“Gee, I think the toughest thing about being Orthodox would be the kosher food,” my dad has occasionally said to me. He’s always enjoyed a good restaurant meal and, in truth, fine dining is not among the Orthodox community’s top priorities. But I would say the hardest thing that Jewish life asks you to give up is not pork, shrimp or shellfish but — preconceptions.
Oh sure there are other things — vices like anger, gossip, or many others I could think of very easily because they afflict me. But those are all things you would like to give up about yourself but find it difficult to do so. Preconceived ideas about what Judaism is, what worship is, what God is, what family is, what morality is — all those are different. You bring them with you from secularism, from the culture around us, without even knowing it. When Torah challenges them, radically, to the core, you may not want to think of yourself as the kind of person who would give them up. So much of our own sense of personal prestige is tied up with them.
There are ideas you encounter in Judaism that at first simply seem wrong. They offend you. I still find this to be true in my own spiritual life. To even mention some of them here would open up a whole discussion that would take not a blog entry to begin to do them justice and avoid needless scandal, but a whole book. (Won’t someone please write it?) The challenge is to realize that God sets the terms of moral reality. Not you. That is a lot harder than giving up trefe.
That’s why the title of this week’s Torah reading, Bamidbar, or “In the Desert,”
is what it is. The reading that always immediately precedes the festival of Shavuot, which falls next Friday, is always Bamidbar
— the first reading from the book of Numbers (1:1-4:20). It’s called that, as is Numbers itself, because the parshah begins by describing how, “The Lord spoke to Moses in the Sinai desert…
This is not my insight — I saw it in the name of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe — but there is a good reason why Bamidbar invariably precedes Shavuot, when Jews recall the giving of the Ten Commandments at Mt. Sinai. It’s the same reason that the Jews had to receive the Torah in the wilderness to begin with, a no man’s land, and not in a more comfortable setting.
You can’t receive the ideas in the Torah without first making a desert of your own set of favorite prejudices about the world — how it works, how it should work, what lies beyond it, what came before, what will come after. Every Shavuot, Jews again accept the Torah — or more specifically the Ten Commandments which summarize the rest of the Torah, its laws and its worldview, in the most condensed possible manner. It’s essential to do so from the viewpoint of Bamidbar, the desert.
Without that preliminary move, sweeping clear the debris of secular and general assumptions, Torah will always flumox you. It will seem wrong. And no wonder. From the secular perspective, it is wrong. Which is why there’s a culture war. Which is why there is this blog.