Friday, January 30, 2009

Torah Study on Shabbat Bo

I'm facilitating the weekly Torah Study session at Tikvat Israel this coming Shabbat. Here's an excerpt from what I'm planning:

A number of the commentators mentioned that this week’s selection includes the first mitzvot – commandments – that the Israelites received. Many focused on the new year – and compared it or contrasted it with the observance of Rosh Hashanah. Rabbi Ari Kahn from Aish adds another dimension to that discussion:
But there is more to this passage that makes it unique. For one, we might ask: Why was this the first commandment? Surely God had at least 613 other choices. Furthermore, why was this Commandment given in the land of Egypt? Why couldn't the Jews wait until Sinai?


Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, Zat"zal, explained why this commandment was given here, and now. The Jews in Egypt were slaves, and therefore lacked a sense of time. They needed to acquire a sense of time in order to be truly liberated, transformed from objects to independent people.

The last sentence is key. It is our ability to delineate time which gives us both the freedom and the responsibility to carve out meaningful lives for ourselves.

Jewish time is an interesting phenomenon: it’s both abstract and concrete. It’s concrete because it’s based on the cycles of the moon – the waxing and waning that occurs every month, on a predictable pattern. It’s abstract in that the days begin and end at different times, depending on the season and the latitude at which one lives. And it’s just plain confusing when we acknowledge that our days begin at sundown the night before. But even those abstract and confusing factors are abstract and confusing only because we spend much of our lives removed from the concreteness of the natural world in which we live.

The parshah goes on to specifically articulate the requirements for observing the Feast of Unleavened Bread. The verses outline when the holiday is to be celebrated, how it is to be observed, what work is permissible and what is not, and repeats three times that the Festival of Unleavened Bread shall be observed “as an institution for all time.” This specificity is in contrast to the more general directions of “observing and keeping holy” the Shabbat and refraining from all work. (Exodus 20:8-10).

Finally, I came across a commentary that helped me pull these disparate thoughts together:

Rabbi Stephen Baars, also on the Aish website, writes:
We Are What We Do
Sociology proclaims man to be a product of his environment. Judaism says man is a product of his actions.In this week's Parsha, there are 16 separate mitzvot concerning the Pesach holiday alone. All seem to have a similar purpose - to commemorate the Exodus from Egypt.

But the "Sefer HaChinuch" (14th century "Book of Mitzvah Education") deals with the Torah's seeming redundancy by clarifying a fundamental principle of Judaism... and indeed of life itself: "You should know that a person is influenced in accordance with his actions. His heart and all his thoughts are always drawn after the deeds in which he is occupied, whether they are good or bad."
Rabbi Bars continues:
Our nature, character, mood, disposition, temperament, attitude, and sensitivities are formed by our day-to-day activities. Of course, this "shaping" of our nature is not just affected by the actual actions of our job. It is also affected by what we do the remainder of the day as well! What books we read, if we exercise, how we drive, talk, eat... Every single action, in some very real way, affects the kind of person we are... just as the act of theft is what makes the criminal.

No action is irrelevant. They all change who we are, pulling the strings and levers of our emotions and thoughts. On some imperceptible level, every miniscule action affects different aspects of our nature - from our self-confidence to our peace of mind.

The influence of most actions are difficult (if not impossible) to detect. But anyone who cares about their character will investigate carefully the various values and influences of his actions.

Don't go through life unaware of how you are changing yourself. Start now on a course of self-awareness. Before you do any action, ask, "How will this affect me?" And after the action, ask again, "How did this affect me?"

These questions may not be easy, but they are entirely worthwhile. Because the one who practices them consistently will be, without a doubt, a more thinking, conscious and conscientious human being.
Ultimately, it may well be that it is this awareness, or mindfulness, of which Rabbi Bars writes which guides how well we integrate our Jewish time and our secular time.

Shabbat shalom.

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