By Rabbi Yisroel Newman
One of the errors of the Jew living in the modern era is to think Judaism makes no existentially profound demands on its believers. For many religious leaders and teachers today, the objective is to present a version of Judaism that will fit nicely into the mindset of their constituents and will reassure them that they are wonderful people.
But if we communicate a Judaism just to make people feel good, why do we really need it?
And can the feel-good Judaism inspire a future and appeal to the idealistic dimension of the human soul, searching to touch the Divine?
Suppose that Judaism was real – it was the authentic blueprint for life from the living God – then the question isn’t: “How do I find a Judaism that does not disturb me too much,” but rather: “What does Torah have to say about the most important question and dilemmas facing the human mind and heart?”
The question must be not how I can mould Judaism in my image, but how I can mould myself in the image of Torah?
This is why Torah was given in the barren desert (the meaning of this week’s portion Bamidbar), where it had no predefined culture to contend with. Sinai challenged the Jewish people to see the world not from the human perspective, but from the perspective of God who cannot be confined in human modalities. Only in the silence of the desert can a person bid farewell to all of his or her paradigms and allow his soul to absorb radical transcendence and subordinate their ego to the search for truth.
The Bible relates how Moses presented the covenant before the Israelites and they responded: “We will do and we will listen”. This implies a commitment to observe the covenant even before the Jews heard its details and understood its ramifications.
By definition, a relationship with God cannot be created on our terms; it must be on His terms. If there is something called Truth, we cannot define it; it must define us. We cannot accept it on condition that it suits our senses and expectations. We must realign our condition to it. Once the Jewish people knew that God was communicating with them, they did not want to fit religion into their imagination. It was in the desert that the Jews can declare: “We will do and we will listen.”
This process must occur each year anew. To receive Torah, we must have the courage to walk into a desert; we must strip ourselves from any pre-defined self-identity.
Torah is not merely a cute and endearing document filled with rituals, to satisfy nostalgia or tradition. Torah demands that we open ourselves up with our whole being and declare: “We shall do and we shall listen!”