The Story of Us
Parashat Tetzaveh, Exodus 27:20-30:10
Rabbi Isaac Roussel – Congregation Zera Avraham
Once a year the Queen of England addresses parliament. She enters through a special door, only to be used by the reigning monarch, which leads directly into the House of Lords. She sits on her throne, turns to her steward and says “Fetch the rabble.” The steward then marches down the long corridor separating the House of Lords from the House of Commons. As the ministers of the Commons see him coming they slam the door in his face. He raps on the door three times with his large staff and shouts, “The queen demands your attendance.” At that point, they open the door and process down the corridor and listen to the queen’s address.
What caused such an unusual ritual?
Well, on January 4, 1642, King Charles I stormed the House of Commons seeking to arrest four ministers of parliament that he suspected of treason. He was unable to do so because they had fled. But this intrusion eventually led to the English Civil War and ultimately Charles I’s beheading. Some years later when his son Charles II was enthroned, the ruling monarch was permanently banned from the House of Commons and this ritual evolved.
So what does this have to do with us?
This ceremony has become part of the shared story of the people of Great Britain. As Jews, we too have our shared story. The Torah is full of commands from Hashem. In recent parashiyot we have commandments for the construction of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and the sacrifices. In today’s parasha we have commandments for how to make the vestments for the cohanim (priests). But our tradition also includes human-ordained commandments. We have rabbinic commandments such as not mixing meat and dairy, and lighting Shabbat candles 18 minutes before sundown, and definitions of what constitutes work on Shabbat. Chanukah is a holiday ordained not by God but by the Rabbis. And we have the upcoming holiday of Purim, which is a biblical holiday but is not expressly commanded by God.
Some reject these human-ordained commandments because they did not come directly from God. They do not understand that the story of Israel is not just about God, but about our covenant with God, our relationship with God. Sometimes you will hear Christians refer to history as “HIStory.” While I understand the sentiment, the fact is that it is not just HIStory but it is OURstory. It is the story of Israel and Hashem, with the Church grafted in through the agency of Yeshua.
These commandments, though, are in decreasing authority. The highest level commandments are those given by Hashem in the Written Torah. The next level is Halacha, Oral Torah, the decrees of our Sages. (I frequently use the analogy of the Written Torah being the US Constitution and the Oral Torah being the case law that plays out the practical aspects.)
Next in importance are the minhagim, customs. There are universal customs such as the lighting of Yahrzeit candles. This is not a mitzvah but a custom, and why we do not recite a blessing before doing so. But each congregation also has its own local customs. A Purim custom in our congregation seeks to honor not only Mordechai but also Esther. So when we read the Megillah we not only yell “Yay!” for Morty, but also “You go girl!” for Esther. And we have a recently developed another minhag where two of our women, whose Hebrew names are Devorah and Yael, get aliyahs for the parasha that has the story of the prophetess Devorah and the tent-peg-wielding Yael.
We also have personal customs. One of my personal minhags is based on a midrash that is especially meaningful to me. It speaks of the eternal silent Aleph that daily radiates out from Mount Sinai calling all of humanity to Hashem. During the Torah procession I always try to kiss the Torah with my tzitzit on the Aleph that is on the mantle or breastplate.
I was talking to a friend of mine recently who told me that he was very depressed last fall and was walking in the woods while it was raining. He suddenly felt God’s presence in a powerful way and felt like God was telling him that he too was crying over all the problems. This has become a part of his personal story.
But our personal stories join with our communal stories and with God’s story to become OURstory. Therefore, we do not reject rabbinic mitzvot out of hand (though we may wrestle with them) and we honor our Sages’ writings such as the Talmud. They are part of our story with God.
I would like to go a bit further, however, and say that God is really in these things, just in less obvious ways. God is not mentioned at all in the Purim story and yet he is behind the scenes working to accomplish his will. God is behind our customs. He is in our desire to honor heroic women as well as men. And God is in our personal stories of encountering him in the rain. One could dismiss all of these and say that Purim was just a matter of politicking, and that God really wasn’t there in the rain. But faith says that he was. My first spiritual director, Byron Hosmer, of blessed memory, had a plaque hanging on the wall with a Latin inscription. It said, Vocatus atque vocatus deus aderit; “Bidden or unbidden God is present.”
As we celebrate Purim this coming week, let us reflect on this. Let us reflect on the fact that it is not only HIStory but OURstory. Let us reflect on the fact that Torah, Halacha, universal customs, local customs, and even our personal customs that come from our own experiences, all make up this Grand Story. It is a story that started when God chose Israel. It is a story that continued as he gave us the Besorah of Messiah Yeshua and grafted in the Church. It is the Story of God and Us!