The Ten Questions
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach!
Today we are going to read the Ten Commandments, one of the most incredible documents that the Jewish Bible has offered as a gift to humankind. However, instead of sharing with you 10 statements, I would like to ask 10 questions, or 10 different kind of questions that to me are very important.
This Shabbat Shavuot finds me trying to wake up from an unbelievable nightmare, and trying to understand the meaning of One Hundred Thousand dead, just in the USA. (Three Hundred and Fifty Thousand in the World). Last week, as we started the Book of Bamidbar, we were talking about numbers and statistics, and my first reflection has to do with a dimension that transcends numbers. How can pain, suffering and damage be measured in a more human dimension? Can it be measured? How do we approach the immeasurable? Why do we need to listen to speculations and even lies? Why can’t we just recognize that we don’t know, that the leaders don’t know? Why can´t we acknowledge that we feel fragile and vulnerable?
Shavuot evokes the Revelation of the Torah, in a physical space on Mount Sinai, and at a certain time, the 6th of Sivan. This event was a turning point in the History of Humanity. And what about us? Can we get used to living virtually? Are we in a position to receive the Torah via Zoom? How is it possible to love through a screen? What void is left when trying to hug loved ones is reduced to a flat image on a screen? How can the human experience be reduced to a virtual scenario? I´m not proposing to go back to what was once normal. Life is before everything, and the value of life is the most important. I’m asking myself if we are getting accustomed to this new reality that reduces our human condition.
In times of crisis, it is not surprising that people lose patience and lose control, some explode, become aggressive and react badly. But this Shabbat Shavuot I can´t breathe. It is not a physical problem, and it has nothing to do directly with the coronavirus, but I feel so bad about some of the violence that is arising, maybe because of the virus, or maybe because we were too busy with the pandemic that we didn’t pay attention to other moral illnesses that we have in our society. Why is there so much violence from the people who are supposed to take care of us? Why is this violence directed against a minority? Don’t we feel that racism is still among us, much like a killing virus? That’s why I can´t breathe. And of course, the Jewish People are not exempt from this violence. This week Temple Emmanuel in McAllen, Texas, where we have many friends, was vandalized. Our empathy is with them. Why do we tolerate verbal violence from our leaders? Why we put them in power in the first place? How do we refocus? How do we become more understanding and empathetic? How do we become aware so as not to lose our dignity?
Shavuot is the Feast of the Bikkurim, where formerly our ancestors brought the first fruits and harvests to the Temple, with gratitude and joy. Even amid the pandemic, we can try to recognize how many reasons we have to become grateful. How do we become grateful for being alive, for having a family, a Community? What about watching the splendor of the sunshine and sunsets on this so beautiful island, these magical moments when we use to say the “Sh’mah Israel”? What about feeling blessed with this incredible closeness to Nature? What other things should we be thankful for? Why don’t we see them?
Gratitude leads us to a question about joy: Do I have a reason to be happy? Can I face crises and challenges with a smile and a positive attitude? Can I, like Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev, sing and dance in mourning? Can I, like Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav, face being joyful like a Mitzvah? Aren’t optimism and joy contagious too? Why can’t we laugh more, sing more, praise more?
On Shavuot we often read of Ruth’s journey from Moab to Israel. This is not a geographical journey, but a spiritual one, of finding oneself and deciding who one wants to be. In Ruth’s life it came as a consequence of a tragic crisis, and to me, it presupposes that all human beings are in constant evolution and constant search. Can we seize the opportunity of this crisis and give ourselves the possibility to rethink ourselves? Will we be able to become the kind of human being who we want to be? How continues our own journey?
By analyzing the Ten Commandments, they can be divided into three parts. Each part leads me to a number of questions. The first one has to do with faith. What do we believe in? What are our values? Are we being faithful to them? What do we idolize? Is our Faith threaten by crisis? Or is it the other way around: Is a crisis an opportunity to recover our lost faith?
The Second part of the Decalogue has to do with family, customs, and the frameworks of belonging. To be a Jew is to belong, by history and common destiny. It is also belonging to a community, even when the effort to keep it virtual is enormous, it sustains us and gives us strength. How can I strengthen being part of it? Is belonging just a deep feeling? How can I translate this feeling into a more concrete participation, making a kind of Gestaltic creation where the group is much more than the sum of its parts?
The third part of the Ten Commandments is that of Behaving. Together with Believing and Belonging, they form the BBB formula of our Jewish being. Ethics is the base of this construction, and doing good is the essence. Paraphrasing Hillel, everything else is commentary, go and study. What are we going to do? What basic decisions will we have to make? Will we decide for the better?
Finally, the rabbis say that Shavuot is “Atzeret shel Pesach.” By saying that, they meant that Shavuot is the end of a spiritual process, spanning from Passover to over seven weeks. If Passover speaks of Freedom, Shavuot gives content to that Freedom by Responsibility. What are we responsible for? Can we be protagonists of change? How can we do it?
It is told that the Chassid confronted his Rebbe with a huge list of questions. In the face of so much despair, the Rebbe replied: Your questions are the way to your own answers. If you have all these questions, you are moving in the right direction. Without the questions, the answers become irrelevant.
So let me finish with another two questions:
Will we have the Chutzpah of asking ourselves the questions that make us free?
And will we have the courage to respond with responsibility and make us partners of God in the recreation of a better world?