One of the remarkable things about the pandemic is that I have had much more time to have family dinners. Before Safer at Home, it was rare (except for Shabbat dinner) that all six of us would be sitting around a table for a meal. We were always coming and going, grabbing food as we took one child to an event or I had yet another meeting to attend. Now, with all of us at home, we are getting to know each other again over dinner. Just the other night, we were sitting around discussing, of all things, various groups of animals. We took turns quizzing each other over the names of animals of the same species grouped together. After all, being a large family meant coming up with a name for ourselves.
We began to quiz each other. My kids knew easily enough that large land mammals when grouped together are called a herd, except for sheep which are called a flock. Birds when flying together are also called flocks. Fish swimming in groups are called schools. Insects that buzz are either swarms or hives depending on their level of complex organization. Then it got tougher. We had to look a few up. Imagining a group of octopuses squiggling about, we had to look it up; it’s called an octopod. A large group of flamingos are called flamboyants, making me think of some of my friends from my younger years. The most ominous grouping is that of ravens, called a murder. That is, unless you are like me and feel overcommitted to organizational life. In that case, you could feel spiritually closest to a group of buzzards hovering over a carcass, called a committee.
Owls hooting in the night are called parliaments, and when geese waddle about they are called a gaggle, but the most telling of all in my opinion is that of a group of rhinos. Rhinos are some of the largest land animals on earth, weighing over a ton. While they are thick, and fast at a full charge, they can’t see very well, which is why a group of rhinos rumbling on the open plain together is called a crash. Imagine what it must be like to feel the ground shake below you as a mass of grey horns close in on you, not really seeing where they are going. Crash is the perfect name.
It feels like this moment unfolding before us is just like that crash of rhinos. All of us, not knowing or seeing the future jostle about, compelled to chug forward at an awful and terrifying pace. Like the rhino, many of us move on instinct and almost by accident; the only intention we have is to just keep moving forward. The social unrest, the pandemic, the economic collapse, the reopening of schools, the list goes on and on and on.
It has been more than twenty weeks since we holed up in our houses, reacting to the world around us as it too feels like a crash of rhinos blowing up dust on the savanna without any vision of where any of this is going. Without vision and intention, life is a crash.
In this week’s Torah portion, Vaetchanan, the same dynamic plays out. Moses is living the last day of his life and he is standing before a younger generation that has been, like a crash of rhinos, moving across the plains from one place to another. Imagine the huddled masses of refugees, born in the wilderness with no memory of slavery and a future that is anything but certain. Against this chaotic backdrop of the wilderness, Moses shares with this next generation some of the most central teachings of Jewish faith, including the Ten Commandments, and the creed of unity called the Shema. Into a world filled with disorder, social upheaval, tyranny, and disunity, Moses admonishes his family (as well as us) to remember that there is something greater and more powerful than the all-against-all mentality playing out before our eyes. The Ten Commandments teach us to honor and respect the universe and share that honor with every human being, be it our parents, our neighbors, our partners, and ourselves. Where the Ten Commandments focus our energy on doing no harm, the Shema plays out a more positive message, asking us to listen to the heart song of the world, and to love it with all of our heart, of our soul, and of our might.
The Talmud picks up where Moses leaves off. If one were to be studying the Torah and came across the verse that is the Shema, if one simply reads the verse without intent, one has not fulfilled the liturgical obligation to recite the prayer daily. (T.B. Berchaot 13a-b). This spurs a larger discussion about whether any commandment (mitzvah) requires intention. In the most magnificent way, the rabbis of old are asking the same questions we do today. Can we live a life of meaning only by accident? After much argumentation, the Talmud concludes that one might check off all the boxes of what is expected of us by happening across them. But to live to the fullest, we must attune our souls towards the grandeur of a larger purpose. Mitzvot need intention to be completely fulfilled.
In other words, you cannot crash into goodness.
The Torah teaches that every step we take along the path towards a flourishing life is best done with intention. A life of meaning is one of where dreams are chased and purposes are pursued, even if we never quite get there.
When the world feels like chaos, what Judaism expects from your life is to break it down into actionable tidbits where you can focus with purpose and intention. When you do, you can come to attach yourself to a greater story. One recognizes that there is more to life than reactionary bestial anger. There is more to life than misery and suffering. There is more to life than cynicism. We are not a crash, but a people. All of our lives overflow with significance . We are all connected to each other, past present, and future.
We are one. The world is one. “Hear oh Israel the LORD is God the LORD is One.”