In My Mind's I

Now we’re in Elul, listening to the warm-up sounds of the shofar, preparing ourselves for the coming days of intense prayer and penitence.
We associate the shofar with Rosh Hashanah (and of course with Yom Kippur — after that final blast: Hooray! We can eat!). But we should also be thinking, when we hear it, about Pesach — leaving Egypt — and Shavuot — standing at Sinai to receive the Torah.
Because Torah is what it’s all about. Our gift, in perpetuity, from a loving God. But also a demanding God. Following his laws isn’t always easy; it’s especially difficult when the reasons for them seem vague on human terms.
Think about kashrut. We’re not supposed to eat predators or scavengers. Because God’s “reasons” for these demands seem pretty clear after-the-fact, many Jews have “justified” them in that light, which may make understanding and following the laws easier: Predators aren’t humane when they kill, as we must be when we slaughter animals for food. And who knows what filth scavengers have ingested? Of course we can’t eat them!
But some of us do, because we know they’re not filthy any more. The Food and Drug Administration now protects us! God was doing the job until he handed it over to the FDA, so shrimp and friends are okay today. And we don’t have to worry about pork or wild game, either, any more! God was so good to keep us from the scourge of that nasty trichinosis parasite, but now, we humans have learned how to do that for ourselves.
For years, centuries even, some Jews have felt the need to “justify” God’s laws this way. He was so smart!
He told us to do these things so that we would survive, while our enemies died from all the bad things they ate.
The truth is, we don’t know God’s motivations at all. He gave us rules to follow without any time limit; he didn’t indicate they’d be nullified because of future dietary discoveries.
I’m thinking of this because of a similar situation with another law, an especially sensitive one: circumcision.
Did you read what the New York Times reported recently? Officials at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are thinking about making that old Jewish practice mandatory for all boys born in our country — as a deterrent to the future spread of HIV/AIDS! Recent studies “showed that in African countries hard hit by AIDS, men who were circumcised reduced their infection risk to half,” they said.
Ah! Here’s good ammunition for Jews of the “holier-than-thou” and “I told you so!” categories. The built-in identify factor that goes with circumcision has caused many Jewish men much grief over the years — when they’ve had to strip nude in military showers, for example, to be recognized and taunted, or at the hands of Crusaders and Nazis identifying their “kill.” Even today — perhaps especially today — many Jews who’ve continued to follow that God-mandated practice feel compelled to defend it to an army of folks (unfortunately including some other Jews) who condemn it as inhumanly cruel to defenseless infants. It’s a matter of cleanliness, they say. Even Queen Elizabeth recognized that: She had her princely sons circumcised — and by a mohel, no less!
But now, these justifiers are vindicated: God knew better all the time! We can see how he’s really been taking care of us! This new, big picture is showing everyone that the circumcised ones are the survivors!
We’d better step back a minute and take another look. God is our father. Throughout the coming holidays, from Selichot to that final shofar blast on Yom Kippur, we’ll be praying to him that way. But has there ever been a father who, beset by kids badgering him, endlessly asking why they have to do certain things certain ways, hasn’t resorted to that old cliché response: “Because I say so, that’s why!”?
And God is also our king. That’s the way our High Holy Days prayers put it: our Father, our King. And certainly there’s never been a king who hasn’t issued an edict without reason and without explanation, but solely with the demand that it be followed.
The Rosh Hashanah-Yom Kippur lesson comes from Sinai. We don’t keep kosher, or not, because of the FDA. We don’t circumcise, or not, because of the CDC. We do these things because they’re part of our God-given identity. Let’s try to think of God’s laws that way this year, with every shofar blast. Tishrei awaits! Shanah Tovah coming!

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