. Rabbi Zera asked: Why do the sheep have [thick] tails which cover them, and the goats do not have tails which cover them? He answered: Those with whose material we cover ourselves [i.e., wool of sheep] are themselves covered, while those with whom we do not cover ourselves are themselves not covered. Rabbi Zera asked: Why does a camel have a short tail? He answered: Because the camel eats thorns [and a long tail would get entangled in the thorns]. Rabbi Zera asked: Why does an ox have a long tail? He answered: Because it grazes in the marshland and has to chase away the gnats with its tail. Rabbi Zera asked: Why are the antennae of locust soft [i.e., flexible]? He replied: Because it dwells among willows and if the antenna were hard it would be broken off when it bumped against trees and the locust would go blind. For Shmuel said: If one wishes to blind a locust, let him remove its antennae. Rabbi Zera asked: Why is the chicken’s lower eyelid bent upwards? He answered: Because it lives on the rafters, and if smoke entered its eyes it would go blind. (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 77b)
I spent a lot of time mulling over this week's parshah when I was preparing to offer up learning for my awesome coworkers yesterday. I was torn between the discussion in Torah Studies adapted by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks on the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson about why the text specifically mentions Egypt and Laban when discussing the first fruits.
“And you shall speak and say before the L-rd your G-d: ‘An Aramite destroyed my father, and he went down into Egypt and sojourned there, few in number … And the L-rd brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand … And he has brought us into this place and has given us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And now behold I have brought the first-fruit of the land which You, O L-rd, have given me ...’ ”
The Aramite being Laban and Egypt being, well, Egypt. The discussion surrounds why these two specific instances are mentioned above all the other tragedies that were befallen by the Israelites. It all comes down to those being to instances where total destruction was a promise, but also moments in which we were "permanently settled" in a land that was not ours. You see, the first fruits offering is meant for when we're dwelling in the land that HaShem gave us. Because during these two narratives we were settled but not in Israel -- compared to the other tragedies that befell us during the wandering -- these two hold a significant place in us needing to remember those times when we were not where we were supposed to be. It's a gnarly concept, and you can read more about it here.
But for me, I ended up focusing on something incredibly simple that we probably overlook that Rabbi Jonathan Sacks didn't overlook. There is no word in Torah meaning "to obey." Judaism is not a religion of blind obedience, despite what many thing and the way that many profess to live their lives Jewishly. The word in Torah that often is used when HaShem is saying "hey, you, do this or else" is "to hear" or l'shmoah. And what a perfect time of year for this parshah, right? We're commanded in the month of Elul to hear the voice of the shofar, because it is the closest thing we can get these days to truly hearing the "voice of G-d."
The question is ... If HaShem is not demanding that we obey, but rather that we simply hear, what does that mean for us in the scheme of things?
We talked for about a half-hour at our staff meeting yesterday about this concept, and the best way for me to approach it is this: We're commanded to listen to HaShem. To hear HaShem. We're invited to be active participants in this world, to really think about the reasons and the words that we're given in the Torah. And when we make that choice to really listen, we see that so many of the 613 mitzvoth are about ethics, values, and morality. They're not as distant and strange as we might think they are -- the problem is that we don't take the time to listen, examine, and explore.
And, I also pointed out, the problem today is that so many Jews do listen -- but not to Hashem. So many Jews choose to listen, but instead to intermediaries that would wish to send them down the wrong path, a path where the listening comes second-hand. I say this in regards to the Haredi and to the most secular of Jews.
We are commanded as individuals to listen to HaShem. To process, consider, evaluate, to truly be active in life, in this experience of Judaism. Are you listening?