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MIA – DCA: Three Perspectives of Torah Observance Parshas Yisro

You learn new things all the time. I always thought that the word ‘return’ means to go back to where you started. And so you would think that when you click ‘return flight’ on an airline website that they would make sure your return flight takes you back to the same airport. Well I learned something this past week…

Apparently, they return you to anywhere within a 100 mile radius of your outbound flight. And so, with my car already parked at Raegan International in Virginia, I learned that my return flight, for me and my family, would be going to BWI.

I made a few phone calls and to make a long story short, it would have cost a fortune to switch return flights for my entire family from BWI to Raegan. And so instead, we decided to switch only one flight. One of us would pick up the car and meet the rest of the family in BWI. I offered to fly alone – with my infant, a two-year-old, and my wife would take the older children. Sounds like a great idea, no? I thought so too.

I made it through customs with everyone cooing and smiling at my daughter, she was smiling back and being adorable. I got this, I thought. I got on the plane, she sat on my lap, looked through my pictures, laughing, smiling. We even made it through take-off without a hitch.

And then, with no warning at all, my daughter freaks out. Juice, candy, nothing can get her to calm down. I try to walk around with her but of course, the seatbelt sign is on and the stewardess doesn’t let me. I finally realize if I lock myself in the bathroom, they can’t ask me to leave and no on will hear my daughter screaming. So I spent twenty-five minutes in an airplane bathroom with my daughter screaming on top of her lungs. We finally go back to our seat after she seems to calm down… and then she goes at it again. Now she’s kicking the seat in front of me like it’s a soccer ball. I’m trying to hold her down, which makes her even more aggravated, which makes her start to stop screaming and start screeching. And so it went, for approximately one and a half hours out of a two-hour flight.

And of course, the entire time, I am getting these deathly, threatening stares from everyone around me. Because apparently if you stare hard enough at a parent they will magically make their child quiet. I KNOW SHE’S SCREAMING! It’s bothering me too!!!

As this was going on I realized it’s not my fault that this is happening. Yeah, okay, I know I was feeling a little defensive. But hear me out, I think there’s some truth to this:

Imagine this would be taking place on a subway, a New York Subway. People might get irritated at a crying baby, but there wouldn’t be the same level of indignation, of what are you doing here with a child who is screaming, of how you could be so insensitive!

None of that takes place on a subway. You know why? Because a subway is advertised and understood to be a means of going from point A to point B. It’s transportation. Yes, the person next you smells bad, the other person is talking too loud, the driver is going way too fast and your coffee is spilling out of its cup, and there’s a crying baby. But it’s no big deal. I am here because I need to go from point A to point B.

But a flight? A flight is an experience, they tell you. You could watch movies that are still in the theater! Free drinks! Stewards and stewardesses dressed to the T to make you feel like you’re being waited on!

Why is there a crying baby ruining this perfect ambiance?

Right?

And so if we fly like we take a subway and frame a flight for what it really is, as transportation, then we could deal with the turbulence and any other disturbances. But if we see it as a beautiful, relaxing experience then every single bump is going to bother us.

Defensiveness aside, for the record, after the flight I apologized to everyone who was anywhere near me.

But I think this dual-perspective is a great analogy to something we read about today and something that is probably one of the most fundamental questions we have to ask ourselves as Jews. Today, we read the giving of the Aseres HaDibros, the first ten Mitzvos presented to the Jewish People.  

What’s it all about? Why do we do Mitzvos? What should our motivation be in performing these acts?

Well about a thousand years ago, we started what I consider to be a dangerous game. And by we, I mean some of the leading teachers of Judaism. They started explaining, conjecturing what and why we do Mitzvos. Some explained each and every Mitzvah. Some explained things in a more global sense. To generalize, they suggested the following reasons for Mitzvah observance: self-perfection and betterment of society.

When you think about it, you realize that those are all self-serving reasons to follow the Torah. Not necessarily in a bad way, but the message they were conveying was, do the Mitzvos because it will benefit you. You will live a happier life, or you will have a better society in which to live your better life.

And the truth is, the Torah itself gives us self-serving reasons to perform the Mitzvos – we say it every day: “V’haya im shomo’ah tishmi’u, if you listen to my commandments,” what happens? “I will make it rain, I will make you rich,” etc., etc.

Maimonides, the great philosopher, makes it very clear that all these things are true. There are incredible perks to living a Torah-centric life. In modern terms, those perks are a day of rest from a frenetic lifestyle, moments of introspection and meditation through prayer in an ever-fractured day, self-restraint as expressed though the laws of Kosher, an emphasis on family, a moral compass to navigate a radically changing moral landscape. And a sense of fulfilment by knowing what you’re supposed to do and doing it. The perks of Judaism are immense.

