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Parashat Re’e 5776: Why should I choose to be a Jew?

One of the rites of passage in our days is not the Brit Milah or Bar Mitzvah, but a long trip far away for home. Sometimes Thailand, sometimes India, sometimes South America. In Israel usually is done after the army service, abroad during college years or immediately afterwards. Our youngsters leave for a long trip, to see the World, to clear the head from study or routine, to search for themselves and learn about themselves. Sometimes they develop in this trip a spiritual side that they didn’t know. I must say that I am a little jealous, as I didn’t do something similar when I was younger and as you advance in life, well, it becomes harder to do something of the kind. It is an experience of once in a lifetime. And on that trip, far away, sometimes our young people find something they never found at home: spiritual meaning. Some of them find them in the Chabad Lubavitch home in Nepal, some of them in Buddhist teachings or traditions from other eastern religions, some of them simply find it in nature and develop some kind of non-religious spirituality. And then, they come back home and their family usually don’t know what to do with them. Of course they want to respect their choices, but they feel that is not what they wanted for their children. And we have a problem. In the Western World one of the basic rights we have is freedom. A freedom that gives us not only the right to choose our government, to receive basic education or choose our careers. This freedom also allows us to know and try beliefs, traditions and cultures different from ours and even to adopt them if we feel like it. If the wisdom of an Indian Guru touches our soul more than the wisdom of the rabbis… well, it is a free country and we can choose to be whatever we want. The main question today, my friends, is why should I? Why it is good for me? Why should I choose a Jewish life? Maybe it is enough with some Gefilte Fish and Matzah in Pesach. Why should I choose a life of observance? Of commitment with the tradition of the people of Israel and concrete actions? Why should I do this if there are many religions and philosophies not less meaningful that ours? Choice is an important subject in Parashat Re’e. The author of the book of Devarim tries to convince us to live according to the path set by the four previous books of the Torah and he is conscious that we have a choice on the matter. “Look I give you today a blessing and a curse. A blessing if you listen and keep the commandments of God and a curse if you don’t”. Reward and punishment, blessing and curse. You should choose the Torah because bad things will happen to you if you don’t. It sounds so ancient, so out of touch, so fake, ridiculous even, if we understand it in a literal way. No, we won’t choose a life of mitzvot because we will receive a prize if I do and a curse if I don’t. We should choose a life of mitzvot because the mitzvot themselves are the reward. Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, from the 19th Century, wrote that the process of keeping a mitzvah, the thinking and moral choice, are already a blessed thing for us and with each mitzvah we bless ourselves. Still, my choice for a Jewish spiritual way, it is a random choice? Could I receive the same benefits through a different path? Maybe. One of the last efforts of our Parashah to convince us to choose Judaism is by telling us that we are a holy people for God, that we were chosen to be his special people. Most modern Jews have trouble with the concept of being a chosen people. We find it hard because we understand God as one, Who different religious traditions reach by different ways, and Who loves all creation equally. We find it hard because we believe in equality between people, between races and nationalities. Still, there is a part of the verse that we might find useful for our question here of why should I. We Jews were chosen, maybe by God maybe by ourselves, to develop a certain spiritual way, unique to us. Myself? I read Devarim and I think about the beginning of the month of Elul tomorrow and I find myself blessed by all the moments of this year that enabled me to deepen my commitment with Jewish Law and Jewish tradition. Is my choice forced and random? Would I feel similarly blessed through different choices this coming year? Maybe. However, through the life that I chose I find myself captivated by the idea that the ultimate objective of Jewish Law, of Halakhah, is to inject and add in our biologic and social routine a measure of divinity, meaning, and community, so we can really live in God’s way. I do identify with the young people that experience strong spiritual experiences in the East or wherever, even I envy them a little. However, when I speak to them I give them my visit card and I say to them that indeed their journey sound fascinating, but if sometime they want to consider to come back home… they can always get in touch with me. Good luck to all of us in the journey we start with Rosh Hodesh Elul!

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