Parshat Shelach Lecha
I am proud to be a Reform Jew. My family has always been Jewish. We have kept the traditions more or less for hundreds of years. Some of my family has made aliyah to Israel. We have always been a family of Zionists, dreaming of Israel even before the advent of the modern State. I grew up in a household where there was an ever present “Blue Box” for the Jewish National Fund. There are famous rabbis who were Torah scholars in my family history.
As a Reform Jew I understand profoundly that while tradition is important it cannot overrule common sense or merely be upheld because that is the way things are always done! I know that progress is made by adaptation, change and re-integration. That is why when I read the Torah or our Bible or any of our sacred texts I read it at many levels. This is consistent with our Tradition. We Jews have always read our sacred texts with a four –fold process calle PaRDeS, Pashat, Drash, Remez and Seter-from the plain simple meaning of the text, to the midrashic exposition, to the hints and secrets of the mystics!
Today when I read our sacred literature not only do I use this time-worn tradition but added to it are layers of literary criticism, history, biblical critical scholarship and contemporary ideals! This is a gift of Reform Judaism to our Jewish conversation through the millennia.
In this week’s Torah portion Shelach Lecha we come to a passage that describes the punishment for the Shabbat violator. As we know, observing Shabbat is an important mitzvah. It is number four of the Ten Commandments,” Remember the Sabbath Day and Hallow it”. In this week’s Torah portion, a person is discovered gathering wood and brought before the whole community and placed in custody, “for it had not been specified what should be done to him.” (Num. 15:34). According to the verses following God instructs Moses to have the community stone him-death is the punishment for violating the Sabbath.
Now we don’t really know if this is TRUE. We have no way of knowing whether they really stoned anyone to death. And the Rabbis of the Talmud discouraged any court from punishing people with the death penalty. But what we do know is the Torah is trying to teach us all not to work on Shabbat! Gathering wood on Shabbat can only be to build a fire, or build a house of some sort. Both of these were forbidden. They are considered work.
What is certain death-is that if we never take a day off, if we work continuously, we won’t have to have a community stone us to death—we will work ourselves to death! We human beings must have time to recharge; each night through sleep and at least one day to recover from our daily routines. We need time to meditate, breathe and yes, think. We need time to play and laugh and celebrate with family and friends. And while the story in the Torah this week is harsh because the community carries out the command , the communal responsibility to ensure that people have time off is another way to read this message.
As a Reform Jew, I re-interpret in light of contemporary society what rest means. Work is different now than in Biblical days. Rest and Renewal is different too. In an agrarian society, gardening wouldn’t have been seen as a hobby. Today it is. So in your approach to the Bible and Tradition use your common sense. As Reform Jews find a spiritual practice that includes Sabbath rest and renewal even if it looks different than the way our ancestors did so. But take time off! Take a Shabbat. Eat, Pray and Love. That is the real point!