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Releasing a Torah of light

This week's portion has a stern warning against chauvinism and arrogance that can lead to acts of extremism (Ekev)

Since last week’s brutal attacks both at the Gay Pride Parade in Jerusalem and the arson of a Palestinian family’s home on the West Bank, each that left someone’s child dead and others injured, I have been preoccupied by a portion of a speech given by Rabbi Benny Lau, at a memorial for Shira Banki z”l, the Israeli 16 year who died of her wounds from the Parade.

An Orthodox rabbi whose cousin is the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Lau spoke passionately and directly to the cause of these two horrific events perpetrated by ultra orthodox Jews. Rabbi Lau denounced homophobia and racism, and said: “In the name of what Torah, in the name of what God, does someone go and murder, do people go and burn a baby and his entire family? Whose Torah is this?…We need to release the Torah of Israel from the restraints that have been clamped on by dark people. The Torah is a Torah of light; Judaism has to be a light to the world; and Jerusalem has to be a light to the entire world.”

I’ve been thinking about it in light of passages in this week’s portion of Ekev, which lays out so clearly the system of reward and punishment in the Torah, and which also highlights the message that the people of Israel are chosen by God to receive Torah. Yet, something that is repeated three times in the span of five verses, leapt out at me in light of last week’s events. The Torah imagines that it wasn’t because of the people’s virtue that they received the law, but because of the wickedness of the other nations around them that God “chose” the Jewish people to dispossess them (Deut. 9:4-6).

That reality hardly constitutes an honest choice. The text then gives a powerful warning against chauvinism and self congratulation, and it serves as a pointed contrast to the message delivered only two chapters earlier that Israel was chosen to become am segula – a treasured people (7:6).

Such status, if it is to be believed, depends on faithfulness to the covenant. And even if today, we can’t subscribe to the notion of chosen-ness, we can ask what are the actions that draw us closer to divine service? How can we align our understanding of sacred vocation, as articulated by Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan z”l, with the commandments that we understand sanctify our life with meaning? When the Ten Commandments were repeated in last week’s portion, “don’t murder” was still one of the ten. How, then, can the murderous actions of such supposed “Torah loving” Jews ever be considered an act of covenantal faithfulness? Judaism can only truly be “a light to the world” if triumphalism and chosen-ness are reformulated to really mean being drawn closer to the service of God, as articulated in this week’s text. The Torah teaches that we are to revere God, walk in Godly ways, and serve God with our heart and soul, keeping the commandments for our good (10:12).

Indeed, this same directive will later be echoed by the prophet Micah, when he taught: “What does God require of you? To act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). Neither of these texts make exceptions for circumstances where a Godly path of justice, mercy, and humility are not imperative or necessary.

I don’t pretend to comprehend in any way the zealous, twisting of the Torah which leads people to do exactly what the Torah commands us not to do. I refuse to attribute it to insanity or say these were isolated incidents of hatred. Our portion contains the words, “It shall come to pass if you shall diligently listen…” (11:13). The Jewish people aren’t intrinsically better than anyone, and the sooner we can really listen to this message, the sooner the Torah of light that Rabbi Lau talked about can be released to all of us.

About the Author
Rabbi Yael B. Ridberg serves as the spiritual leader of Congregation Dor Hadash in San Diego, California. In addition to her congregational responsibilities, Rabbi Ridberg serves on the Board of The San Diego Jewish Academy. She lives in La Jolla with her husband and four daughters.
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