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Ritual - Rote vs Internalization

by: Cheryl Pedersen

A week or two ago after we finished our Friday night candle lighting and saying the prayers, I told Steve I felt like something was missing. We lit the candles at the prescribed time. We said the prayers in Hebrew and English. We ate challah, baked fresh that day. We drank the wine poured into the silver goblet reserved for Sabbath only. Our Friday night Kiddush, which means sanctification, didn't leave me feeling very sanctified. It felt perfunctory and rote. He asked what I wanted to do differently and I couldn't put my finger on it. I couldn't say what it was that had me feeling that way, what was missing, or how we could change things.

Yesterday I read a parable about poor illiterate Yankel. He was a Jew in a shtetl who was celebrating the wedding of his only daughter. As he watched the bride and groom say their vows he was filled with joy. Then he heard someone shouting. It was the town crier running into the midst of the happy crowd with an important letter addressed to Yankel.

Because Yankel couldn't read what was on the page, he handed the letter to the town scribe who read the note, grimaced slightly, and then whispered something into Yankel's ear. Yankel cried out and fainted on the spot.

What did the letter say? "Yankel, I'm sorry to tell you, but your father has passed."

Between Yankel and the scribe, who better understood the contents of the letter? Wasn't it the scribe? He could read it and Yankel couldn't. So why did Yankel react so dramatically and the scribe barely flinched? The answer is that it was Yankel's father not the scribe's.

The parable shows us there is a difference between understanding something and actually "getting it." It occurred to me that on Friday night, I was being the scribe. I could understand what we were doing, but I was not really "getting it" and it wasn't Steve's fault. It was mine.

Who reading this hasn't suffered a little "religious boredom" before? You do everything that is prescribed, but you simply aren't moved by it. You are going through the motions, but not moving ahead. If you have never experienced this sort of "spiritual block," good for you! You can stop reading because none of the rest of this will matter. The rest of you, read on.

Here's where my Jewish learning, specifically learning Hebrew, comes in handy. Halacha is the word that's used to describe Jewish practice. If you observe the Sabbath or practice kosher or follow any other Jewish observance or tradition, you are practicing halacha. Halacha means "Jewish law," but more precisely the root H-L-KH translates to "walk" or "to go."

You've perhaps heard people refer to their religion as their personal faith walk. Jews and Christians alike refer to Scripture when they talk about "walking in God's way."

In Psalm 81:13, we read: “Oh that My people would listen to Me,

That Israel would walk in My ways!"

Or how about Psalm 128:1: "How blessed is everyone who fears the Lord,

Who walks in His ways."

The prophet Zechariah wrote in chapter 3 verse 7: “Thus says the Lord of hosts, ‘If you will walk in My ways and if you will perform My service, then you will also govern My house and also have charge of My courts, and I will grant you free access among these who are standing here."

Then we look at last week's parsha and Jethro's advice to Moses to "enjoin upon them the laws and the teachings, and make known to them the way they are to go and the practices they are to follow." (Exodus 18:20). Seems pretty clear.

Halacha is more than just rote obedience of God's commands. It's not just a list of do's and don'ts or a way to curry favor with God as many have characterized it. It's a gift given to us and meant to set us into motion. Not movement as in waking up each day performing certain steps and achieving ultimate spirituality. It's movement like when you hear a song that brings tears or you learn news that causes your heart to jump for joy. That's the movement God is looking for and, frankly, that's the movement we should be looking for.

Sounds great, right? But how do I get there? How do I find that emotional movement? Like I asked Steve two weeks ago, what is missing?

The answer is found in the opening verse of this week's portion titled, appropriately, "Mishpatim" which means "rules" or "ordinances." "These are the rules that you shall set before them..." (Exodus 21:1). The Hebrew word for "rules" here is "mishpatim." Interestingly enough, it was Onkelos, Hadrian's nephew and a very educated man, a Roman national who converted to Judaism and became one of Scripture's lead translators, who put an interesting spin on this verse. He said the word "ordinance" that appears should actually be translated "hilcheta." Sound familiar? Halacha!

Let's not stop there. The verse says the rules are to be "set before them." The Hebrew word here is "lifnei hem" which literally means "before them," but can also be translated "to their pinimyut." What's "pinimyut"? It means "internalization."

These "laws" that mean "to walk" or "put in motion," must be "internalized" if we are to move from merely understanding to "getting it." It's up to us to connect with what they mean. It's up to us to seek that connection. Reading the words doesn't do it. Asking another person to read "with more feeling" doesn't do it. Actually following those laws and committing to internalizing what they mean is what helps me "get it." It's on me.

As I read about halacha and mishpatim and pinimyut yesterday and thought about internalizing what I read or hear, I was reminded of the tragedy that befell our family in December. In the wake of Jay's death, I remember his motto: "nice matters." I have been trying since the moment I heard he was gone from this world to internalize what those words mean. They are just words until I give them feet. If they are merely a hashtag or a sign to hang on the wall, they soon mean nothing. If they mean pasting a fake smile on my face and acting nice, I've missed the proverbial boat. However, if I am moved by those words to behave differently---and I am---then Jay's legacy doesn't end with his death. If I can be truly kinder and more patient with people I encounter out and about, if I can remember that it matters if I am nicer to my spouse and my children, and the memory of my brother fuels it, then I am internalizing what could be an empty motto and making it real. I'm bringing Jay to life, so to speak.

This is what we can do to give our faith feet. We're responsible for digging in and trying to understand Scripture at a different level. I'm reminded of the prophet Jeremiah's words: "You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart." (29:13). That's the key to halacha.

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