It really does all boil down to authority, doesn’t it? Who’s in charge, who’s authority we accept, to what extent do we challenge that authority? We Americans, especially, have this in our DNA – we challenged the authority of a king, telling ol’ George that he wasn’t the boss of us, and formed a whole new country. Since then, individual choice and autonomy have been the pillars of the American psyche.
That causes a problem for faithful people, because, well…. a God-based belief flies in the face of this whole idea. And to think that there is a whole list of rules and regulations (i.e. Torah) that is God-given (i.e. the Boss of me), and that those rules trump my own choices for how I run my life? Well, that’s just a large anti-autonomous pill to swallow.
Which of course, brings me to this week’s parasha, Nitzavim.
“Surely this Instruction which I charge you with today is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond your reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it, and impart it, that we may observe it? Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who among us can ross to the other side of the sea and get it for us, and impart it to us, that we may observe it? No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.” (Deut 30:11-14)
Isn’t that beautiful? This Torah isn’t in the heavens, so only special people can act as intermediaries, interpreting for us. It’s not beyond the sea, so someone else has to make a journey and bring it to back. It’s close to us, as close as our lips and our hearts, to do and to speak, to make it alive.
This is not an “anything goes” situation ,however. Torah may be closer than the sea, but we still have to make a journey to retrieve it. Living a life which includes Jewish thought and tradition isn’t passive. We each have to reach to the heavens and travel the seas to find it, making it truly our own.
So where does that leave authority? I think the authority is not only in the text, but in the processing of the text. Now, those who know me will laugh at this, seeing as how in the process vs. product match-up, I usually root for product. But in process-ing one’s Jewish lens for life, one must start with those who have gone before. We read the Rabbis, we read the commentaries, and add our own well-reasoned voices to the age-old conversation across time and space. We have to do our homework. We have to know what we’re talking about. We have to learn, live and do.
It would be very easy to say, “I’m in charge, I don’t have to do anything, who’s going to tell me different?” But, it’s not that easy. In American democracy, we know that decisions are made by the people who show up. We are responsible for our own society, and no one gets a pass for being passive.
It’s similar for the Jewish community in the post-modern world. There’s a reason so many of the denominations we live with today (for better or worse) came to full bloom in America. If there’s something that doesn’t work for us, we work to change it with our passion, our knowledge, and our belief….our lips and our hearts. In Nitzavim, we also read, “I make this covenant not with you alone, but with those who are standing here today before our God, and with those who are not with us today.” The rabbis say this means the future generations. And therein lies the balance to individualism. We are responsible for each other, for the future. We are not just acting for ourselves. If we want a Jewish community, we need to be an active part of it. If we think there’s something worth passing on, then by God, we better make sure there’s something worth passing on.