Deuteronomy 21:10 – 25:19
On Being Commanded
This week’s Torah portion is the last in Deuteronomy to present us with a collection of laws. With this kind of portion, we find ourselves struggling with some aspects of the text and truly moved by others. Among the more disquieting injunctions are the laws about stoning to death one’s “wayward and defiant son” [Deut. 21:18], or the disturbing “punishment” for a rapist who is not only mandated to marry his victim but also prohibited from ever divorcing her. Other laws are more inspiring. Torah commands us to pay employees’ wages on time, to defend the rights of the widow and the orphan, to engage in ethical business practices, and to sustain the destitute by donating one’s surplus.
Being “commanded,” however, is a challenge to us. We have been raised to be fiercely independent. We question authority and seek to carve our own path in life, to live out our own truth. There is real self-empowerment in living this way. There is also a real danger to make ourselves overly self-centered and narcissistic. Consider, therefore, that there may be value in being commanded. Consider how to be commanded, to be given a choiceless choice, might help us tame our ego. We are commanded, for example, to give tzedakah/charity every week before Shabbat, because, our rabbis say, meeting the poor’s needs cannot be dependent on whether or not we feel generous on any given week. The fact that we know ourselves to be commanded bypasses the resistance of our ego and obligates us to behave in holistic ways. This is what Halacha—the complete body of Jewish law evolving from the Jewish Bible and the Talmud—is about. Through the Halacha, Judaism has mapped out every moment and aspect of a Jewish life and, the more orthodox among us, follow these commandments strictly.
I studied Halacha for a while with an orthodox rabbi. To him, there was true beauty in following a spiritual path that one believes is divinely inspired, true humility in embracing a “God-given” way of life as prescribed by a still-evolving three-thousand-year-old tradition. In my studies, I have discovered that without rejecting the historical relevance of the commandments which challenge our modern consciousness, the rabbinic exegetes of the Halacha have re-interpreted some and stopped following others. My friend shared with me that living in this prescribed way supports one’s awareness of God’s ever-Presence. This kind of God-consciousness opens one’s heart beyond one’s ego, and causes one to act in humble ways. And true humility, our rabbis teach, manifests itself when the ego’s endless needs are silenced in the face of Divine commandment.
Now I am not a halachic Jew, meaning that I do not strictly follow the laws of Halacha, but I can see the value of this kind of teaching. Without adopting orthodoxy, we can still embrace a strong ethic of living for our days that infuses the way we eat, care for our body, our environment, and the other beings in our lives. We can, step by step, create a consistent discipline in our spiritual practice; slowly building a meditation practice for example, or observing Shabbat by “unplugging” for 24 hours, or simply committing to saying “I love you” more often. The prophet Micah calls upon us to “walk humbly with God.” Halacha, in Hebrew, means “to walk.” To walk humbly with God is to move beyond the ego by following a disciplined spiritual practice that permeates all aspects of our lives, steeped in the intimate knowledge of God’s Presence moment to moment. May we, in this upcoming Jewish new year, be inspired to heed Micah’s call and take the first steps of our “walk,” our Halacha.