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Beshelach 5783                                     February 4th, 2023

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg

Shabbat Shalom.

One of my favorite sayings is “Human Beings have an infinite capacity to delude themselves.” The reason I like it so much is because it is true. We all delude ourselves in any number of ways thinking things that, if we stop to consider it, we know are not true. If you said any of the following things you are guilty of self-delusions. I am not looking for confessions but think for a moment if you ever thought to yourself any of the following:

“If the police officer understood why I am speeding I know he would let me off.”

“This outfit looks “pretty good” on me.”

“If I splurge this one time, it really won’t make a difference to my budget.”

“What difference will it make if I eat dessert this one time?”

“I am sure nobody ever really stops at this stop sign.”

I think we understand what is going on here. If we were with someone else, a family member or a friend, we would never say such things and if we did, they would smile a little and remind us that we are only fooling ourselves. It is always important in avoiding delusions, to have someone near to keep us grounded in reality.

I have been reading Rabbi Lord Johnathan Sacks’ last book, published just before he died, called “Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times.” Although Rabbi Sacks was the Chief Rabbi of the British Empire, he comments on American culture as well. He notes that our culture is now one of individualism; we see ourselves as independent of anyone and anything else. We get annoyed when someone tries to tell us what we should do. It doesn’t matter if what we are being asked is for the benefit of others close by or for the benefit of society. We insist on the right to do things our own way.

During COVID, people got all upset over the idea of being told to wear a mask. People were angry that they were being told to get a COVID vaccine. However, when it comes to matters of health, we need to work together to prevent the spread of disease. A virus or bacteria doesn’t really care at all if we are independent or dependent. It only wants to find a host to spread its illness.

I am reminded of the story of the town of Chelm, where there was a very steep road into town, which followed along a cliff that was very dangerous. Many people on the road slipped and fell down the cliff. It was a serious problem. The people of Chelm had a town meeting and for three days they argued about what they should do about the road. After three days discussion, they finally decided that the best approach was to build a hospital at the bottom of the cliff.

I think it was Ben Franklin, one of our country’s founding fathers, who said, “An Ounce of Prevention is worth a Pound of Cure.”  For the people of Chelm, it would be safer and cheaper to just put up a guardrail on the road than to build and staff a hospital at the base of the cliff. Unless you own hospital stocks, keeping the people on the road is preferable than dealing with their injuries when they fall off.

“Who are YOU to tell me how fast I can go on this road?”

The fact is, as Rabbi Sacks reminds us, that human beings are social animals. We work best not when we are alone but when we are part of a group. We solve problems better; we are mostly happier and less delusional when we have others nearby to give us a hand. Not that long ago multiple generations of a family might live in the same house. Not so long-ago people lived near their parents and siblings. Today we are lucky if our children live in the same time zone.

One of the purposes of religion is to help us work together better. It has always fascinated me that in the end, all religions do pretty much the same job, helping people live better lives. Different faiths may have different theologies, but it is in how a religion deals with the realities of life that makes all the difference.

Judaism has its own rules for life. We call these rules Torah. They are found in their most basic form in the scrolls we read every week. In this week’s parsha, right after the great miracle at the Sea of Reeds, right after the song of redemption led first by Moses and then by Miriam, right after the most amazing miracle known to humanity, the people begin their journey to the Promised Land and immediately begin to complain. They have no water to drink! The water they find is not drinkable. God directs Moses to cut down a tree and throw it into the water. The water then turns sweet. Another day and another miracle from God.

But this time there is something different in the text. After this miracle God gives the people, “Hok u’Mishpat” translated as “Laws” letting the people know that God will judge them based on their following the laws that God is giving them.

This is a long time before the Torah will be given at Sinai. There is a long discussion among the Rabbis of the Talmud about what laws were given to the people at this time. There are many suggestions as to which laws God gives to the people to follow at this point. It is a rule of thumb that when many Rabbis disagree on a subject, then it probably means they have no idea about what really happened.

My friend Rabbi Mordechai Silverstein pointed out that Yeshayahu Leibowitz, the 20th century Biblical scholar, has a rather unique take on what these laws, given literally on the first day of freedom for the Israelites, might be about.

Rabbi Silverstein translates Dr. Leibowitz, “In presenting [this legislation] while dealing with the height of the daily problems during the desert trek, as the people reveal their lack of faith and lack of recognition of God, the Torah revealed an instructive lesson… The life of religious dedication to God was not intended for a world ruled by the miraculous but rather for the daily reality filled with difficulties, worries, troubles… things that make up the reality of normative human beings, for these commandments reveal the possibility for human repair, for societal repair, for repair of the world. … One of the primary purposes of religious life and law is regulating the good life and good society. It should not be surprising then that the Torah and the sages sought to integrate God’s law into the lives of God’s people at the time of its inception. This is an important reminder that that which is good in life is good because it is lived within a certain framework – one which helps bring out the best in us as people and our integration into the whole of a good society.

What we understand here is that the Israelites are being taught that the old ways of living, their life as slaves in Egypt, is now over, and there will be new laws and new ways they will need to learn in order to be a free people. What specific laws were given is not as important as the people understanding that they can’t live from miracle to miracle anymore. The people have to begin to take responsibility for the way they live their lives. The laws they are being given are to help knit all of the former slaves into a free people.

That is the purpose of all religious laws. They are not designed to be inconvenient or annoying. Religious laws have a purpose; to help us live together, to teach us how to get along with others and to show us what it means to be a good person in society.

As Rabbi Sachs teaches, this stands in opposition to the way most people want to live their lives. There is less interest in getting along with others. What is more important is getting what I want. If the Laws of Judaism are designed to make us better members of society, it is little wonder that Jews are slipping away from Jewish life. Who needs a Torah? Who needs a community? Who needs God to tell them how to be a better human being? Some Jews think they can live better lives if Judaism just would leave them alone.

But they are just deluding themselves.

In a slow but steady manner, some Jews are beginning to realize that Judaism does have something to teach them. That mitzvot, the essence of what it means to be a good person, does not depend on personal actions. These Jews are coming to understand what Rabbi Sachs teaches, that morality is not about what we do for ourselves. Morality is about what we do for others. This is not something one learns in school, or at university, or at work or in secular society. All of these parts of our social network depend on how we learn to get along with each other, not by living miracle to miracle, but by learning that what is good in life depends upon how well we get along with others. It depends on our being able to see other people’s point of view. We have to leave the delusions of self-reliance, and work together to build a better world.

It is important for our ancestors who were slaves to learn this, and it is important for us as well. It is Torah that teaches us how to be good members of the community, how we can balance our self needs with the needs of the community. Torah teaches us how we can be better members of our families, how we can be better members of our community and how we can best serve others beyond ourselves. Torah teaches us to see the world through the eyes of others and not to let the delusions of self-interest lead us astray.

These rules are the very foundation of society and the first ones our ancestors needed to learn in the wilderness. We find ourselves living in a wilderness of selfish self-interest. Torah is our guide to building a better world.

Parshat Beshellach does not teach us which laws were the first given to the Israelites in the wilderness. The Rabbis could not decide which laws had to come first. So that leaves it up to us. What rules do you think we should follow to become a friend, a neighbor, and a good person? When it comes to living a life outlined by Torah, the rules you pick are a good place to begin your Jewish journey through life.

May we see clearly the needs of others, and may God help us see past our own needs so we can be of help to others. May we learn the most important lessons of living, the lessons of what it takes to become a good person, as we say….     

Amen and Shabbat Shalom

Sun, October 1 2023 16 Tishrei 5784