But Maimonides explains that those perks are the Torah’s way of advertising. It’s like an airline telling you to fly with them because they offer on-flight WiFi and really good peanuts. It’s a hook. We could serve G-d for the perks and that’s okay. But the ideal, he writes (in Peirush Hamishnayos and Hilchos Teshuva), is to serve G-d because it brings us close to Him. It’s not about me. It’s not about us. It’s about G-d. This is what G-d wants and so I will do it.

When G-d presents the Torah to the Jewish People in today’s Torah reading, He makes it very clear. There is no mention of reward. Rather, “If you listen to my voice, and keep my covenant, you will be my treasured nation.” That’s it. The Jewish People hear this and they say, na’aseh v’nishmah, we will do, and we will listen. No agenda. Certainly not a self-serving one.

The Torah, in this framework, is a flight. It takes us from where we are and brings us close to G-d. It’s spiritual transportation.

Later on, in the Torah, reward is mentioned as an incentive. Later on, in the writings of the prophets, the Torah is framed as a book of social-justice. Later on, in the writings of Maimonides and other philosophers, the Torah is framed as a book of self-perfection. Later on, in the mystical writings, the Torah is framed as a book of perfecting the world in the highest of spheres. And later on, on Jewish websites like Aish.com, the Torah is framed as a book of self-growth, and of something that can provide us the highest and deepest levels of pleasure.

And Maimonides would say, that’s all true; a Torah-based lifestyle can guide us to a more perfected self, to a more cohesive society, to a more enjoyable life, physically and emotionally. But the ideal is that we serve G-d because he asked us to, because it brings us close to Him, even if we can’t feel that in any shape or form.

What I realized on this flight from hell is that there is a big danger when we confuse the perks for the purpose. When we lose sight of what it’s really all about – we end up having a really lousy flight. If Judaism is only about making me feel good, then what happens when Judaism doesn’t make me feel so good? If Judaism is only about social justice, what happens when Judaism’s view of social justice is inconsistent with mine? And then we want our money back because it’s not what we signed up for.

If we’re flying on “Torah-Air” to get from point A to point B, if we see the Torah for what it’s supposed to be, then we could deal with the turbulence, with the yelling, and even, gasp, no in-flight movies. At the end of the day, the Torah transports you and gets you closer to G-d.

However, if we fly the plane of Judaism only for the perks – we have a much more challenging time, because while there are usually perks, and really good ones! sometimes you just get a bad plane, or a lousy pilot, or a grumpy stewardess, or a crying baby… How we frame our flight impacts the way we experience it.

Which brings me to a third perspective from that flight that I’d like to share with you. There’s the purpose flier – that was me. There was the perk flier – that was the people giving me death-stares. But then there was the perspective of my two-year-old. Throughout this flight, she saw me as this terrible monster who was simply trying to make her uncomfortable. She wanted to walk around – I made her sit down.

She wanted to kick people’s seats – I held her feet.

From her vantage point, the flight was one big fight against this terribly evil version of her father, in which she tried to outmaneuver and somehow get around me.

Tragically, we also sometimes take that perspective when it comes to our religious experience. Sometimes we see the laws of Judaism as simply getting in the way of what we really want to do. I can’t eat this. I can’t say that. And I can’t do anything on Shabbos. And like my precious daughter, we try our hardest to get around it. We try to find any way to avoid these draconian laws that are getting in the way of my life!

And what my daughter failed to realize is that these “restrictions” were an actually expression of values.

I needed her to sit down because I cared about her safety. If she’d really understand that, she would not only sit down nicely, she’d probably wear her seatbelt the entire flight.

I needed her to stop kicking the person in front of me because there is a value in being sensitive to those around you. If she’d understand that, she wouldn’t be fighting me, she’d probably be really quiet.

There is a time and place for legal loopholes, but there’s a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the Torah, if all we’re doing is looking for them. The Torah is a set of laws that represent a theory of values. While we need to stand vigilant against those who create unnecessary stringencies, we need to also develop a deeper appreciation for the values that the Torah does attempt to impart upon us. At the very least, especially when we do not fully appreciate those values, we need to remind ourselves that G-d, and by extension His Torah is not a draconian set of laws that we need to avoid so we don’t “get out”. They are principals that we need to cherish. Sometimes there’s a leniency, sometimes there ain’t. But the perspective we take will deeply impact the comfort of our flight.

Torah, Mitzvos, Judaism, is a spiritual flight with a myriad of perks; a happier life, a more disciplined life, a more gratifying life, and a healthier society. At its core though, its goal is to somehow get us from where we are to G-d. There may be bumps, there may be disturbances, but it will always take us to where we need to go. And yes, there are rules and there are regulations. But as the pre-flight safety announcement states, “these rules are here for your safety and your security.” So buckle up and enjoy your flight.

 

 

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