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An ongoing tension

While dipping my toes into, as of yet, unexplored areas of Torah study for me, I recently came across a fascinating teaching by Rabbi Uri of Strelisk (died 1826, Ukraine).

Quoting rabbinic law, he writes: “If one letter is missing in the Torah, the Torah is פסול/imperfect and cannot be read at worship services.” He then adds: “So too, if one soul of Israel is missing, God’s Presence/שכינה, does not dwell within Israel’s midst.”

The lesson we learn from this? Just as the Torah’s letters need to be present and in proximity to each other, so too do Jewish souls need to be present and interconnected as well. But, he goes on: “If interconnection is so important, why is it forbidden for any letter in the Torah to actually touch another letter?” His answer: “To teach us that even though we may be in an אגודה אחת/close association with one another, each Jew also needs to remain true to his/her own self.”

Herein lies the eternal human dilemma: To what degree does one identify with a cause greater than oneself, without becoming swallowed up in that greater religious or political entity, resulting in a loss of one’s personal identity, thoughts and self? Similarly: How does one maintain personal thoughts and beliefs without losing the interconnection, bonding, close proximity and identification with that larger cause?

Rabbi Uri’s teaching seems to be an elaborate riff on the Talmudic dictum of Hillel almost 2,000 years prior: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”

I believe a resolution to that tension is really quite simple. If we refuse to ask questions, challenge teachings, beliefs or principles of our heartfelt cause, whether religious or political, that’s not a show of faith, belief or even loyalty, but rather, intellectual hardheartedness and cruising in spiritual neutral.

Even more so, if we refuse to allow others to question beliefs or principles of our heartfelt cause, whether religious or political, that too is not a show of faith or loyalty on our part. Rather, it is a reflection of our inner unspoken uncertainty and doubt, which, like “the one who’s name must not be spoken,” must never be said aloud or challenged and quickly shut down by “righteous indignation” or insult.

Similar to the the rabbinic adage: “When your sermonic point is weak, pound the pulpit.”

Unless we are able to speak freely and openly with one another, allowing the Other, an equal sharing of the name: Israel, Jew, American, then all will be lost. Unless we allow differing beliefs, opinions and yes, even challenges to our own preciously held tenets, to be expressed and not shut down in the interest of religious or political speech and thought purity, then it’s all over but the shouting.

Over 200 years ago, Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav, through the following story, The Tainted Grain, made a very astute and courageous observation about the world and society in which he lived.

The king’s star gazer saw that the grain harvested that year was tainted and that anyone who would eat from it would became insane. “What can we do?” asked the king. “It is not possible to destroy the crop for we do not have enough grain stored to feed the entire population.”

“Perhaps,” said the star gazer, “we should set aside enough grain for ourselves. At least that way we could maintain our sanity.” The king replied, “If we do that, we’ll be considered crazy. If everyone behaves one way and we behave differently, we’ll be considered the “not normal ones.”

“Rather”, said the king: “I suggest that we too eat from the crop, like everyone else. However, to remind ourselves that we are not normal, we will make a mark on our foreheads. Even if we are insane, whenever we look at each other, we will remember that we too are insane!”

It time for us to admit that we have eaten from tainted grain. It is time for us to admit that no individual, religious faith nor political party has absolute and total truth and infallibility. For without acceptance of human fallibility accompanied by deep personal humility, we may never emerge from the madness of cult belief in “correct speech and thought” which surrounds us all.

If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?

About the Author
Rabbi Norman S. Lipson is Founding Rabbi of Temple Dor Dorim in Weston, Florida. Israel advocacy and education have been in the forefront of Rabbi Lipson's more than 50 years in the rabbinate. Having led numerous Pilgrimages to Israel, he teaches about Israel and Judaism through inter-faith and adult education programs in South Florida. A graduate of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, he holds a Master's Degree in Marriage and Family Therapy. He is the author of two books: “How Many Memories Make a Minyan?” and “Rabbi, My Dog Ate My Shofar!” both available on Kindle Bookstore.
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