Saturday, January 25, 2014

The Ethical Essence: Redux Style

The Torah contains 613 laws. Close your eyes and picture that as a list. Six hundred and thirteen mandates. Yes, seriously. Luckily, Hillel came along and said that the ethical essence of Judaism can be simplified in a way that almost anyone can understand. In his loving and merciful words to those of us who really wanna be good, but might not be capable of the memorization and implementation of 613 laws in this lifetime, “What is hateful unto you, do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole Torah! All the rest is commentary. Now go and study.”

Yesterday I was Skyping with my rabbi, and he asked me to share with him some of what I had been studying. This quote was it. If you want to think of religious studies in terms of creation and gestation, I’m nowhere near being fully formed within the watery womb of Judaism. I don’t even look like a baby. I’m pre-embryonic; a little Jewish zygote. I’m reading a ton and taking instruction, fumbling through Hebrew prayers and mispronunciations, and I’m beginning to recognize the rhythm and flow of Friday night services, but I keep coming back to this quote again and again. If you were to flip through the journal of notes I’ve taken, you’d find it interspersed at irregular intervals throughout the pages of my scrawled out questions and impressions.

I appreciate rules that make sense. I adore simplicity. I also know myself well enough to recognize that I need to pull myself back to this simple little instruction again and again in order to avoid getting lost. I might adore simplicity, but I also love ritual, rhythm, and mystery. All of the pretty trappings of spiritual practice are like shiny objects in my peripheral vision, and if I let myself, I could get sidetracked very easily. Don’t get me wrong, I have every intention of indulging my propensity for these beautiful things and am happily immersing myself in them, but I have to keep coming up for air, a deep breath of, “What is hateful unto you, do not do to your neighbor.”

I told my rabbi that I’m going to make a sign to hang on the wall so that I’ll see it every day, because it might be simple, but it sure isn’t easy. It’s a path that will take my whole life to walk and I still won’t ever arrive at the final destination of perfect kindness. Becoming fluent in Hebrew and memorizing Torah portions will be easy by comparison. It’s an unachievable goal and maybe the only one worth striving for. It’s been leading to a lot of honest self-assessment. The truth is that a lot of the time, I’m a very kind person; and the truth is also that a lot of the time, I’m not.

When I am face to face with my own behavior and struggling to overcome my less than wonderful inclinations, I am face to face with the whole Torah (and a fair amount of the commentary). I’m studying. I catch myself, again and again, as I violate the one simple law. Sometimes I catch myself in the act and redirect my thoughts and actions. Sometimes I only catch it after the fact, when the fiery rage has had time to cool or the insecurity has been soothed. I’m sure there are probably things that are slipping through the cracks that I haven’t caught at all. It takes a lot of practice. This is why Hillel wraps the whole thing up by saying, “Go now and study.”

The ethical essence of kindness is timeless. The guy Hillel was talking to when he spoke those words over 2,000 years ago converted due to the conversation. Now, in 2014, I’m studying the exact same teachings, along with newer commentary, and it is still so relevant that it could have been written last week. And I’m probably facing the same internal struggles and self-realizations as those who were studying then. As I re-route the wiring of my brain to handle a new language and pepper my patient rabbi with the millions of questions I have, because I always and forever want to know more about everything, I’ll keep bringing myself back to this in order to rewire my heart.

It’s a lot to take in, but what it means in this moment is that I need to get off this computer. The timer just went off on the oven, and I can think of nothing more important right now than putting my arms around my partner and thanking her for the cookies she just baked, which seems a fitting end to this post.

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