At the end of summer, a funny thing happens in my house. I’m not sure if this happens to you, but it happens to me every single year…. My kids stop listening to me.
Maybe it’s because they’ve had too much ice cream or the TV has finally turned their brains to jelly, but at the same point every summer they fully stop listening. Here’s what happened the other night: We finished dinner and it was time to take a shower. I reached out sweetly to my son and said to him, “It’s time to go upstairs to take a bath, honey.”
I waited a few minutes, because I’m a patient father, and said again, “Okay, it’s time to go upstairs, you need to take a shower.”
I smiled. Not the “I’m happy,” but the “there is tension in my face and I need to do something with it” kind of smile. I said a little louder “Hey, go upstairs, now!”
He looked lazily over at me and said, “in a minute.”
I waited a minute (again, trying to be patient). “Go upstairs now!”
“Because I said you need to take a shower.”
“You will do what I tell you to. I am your father.”
“Get up stairs now! When I tell you to do things, you have to do them!”
This only happens to me, right?
As a parent, we try to love our children and ask them nicely to do things we know are good for them, but sometimes we have to assert our position as an adult to get what we want. It’s the “Because I said so” part of parenting. It’s not my first move. In fact, I hope it’s my very last move because the problem with “because I said so” moments is that it really comes from a place of intimidation. “Because I said so” corners our children into a place where they have no agency. “Because I said so” is all authority, and no partnership. Which is why we say, “Because I said so” in that moment where nothing else seems to work. It’s that moment when we are tired of the fight and fed up with the situation and all we want is for them to listen. We command our children out of our own authority because we don’t want to explain ourselves, we just want action. These are not our best moments for sure.
Here’s the thing, the commanding tone might come last, but it often is what is heard first. It’s that authoritarian tone that can linger in the mind and risk driving our loved ones away.
The same is true for religion.
When I speak to those who can’t stand religion this is one really big reason why. They tell me that being commanded to do something or not to do something simply “Because a book says so” is a turn off. They tell me that feeling commanded to live a life by checking off a list of God’s demands is too hard and too alienating. They want to resist. They run away. These wonderful people, God’s children, don’t want to be subjects to a Commander, they want to be partners with a Creator.
There are many who think that Judaism is only about being commanded. In Jewish law, to fulfill one’s obligation is to be yotze, or “going out” from the bonds of an immediate obligation. But, in the new millennium, when we live in a free society where you can say what you want, wear what you want and go where you want, the idea that you are simply commanded to fulfill someone else’s shopping list just does not make sense.
As I’ve been rereading the Torah this year, I am trying to come to it through their eyes. I’ve found that the Book of Deuteronomy, far from being a simple book of commands, is more like a love letter that begs for your heart. (Deut. 6:5) It’s a book about love and what is expected when you love and are loved by someone else. We’ve neglected this part of the tradition. We’ve forgotten the Midrash that teaches that you should follow God’s commands not out of fear, but out of love. (Sifre 32:1) At the heart of Torah is the heart itself.
Religious life is not about existing from an obligation. Religious life is about entering into a relationship of beauty and love.
This is most true in this week’s Torah portion, Re’eh. The portion opens saying, “See! This day I set before you a blessing and a curse. A blessing: If you listen to the commandments of God that I have placed before you today. A curse: If you do not listen to the commandments and you turn from the path that I have commanded you…” (Deut. 11:26-28) .
Deuteronomy, uses words like “see” and “listen” to get Moses’ point across. Some scholars think that the word “listen” in this passage means “obey.” I’m not so sure. Obedience is different than understanding. Obedience is fear. Understanding is love. Obedience is authority. Understand is partnership. To listen to God’s words and consider them is to bring them into your heart. You walk God’s path for you on your own. “Because I said so” presents you with a false choice. A choice under duress is no choice at all. Rather, Moses is not asking for obedience, but for understanding.
The commentator Ibn Ezra adds to this by saying that in this moment, “Moses addresses each and every individual. (Ibn Ezra, ad locum) You have a path you can choose to walk that is unique to you. Following the commandments is part of the loving relationship between you and God, but the commandments are a means to a life blessing, not an end in themselves. It is the relationship between you and God that matters. Built on mutual respect and love, God’s relationship with you is unique only to you. God needs you to build a world of blessing. It can’t be done without you. That’s why your life matters so much.”
As we move into the final month of the year, Elul, we begin the season of soul-based reflection. God wants you to live life to the fullest. The Torah shows you the way, but it is up to you to walk the path of blessing. More than just being a list of commandments, the Torah is a book that begins and ends with the inner life. The commandments are the baseline for your life but not the goal line. Your covenant with the Unconditional is unconditional. But now is the time to reflect. As this Torah portion teaches, the work of choosing life over death and blessings over curses is of the utmost importance. You must see and listen to the possibilities of life that lay ahead of you. Open your mind and walk on the path with love and you will find a world that is loving. Close off your ears and turn away from that path and you find a world that is cursed. The path is there before you. The choice is yours to make. Now take the next step.