Friday, May 29, 2009

Seeing the Forest from the Trees (or what Shavuot means to this Reform Jew)

I seem to always be doing yardwork on Shavuot. This goes back to my own confirmation in 1992, when, after the oneg was done, the pictures taken and the robes were turned in, I went home and mowed the lawn. So this tradition continued today. After a wonderful service lead by our confirmation class, I came home, changed into my shleppies, and went out with tree saw and stump spray to cut a (much larger than I thought; otherwise I'd have used a power tool) dead branch off the tree in the front yard.

While cutting and schvitzing, it occured to me that none of this felt especially mitzvah-dik, you know? Here I am, on the third of the three pilgrimage festivals, on the day commemorating kabbalat Torah, Israel's accepting of the Torah, and I'm doing my best Dubya impersonation cutting brush. I mean, it wasn't like I even enjoy sawing for half an hour and schlepping the branches down to the woods--this was, without a doubt, avodah (work). But, I thought, when else do I have time to do it? And besides, I'm a Reform Jew.

Of course, as soon as I thought that, my inner hasid (or what Rabbi Michael Holzman calls the 'hasid on your shoulder) cringed. So is that all Reform Judaism means? That I can do whatever I want, as long as there's a veneer of Jewish tradition and a few paeans to social justice? All too often, I think many of us both in and outside of Progressive Judaism feel that way; that it means we care less, do less, observe less, feel less, are less. And it's easy to see how we fall down that rabbit hole; we focus so much on what we "fail" to do as Jews, measuring our Jewishness against some litmus test. "I don't keep kosher, I'm a bad Jew." or "I don't observe Shabbat."

If there's anything about Judaism that frustrates me endlessly, it's this notion. We fail to recognize and celebrate what we do, in fact, do, or we fail to connect our doing as especially "Jewish" doing, thus leaving our actions unrecognized Jewishly. And sometimes I think we fail to appreciate when Jews observe mitzvot (or 'invent' them; you'll see what I mean in a minute) in creative or interesting ways; that to keep vegetarianism for ethical or moral reasons, and therefore keeping Kosher by default, makes it less significant than if you're buying Rubashkin's (and you can see my sermon on that topic at the Shir Ami website, but I digress).

Thankfully, our kids this morning understood what it's all about. Their theme for the service was "Why stop at 10 commandments?" After studying the 10 commandments all year, knowing that they would read the aseret hadibrot today, and after looking at a list of 10 suggested 'modern' commandments created by Rabbi Elliot Strom, David Sandman, Rabbi Shira Joseph and myself, they asked themselves what their 11th commandment should be, would be. And then they described their own 11th (out of 613) commandments. Some spoke of loyalty and support of family, and friends. One railed against conspicuous consumerism, another spoke about caring for the elderly. A couple talked about preserving our heritage as Jews, one talked about the importance of Jewish learning.

Now, I can point to actual mitzvot either in Torah or the writings of cha'zal (the rabbinic literature) that relate to or directly correspond to our kids' 11th commandments. However, I applaud their creativity in coming up with these on their own, and understanding them as Jewish values. More than that, the fact that they appreciate that Torah is not merely a list of 10 or 613 commandments but a source of inspiration for their daily conduct, that Judaism can have an influence over their behavior in a positive way (and they can find Jewish roots in their ethics and values--and want to) gives me a great deal of pride. Even if they're not completely facile with the tradition (and really, who is?) I know that, at least at some level, these kids will turn to Torah, even as they put their own spin on their understanding and interaction with the mitzvot.

Much has been made of the deteriorating financial situation in the Jewish world, especially the Reform movement--the talk of closing campuses of Hebrew Union College, the actual closing of URJ offices, etc. But a movement is more than just a prayerbook, a campus, or an office. That's infrastructure, not Reform. Reform Judaism is what our kids practiced this morning as they stood at their Sinai to accept Torah; that the tradition is there for us to make our own, to reimagine, to make relevant and modernize, to make real, to expand upon. To see not only the trees of the individual mitzvot, but the forest of Torah waiting for each of us.

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