Among the tragic incidents that transpired as a result of the devastating earthquake that ravaged Japan in March, one particularly fascinating story emerged. As the earthquake struck during a presentation in a local theatre, the manager came onto the loudspeaker instructing the audience to stay in their seats. In Japan, it is considered offensive to disregard authority. Nevertheless, one gentleman stood up and ran out of the theatre. A few moments later, a beam fell from the ceiling and killed the woman sitting next to him.
First and foremost, may none of us ever endure such tragedy. Nevertheless, I believe that if we found ourselves in similar circumstances, we would be more likely to follow the gentleman straight for the exit. We Jews challenge authority, question, argue, and debate. We don’t sit still, rather we push ahead in the queue, and we are relentless in our pursuit of what we believe to be right and just. And such a perspective on life and the world around us makes our reading of this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Behukkotai, very difficult.
Parashat Behukkotai reminds us, in painstaking detail (or perhaps “painful” detail), about our obligation as Jews to participate in the eternal covenant with God by observing the commandments of Torah. The parashah then proceeds to detail the horrendous circumstances that will befall us if we stray from the path of Torah. We will become beset by terror, fear, and fever. We will experience no satisfaction when we eat, our enemies will pursue after us, our cities will become wastelands, our lands will fall into desolation, and we will be scattered among nations whose people will draw the sword against us, time and time again. Given such fearful consequences, the obligation to observe the laws of Torah becomes clear – a salve, a sanctified alternative.
And yet our attention returns to the gentleman in the Japanese theatre. If he had obeyed authority, he would have been crushed to death. By challenging the norm, he survived. Given these circumstances, it is only appropriate for us to wonder, “Are there times for subscribing to authority, for simply obeying tradition, and regarding tradition as good and beneficial?” The man in the theatre is an extreme example amidst harrowing and unfortunate circumstances. On other occasions, we might benefit from being less argumentative, less pushy, less aggressive, and work to uncover the benefit in forming a strong community, a strong, shared sense of belief and practice. Not all systems of authority need to be grounded in fear of consequences. There can be a religious life, a spiritual identity that exists beyond the traditional “Because I told you so” mentality.
Our path begins with love. What do we love about our sacred Jewish heritage? What of our sacred heritage do we want to transmit to our children, and to our children’s children? How will our actions and choices help us to strengthen our community, rather than causing further alienation?
Fortunately, we live in a time and a place where we won’t be put to the sword for disregarding tradition. But we cannot completely dismiss the notion that turning away has lasting consequences, especially when we have the choice to turn toward our tradition. There is always a choice. But we are the ones who have to make it. Not out of fear, but out of love. Not out of deference to authority, but out of recognizing that we have so many opportunities, through the commandments of our tradition, to find a life of blessing, of worth, and of meaning. Ecclesiastes said, “To everything there is a season, a time for every experience under heaven.” Like the man in the theatre, there is a time for disregarding authority, but there are also bountiful times to turn toward one another, and continue the process of building a strong, vibrant, enduring community, participating in the everlasting covenant with God.