'Autopilot' and the Spiritual Quest

Sermon Notes 04/05/13 - Behar-Bechukotay 5773

If you walk in My statutes, observe My commandments and perform them. (VaYikra 26:3)

This verse, which opens the second of today’s parashiot, is subject to much discussion in the classic sources.  A key difficulty is the unexpected use of הליכה – walking – to describe adherence to statutes, divine laws for which no reason is known.  Rabbi S.R. Hirsch (commentary ad. loc) explains that הלך means to ‘move towards a goal’.  Spiritual life involves constantly moving towards spiritual ambitions, relentlessly striving to attain communion with the divine, exemplified by the statutes.

This interpretation is supported by a beautiful midrash:

If you walk in My statutes… As the verse writes: I considered my way, but I returned my feet to Your testimonies. (Tehillim 119:59)  King David said, ‘every day, I decided that I would walk to a particular place or home, but my feet brought me to the Shuls or Yeshivot’.  As the verse says: but I returned my feet to your testimonies. (VaYikra Rabbah 35:1)

This reading identifies a phenomenon we might term our ‘autopilot’ – the direction in which we are led when we aren’t thinking by habit and subliminal interests.  I recall a long-retired senior colleague who mentioned that his car ‘went to Bushey on its own’ – that is, wherever he started driving, he ending up steering towards the Jewish cemetery in Bushey (outskirts of London), somewhere, sadly, he had frequented throughout his career.

King David records that despite his plans, he always found himself automatically led towards houses of prayer and Torah study.  As such, the midrash has reinterpreted the phrase ‘if you walk in My statutes’ as an exploration of our subconscious desires.  Have we sufficiently internalised our spiritual mission that we follow it without concentrating, even when we’re focusing on something else?

This passage is always read soon before Shavuot (see TB Megillah 31b and Yad, Tefillah U’Nesiat Kapayim 13:2).  The obvious rationale for this is that it contains the rebukes that are the consequences of disobeying the laws given at Sinai.  But perhaps there is another reason – prior to renewing our connection to the revelation and its laws, we are encouraged to consider where our true loyalties lie, those best characterised by where our ‘autopilot’ takes us.

Sermon Notes - Shavuot 2012

Revelation, Multiplicity and Receiving the Torah

If you’d wanted to hear my sermon, you’d have come to Shul, but...

Shavuot is light on ritual but affords a weighty unique opportunity in our annual festival cycle to consider how a modern community understands its relationship with the Torah and Judaism itself.

The Talmud[1] mentions a perplexing aspect of the Torah system – the existence within it of conflicting views on almost every topic.  How, asks Rebbi Ela’zar ben Azariah, can a single Torah include ‘those who forbid, those who permit, those who invalidate and those who sanction’?  This question uncannily presages a modern frustration with Judaism – why can’t the rabbis agree with each other?  Rebbi El’azar offers a fascinating allegorical response – ‘make your ear into a funnel and acquire an understanding heart for yourself’[2] to accept what may be the most difficult facet of the Torah – its multiplicity.  A full and sophisticated understanding of revelation involves accepting that divergent, even conflicting, views can co-exist within a single revelation.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Morgenstern, the Kotzker Rebbe, asks why the festival liturgy describes Shavuot as the time of the ‘giving of our Torah’ rather than the time of the ‘receiving of our Torah’.  He answers that only the giving is universal, hence its inclusion in a communal prayer; the receiving of the Torah, however, is an individual experience – the divine perceived through the lens of one’s own vision and perspective.  And while, of course, the Torah is not infinitely elastic, the voice of God is certainly heard differently by each of us.  It is only this that enables members of a modern and diverse community to be transformed by an ancient revelation, turning the ordinary into the extraordinary, the mundane into the inspirational.

Professor A.J. Heschel notes that ‘A Jew without the Torah is obsolete’.[3]  It is neither synagogue attendance nor even observance which guarantee that our Jewish lives remain vibrant and future-proof, but Torah.  Yet Heschel points out that revelation must also instil ‘a new creative moment into the course of natural events’.[4]  Shavuot is not just the anniversary of Sinai; it is also the time of year at which we should affirm our belief that only an authentic, multi-chromatic Torah will be relevant for those grappling with the voice of the divine.

Respect for a range of equally authentic positions lies at the core of our approach to Judaism.  When the Talmud allegorises the ultimate reward of the righteous, it describes a ‘dance circle’ in the Garden of Eden: God ‘sits’ in the centre while the righteous dance around Him ‘pointing’ in His direction.[5]  A circle is a collection of points equidistant from a single locus; each dancer occupies a different position from the others, but all are equidistant from God.  The righteous perceive God at close quarters, while simultaneously authenticating the approaches of others.  And, of course, the righteous are not stationary – instead, they move around the circle, enjoying not just their own view of the divine, experiencing and celebrating the perspectives of each of the other dancers.



[1] TB Chagigah 3b

[2] Ibid.

[3] A Preface to the Understanding of Revelation

[4] The Moment at Sinai

[5] TB Ta’anit 31a