|Vaetchanan 5767 - A 4D Approach to Life's Demands|
by Rabbi Paul L. Saal
Congregation Shuvah Yisrael
Do you like to make choices? Whether you do or not, it seems as though for each of us there is a never-ending stream of options that place demands upon our time and threaten the normal and easy flow of our lives. With the blessings of the information age, come even more options, more choices and a still greater demand upon our lives.
Some options are necessary and demand our immediate attention. We get hungry and eating becomes a necessary option. We are worn out and sleeping is our best option.
Most options though, are postponable, and we respond in kind. It would be nice to wash the car, change the oil, and tune the engine on a regular basis. But if push comes to shove, the car will run a long way with mud on the hood, dirt in the crankcase, a miss in the engine, and even wear on the tires. It is obvious, though, that even postponable options demand their due. We can put our taxes off for a time, yet doing them on April 16th could be a bad choice.
Some options are undoubtedly bad, and yet we argue that we are propelled into them beyond our control. The alarm goes off earlier than we expect so we shut it off and go back to sleep. We might wake up late and let everyone know we are a tad grouchy. We might speed to work and once we arrive, make promises predicated upon only the most perfect of conditions in order to quiet the incessant demands of clients, customers, coworkers or employers. All along excusing our behavior as necessary.
Of course good options can create as large a threat to our time. I love to read and there are extensive choices of books. Amazon is always offering a great sale, special discounts and free delivery for a "limited time" (I think this means my lifetime.). Unfortunately I find that I am the one with limited time and a limited budget. Life seems to offer abundantly good options, yet limited resources with which to take advantage. Therefore even a good choice can be a bad choice if made at the wrong time.
New technology, the information super highway, expanding choices in a heartbeat. Unfortunately expanding options often lead to deceptive options. A shiny new car hides the promise of a large payment book.
"You deserve a break today" seems to suggest other than marginal food in a Styrofoam box. What about "free love" or "retirement with nothing to do". Madison Avenue and pop-culture assure that our choices are not always what they appear to be.
Every option motivates us. Our choices are neither passive nor neutral. They persuade us to respond. We live under pressure to conform, to perform, to create, and to commit. We are inundated by choices. So…how do we spell relief? P-R-I-O-R-I-T-I-E-S
Many of us have tried a sequential approach. You know … God 1st, Family 2nd, Congregation 3rd, Work 4th, Country 5th, … clean the hall closet 6457th. If only that which demands our time and attention fit so neatly in hermetically sealed categories then such a linear approach to life might work.
The Torah parshah this week offers though, what I believe is a much more organic and full-orbed approach toward ordering life's demands. God had guided Israel in the wilderness for forty years, and as they stood by Beth Peor preparing to enter the land of promise, HaShem reiterated His mitzvot and mishpatim (commandments and ordinances), which they needed to obey to have a happy and prosperous community life. But as many of us who have endeavored to live Torah observant lives have found out, it is never quite so easy. Individual circumstances, changing times and common sense can make concrete obedience to static rules not only difficult, but also sometimes impossible. So wedged between the Ten Commandments (Deut. 5) and the general stipulations of the Sinai Covenant (Deut.7-12) God gives a system of principles (Deut. 6:4-9) by which we can attempt to apply His commandments. Within the jewish liturgical system this portion has been come to be known as the Sh'ma and the V'ahavta, but for mnemonic purposes I would like to refer to it as the 4D portion. Not only because it will help us to explore the height, width, depth and and timeliness of life's demands, but more importantly it affords us a helpful alliteration to remember. In the Sh'ma and V'ahavta Moses reveals the foundational Doctrine, Duty, Discipline, and Demonstration by which all of life's demands might be ordered.
Doctrine - v.4
Most often in modern parlance, doctrine or dogma is thought of negatively. It is often conceived of as a set of inflexible rules that are used by institutions to manipulate, control, and dominate those who are not free thinkers. In fact doctrine has been used historically by some groups to just that end. But it need not be so. The shema is the foundational doctrine of Judaism and it simply expresses the essential nature of G-d and his relationship to us. Succinctly put, God is everywhere – G-d is here.
