What is Shabbat? Have you ever stopped to think about the specific nature of our
worship together? What is this activity we do, sitting in these pews? To where should we turn
our attention? What thoughts should fill our heads, and our hearts? In what ways should we feel
accomplished when we leave this space? What is it we are trying to do?
Often we concentrate on the external trappings of our Jewish experience – how it feels,
how nice it sounds, the warm glow of lit candlesticks – which does not need any further
explanation or justification, it is simply good, and it feels right to follow the tradition. But we
are a rigorously intellectual people, and the early reformers especially were concerned that their
legacy be compatible with the modern world – and to that end they explored unceasingly the
underlying assumptions of Judaism – what makes this religion of ours tick?
For many of us, this is a profoundly personal question. My own private spirituality is my
own business, and not necessarily something I share with others, we say. I have found a level of
comfort with my own Judaism, and I do what I do because it is meaningful to me. The problem
that arises at some point in life is that we realize how existentially alone we feel,
when we resolve to feel spirituality by ourselves in this way, when Judaism ceases to connect us
to a larger group, a community, an idea.
For many of us, the heritage we embrace from our Jewish ancestors is about social
justice. We tell stories of how Jews have been on the cutting edge of important social
revolutions in history, and we sign ourselves up for rallies, political meetings, and tzedakah
projects. Through the Interfaith Hospitality network, Gleaners, Second Helpings, Daysprings,
the Pillowcase Project, and many other initiatives at IHC, a living Judaism of social activism is
expressed every single day. And I would never discount the strength of these spiritual
endeavors. Our religion is a majestic and fortified castle with many pathways, and many doors.
If some find their way in through helping others, I offer nothing but my sincere gratitude for the
model you set.
And yet… we know that Judaism is more than simply social justice. Tikkun Olam,
repairing the world is vital work, but our connection to Judaism runs deeper. To volunteer with
Gleaners or even the Interfaith work of Family Promise and the IHN, one does not need to be
Jewish, let alone subscribe to its doctrines.
We live at a time when more college graduates seek employment with Teach for America
than apply to law school, when an entire generation seeks to repair the world, with or without a
spiritual or religious motivation. And so what does Judaism stands for? What motivates us to
repair the world, what religious principles do we believe in so deeply, we would be willing to lay
down our lives for them, place them on the doorposts of our houses and gates, teach them to our
children, and speak of them at home and away?
This week’s Torah portion offers a rare glimpse behind the curtain of biblical thought.
It points us towards a larger, conceptual Judaism. In Deuteronomy, chapter six we read, “Be
absolutely certain to keep the commandments, decrees and laws that Adonai your God has
enjoined upon you. Do what is right and good in God’s sight, so that it may go well with you.”
Do you wish to know what it means to be Jewish? For centuries this has been our answer –
commandments, decrees and laws. Want to know answers to the deepest spiritual questions?
Just follow the law, be mindful of the One who enforces and protects that law, and all will be
But honestly, the law and commandments are only half the story. As long as Jews have
relied on those “written in stone” hard and fast obligations, we have also questioned, challenged,
and sought a deeper understanding of where those laws come from. Not only to know who wrote
them, but more importantly to understand what they mean. We are human beings – we seek
meaning in everything we do, everything we experience. We have never been content to simply
swallow what we are taught, we analyze, we discover, we explore, and we invest deeply in those
principles which help us best to know ourselves. This has always been our way.
And so, even the Torah text does not leave it at that. Commandments, decrees and laws
all but guarantee at least one primary question will follow – why? Why do I light Shabbat
candles? Why recite these ancient words? Why do I need to prepare myself for the High Holy
The Torah tells us, “Be absolutely certain to keep the commandments, decrees and laws
that Adonai your God has enjoined upon you.” But then it continues, “Do what is right and good
in God’s sight, so that it may go well with you.” For the ancient commentaries, the Torah does
not repeat itself, and the Torah does not waste words.
“Be absolutely certain to keep the commandments” the sentence begins, and then it justifies,
explains, God gives a reason. Why do we fill our lives with rules and obligations? Because,
says the Torah, this is the path to what is right, and what is good.
The commentaries help us understand a fundamental question imbedded in the text. Over
and over again, our text has taught us about law – all the Thou Shalt’s, and Thou Shalt Not’s.
We are a people intimately familiar with law. But the law is not there for its own sake. The
point is not the law, but rather, the law is a path to get us where we are going. And most of the
time in Torah, the reason given, if there is one at all, is some variation on – because I’m God,
that’s why. Care for the stranger, the needy, the homeless, because you were strangers in the
Land of Egypt, and because I am God. Honor your father and mother, I am God. In a society
governed by law and mitzvot, we seem motived by consequences – punishment and reward, not
by what is right, proper, and good. Except here.
Our Torah challenges us, with two simple words, to shift our relationship with Jewish
ritual and law. Here is our ancestors’, and even God’s answer to the question of why – we are
here to do what is right and what is good.
And these mitzvot, these rituals, are designed to help us get there. Even in situations the law
does not cover, we are to do what is right, and what is good.
When Abraham is called upon to bring this new idea of the covenant, the brit, to the
world, the Torah records a similar sentiment. God says, “let us partner with Abraham, because I
have instructed him to teach his children and descendants to keep the ways of God by doing what
is just and what is right.” (Gen 18:19) God did not demand from Abraham, nor does God
demand from us, blind obedience nor a leap of faith. God asks that each and every day, when
you rise up, and when you lie down, when you consider your children, or your parents, or your
spouse or friend – you ask yourself: what is right, just and good in God’s eyes? What is the right
path for this moment, for this situation? And the answer to that question is far deeper than any
law or command from on high might instruct. The answer to that question, for you, for me,
might change over time, and certainly each of us hears that call in a different way.
As Reform Jews, we have always understood this aspect of religion. We have no use for
a one size fits all solution to life’s myriad of challenges and questions. Because the ancient
rabbis could not have imagined modern conversations about end of life issues, racial and gender
equality, eco-kashrut and organic versus local farming practices, our religion provides us an important and
valuable framework for making decisions, but it gets a vote, not a veto. Our real inheritance, the
most sacred of text, the holy of holies, is not something contained with a 4000 year old law book.
It transcends the specific words in the prayerbook, and instead points us towards this simple idea,
governed by our conscience. “What does God demand of you?” says the prophet Micah (6:8),
“only this: do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly before God.” Now go figure it out in your
life, and in your family.
The ritual, the law, the commandment, they are stones on the path, they are commentary,
they are human tools reaching for the sky, attempting to cross the divide between heaven and
earth. They point us toward our moral and spiritual obligations, not just Tikkun Olam – repairing
the world, but Tikkun Olam b’Malchut Shadai – shaping the world in the Divine image. We help
others, we study and pray, we seek teshuvah from one another, not because of God’s presence,
but rather because this is our path to what is right, and what is good – what is just, which we
have obligated ourselves to learn, and to teach our children. This is why we are here, this is
Shabbat. May the blessings in these pages, the prayers on our lips, help us follow this path to
truth – to do what is right, and what is good in the eyes of God.