We all experience challenging periods in life. Imagine you’re doing it tough and all of a sudden you meet the most wonderful person you could ever ask for. He/she is smart, kind, attractive, caring, funny and most importantly, a mentch. You fall in love instantly. You love them with all your heart and soul and the feeling is mutual. You get married and have the most romantic honeymoon. And then all of a sudden – as if out of nowhere – your newfound love bombards you with an endless list of demands and expectations, none of which were discussed with you prior to the wedding. How would that make you feel?
As fictional as it sounds, this “fairytale” was, in a spiritual sense, a sober reality for our ancestors some 3,330 years ago. The Jews had been completely demoralised and humiliated after 210 years of backbreaking Egyptian slavery in what was clearly one of the worst periods of ancient Jewish history. Then all of a sudden G-d comes to the rescue. He redeems us with “a strong hand and an outstretched arm”, destroys our enemies and promises to take us to the land of milk and honey. Finally, we found a loving and caring life Partner who was as passionate about us as we were about Him. He led us to Mount Sinai and gave us the most cherished gift of all – the Torah. Our Sages have referred to this gift as the “marriage” between G-d and the Children of Israel. We had new meaning in life, a fresh start and a divine purpose. For the first time in centuries, we were happy.
And then suddenly, immediately following the spiritual and emotional high of tying the knot with the Almighty, He bombards us with an onslaught of commandments and obligations, none of which he communicated to us beforehand. Indeed, in the portion immediately following the giving of the Torah there appear more commandments than almost any other portion in the entire Torah.
What was G-d trying to tell us?
In doing so G-d was teaching us one of the most foundational lessons for a healthy relationship, whether our relationship with G-d or with man: that love must ultimately lead to action. It’s one thing to fall in love. It’s another thing altogether to translate this into the behavioural arena. We love our spouses, yet we buy them flowers. We love our children, yet we hug and kiss them. We love our grandparents, yet we clear our diary to spend time with them. They know we love them so why bother with the good deeds? The answer is simple yet profound: Because love is the catalyst for action, not its substitute. In the words of the international bestseller The Five Love Languages –relationships are built on deeds, not words.
But as we know, this value is not always easy to maintain throughout one’s relationship. We sometimes fall into our comfort zone and become rather selective as to what “actions” we wish to contribute to our personal relationships. And just as it applies in the interpersonal space, so it does in our collective relationship with G-d.
As Jews today integrated in a society whose values are ever changing, we often find ourselves grappling to make sense of our own Jewish identity. Too many Jews today question the role Judaism and ritual play in their lives. Our opinions and world outlook are understandably informed by the culture in which we live, and when those values clash with our Jewish values, the former may trump the latter. All too often this results in a process of trimming down our own Jewish belief system to create a version we’re comfortable with.
The danger inherent in this process is that our final product may bear no resemblance of the Torah G-d gave us at Sinai. By delisting, for instance, prayer, Shabbat, Kashrut, Mikvah and other commandments seen by some as senescent and antiquated, one ends up with a Judaism defined exclusively in terms of humanism. Being a good person becomes the new Jewish motto whilst ritual is relegated to a bygone era.
Indeed, as we celebrate on Shavuot our having received the Torah, we reflect on what it was like to stand at Mount Sinai and hear the immutable word of G-d in the form of the Ten Commandments. We reflect on their content, their meaning, and perhaps most importantly, their composition: five commandments about faith and ritual, and the other five about humanism and menchlichkeit. The fifty-fifty split illustrates the inestimable value G-d places on our both ritual and menchlichkeit. Both form an equal part of our national Jewish identity and both did, and always should, form equal parts of our Jewish identity. Chag Sameach!