"Hear O Israel, HaShem is God, HaShem alone." This statement constitutes as radical a thought as could be mustered in the ancient Near East 3500 some odd years ago. Imagine the audacity of a people group who could actually believe that their God was a benevolent patron, who loved care and protected them as a good king might his subjects. What a contrast from the ancient pantheons, which were understood to be capricious and vindictive and were certainly no friends to the mortals who worshiped them as a means of appeasing the gods' wrath.
HaShem, the God of Israel was not only the unique in His compassion and love for His particular people, but He is God alone. The common translation "God is one" does not do justice to the meaning in context. More than trying to teach a modern form of monotheism which argues against the existence of any other deities, the Sh'ma ignores their relevance as it extols the God of Israel as the all-powerful God over all creation, the only one that matters. The foundation doctrine then is that the king of the universe loves you.
Duty - v.5
If the foundational docrine is God's love and protection over us, then our fundamental duty is to love Him in return and we are instructed to do so with "all of your heart, with all of your soul and with all of your might."
According to the talmudic tradition, the patriarchs loved God in this way. Abraham with the fullness of his emotions and his intellect, Isaac by willingly offering up his very life, and Jacob by pledging all that he possessed back to God by the banks of the Jabbok River. Certainly there is no better example of this full orbed love of the father than in the life of Yeshua.
Discipline - v.6-7
If our fundamental duty is to respond to God's love in kind, then we should develop disciplines to infuse our lives and the lives of our children with the love of God and a love for God. Here we are taught to impress these ideas upon our children and ourselves. Literally translated it means to repeat the instructions. So often we wish to compartmentalize our lives, separating our religious convictions from our everyday lives. But the instruction here is to recite this whether we are at home or about our business in the wider world, in the morning and the evening we are to indoctrinate ourselves with the love of God and our responsibility to love Him in return. For this reason the sage's first determination in Mishnah Berachot (the tractate of Talmud dealing exclusively with prayer) is that we should repeat the Sh'ma in the evening preferably before midnight, and in the morning during the first quarter of the day (Ber.1: 1-2). Truly our words concretize our priorities.
Demonstration - v.8-9
If our words can influence what we do, then certainly what we do influences what we become. According to the famous poet W. H. Auden,
"Human beings are by nature actors, who cannot become something until they have pretended to be it. They are therefore to be divided, not into the hypocritical and the sincere, but the sane, who know they are acting; and the mad who do not." I believe that is why we are given so much ritual instruction in Torah and here there is no exception.
We are instructed to "Bind them (the teachings) as a sign on your hand and as a symbol on your forehead; inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates." This command has both literal and figurative application. Literally our tradition has taught the mitzvot of t'fillin and mezuzot. The t'fillin which are bound on the left arm and are worn at the hairline, and the mezuzah which is affixed to the doorpost of our homes contain these teachings. The action of putting on the t'fillin in prayer and kissing the mezuzah when entering or leaving our homes serves as a constant reminder of God's love for us and our duty to love Him.
The t'fillin are bound to the left arm and are worn next to the heart. The yare also worn between our eyes which are the "gateway to the soul". Figuratively they should remind us to love HaShem with all our heart, soul and might. It should also serve as a reminder that all that we put our head and our hands to should be dedicated to our God. While the t'fillin are acts of personal commitment, the mezuzah is a public declaration of commitment. Once it is placed on the doorpost the world knows who we are and whom we serve. Yet, it is also the gateway to our homes, to the most private and often secretive sanctum of our lives. So we commit to endeavor to make all of our life, public and private dedicated to HaShem. In the midst of the hustle and bustle of life, these outward demonstrations can be welcome interruptions that hopefully serve to reorient our priorities and encourage us to restructure our lives.
I believe that if we diligently practice the 4D's then the love of God and our love for Him will naturally order our priorities, rather than the demands of our lives ordering them. Perfect love makes us complete, but practice makes perfect.