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Says who?

05/06/2021 12:18:49 PM


I have a problem with authority. Nobody does what I tell them! (Cue drum and cymbal). 

We take our American rights and liberties very seriously. Living under a government by the people, for the people, we have a deep sense that the ultimate power and authority in our community comes from individual citizens. As long as our actions don’t harm ourselves nor the people around us, we adopt an attitude of live and let live, and promote laws that protect the individualistic lifestyles and choices of each person. In such a worldview, it certainly matters what I think and how I feel about certain things, and it is important that I make my voice heard if I want the system to reflect my opinions. And while this is theoretically true in our democratic society, it is even more true with regards to our home and personal lives. Generally, I make the decisions for myself and I get to do what I want, when I want. 

The fact that modernity places the authority in the individual is a source of friction between our secular and religious worlds. Unlike American democracy where government’s authority resides in the people, in Judaism, God is the ultimate authority. The monotheistic claim of one God not only means that there are no other divine beings, but it implies that there is a singular Divine Will; a singular higher authority. It means that beyond any one individual there exists an objective moral Truth, and that there are certain ways to act in the world that are more right, righteous, and good. Of course, how we understand, uncover, and interact with God and the Divine Truth is a matter of debate, but all monotheistic views share the main point that there is a singular moral authority that transcends all of humanity. 

Parshiyot Behar-Behukotai reminds us of this authority in its opening line: “The Lord spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai: ‘Speak to the Israelite people and say to them:’” (Leviticus 25:1). The Torah will then continue with its holiness code and introduce the concepts of sabbatical and jubilee years. While Mount Sinai occupies a large space in the Jewish consciousness, the actual moment of the congregation arriving at the mountain and Moses receiving the Torah occurred back in the middle of the book of Exodus. Since then, the place of revelation had shifted from the mountain to the tabernacle, where God will speak to Moses from this portable sanctuary. In fact, Mount Sinai is only mentioned four times in the book of Leviticus, and 3 of them are in this week’s Torah portion. Perhaps we are to take the line literally and understand that what is to follow was mentioned to Moses on Mount Sinai and it is only now where Moses decided to teach it to the rest of the nation. Alternatively, it also can signify that even though these laws might have come from some other interaction between Moses and God, they still have the weight of Mount Sinai and the Sinai Covenant behind them. The implications are that as the Jewish people continue the religious conversation, be it in the portable sanctuary, the Holy Temple, or even in the Diaspora, that conversation too can be said to come from God on Mount Sinai. 

As secular individuals, we don’t like when another’s will is imposed on us. And I can imagine the Israelites feeling similarly when they are commanded to let their land lie fallow for every sabbatical and jubilee year. Yet, regardless of how we might feel, being religious means adopting a Divine worldview that is superior to our own. When we are reminded that the authority of Judaism was situated in Mount Sinai, we are reminded that we ought not to just be religious because it is convenient or nice, but because it is asked of us by God. And thus we live to fulfill the Divine will, and live in a way that we can say was moral, righteous, and meaningful. 

Shabbat Shalom

Fri, June 14 2024 8 Sivan 5784