In the Reform Temple that I attended while growing up in the suburbs of New York, one topic we never seemed to discuss was God. Back then, Judaism, as far as I understood it, was basically synonymous with secular humanism. The message, which was essentially “Be an ethical person!” was of course not a bad one. It’s just that I could never quite figure out why we had to read all those silly Bible stories. In fact, out of all of my years of Hebrew School, the only thing that I read that left a lasting impression on me was a book called Man-child in the Promised Land, which was about a black boy growing up in Harlem. Don’t get me wrong, it was a great book. I just had no idea what it had to do with being Jewish.
Over the last couple of decades, the Jewish world has gone a long way towards returning to its roots, with even the more liberal branches of Judaism placing a greater emphasis on spirituality, ritual and Hebrew terminology. Nevertheless, I for one am still left wondering whether underneath it all, the message has really changed all that much. True, these days the more traditional Hebrew phrase “tikun olam” is touted as being the raison d’être for the Jewish people’s existence, but when all is said and done, how much of a difference is there between tikun olam and secular humanism?
It’s not surprising that tikun olam – literally “fixing the world” – would be central to a religion that’s as action-oriented as Judaism, and no doubt, much good has been done by many fine people as a result of that focus. But today’s emphasis on tikun olam also raises a question; one which isn’t always articulated, but which I believe nevertheless lurks in the back of many Jewish minds: If being Jewish is all about tikun olam, then why put on tefillin, pray, keep kosher, or observe Shabbat? Isn’t it enough just to be a good person?
My own, admittedly rather blunt answer to this question is deliberately designed to get people’s attention: There is, of course, nothing wrong with being a good person and making the world a better place. In fact, the only problem with it is that you’re missing the point of creation.
In order to understand why I would say such a thing, I usually follow up by sharing the following short parable:
There was once a king who fell in love with a fair maiden. Naturally, the king felt a strong desire to share with his beloved the thing that he cherished most of all, which in this particular case was the beautiful palace garden where he spent so much of his time. The king therefore strolled hand in hand for many hours through his treasured garden with his new-found love, stopping from time to time so that together, they could feed and prune his precious shrubs and trees.
One night, the king was roused from his sleep by a strange noise outside of his window. Stepping out onto the balcony, he peered into the darkness and, to his astonishment, was able to make out the figure of his very own beloved maiden, hard at work in the garden below. “What are you doing in my garden in the middle of the night?” exclaimed the king with surprise. Taken aback, the maiden innocently replied: “I thought His Majesty needed gardening help.” Suffice it to say that the fair maiden was back on the speed dating circuit in no time at all, grateful of course for the fact that her head was still on her shoulders.
The transition from last week’s Torah reading, which describes the lofty spiritual encounter with God at Sinai, and this week’s reading, which focuses upon practical ethics in all of its minutia, may seem rather abrupt, but if we reflect upon the juxtaposition of these two seemingly distant themes, we’ll realize that it’s essential; not only because it establishes God, the Infinite Creator of the universe as the source of the commandments, but perhaps even more importantly, because it reminds us that our relationship with Him is the point of them as well. One of the most important things monotheism teaches us about God is that He is perfect, which means that He, like the king in our parable, has no needs that we can fulfill. Once we understand that God doesn’t need us to fix His world, our actions are transformed into acts of relationship and sharing. God in essence, shares His world and His will with us, not because He needs our help, but so that we can in some measure come to understand Him, and ultimately love Him. This is why the great 18th century mystic known as the Ramchal (Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzotto) writes that “the root of all mitzvah observance is to constantly turn Man’s attention towards God.” (The Way of God 1:4)
Judaism teaches us that we should always do the right thing, regardless of our spiritual level, but we must never forget that in spite of its emphasis on action, it is still, in essence, a profound spiritual discipline. Being a Jew is about much more than simply making our world a better place or making ourselves into better people; it’s about connecting to the deeper reality underlying all of creation, which is that we live in a world run by a loving God Who desires nothing more than to walk hand in hand with us as partners, not because He needs our support, but because He wants to give us the ultimate pleasure that we are capable of experiencing: A relationship with Him.