B’har Bechukota: Grassroots

The last two portions of Leviticus are read today.

Rabbi Lazer Gurkow,

Rabbi Lazer Gurkow
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow

i: Grassroots
Is It You? Every movement likes to call itself “grassroots” because that means it arose from the people. It is better to lead a movement that everyone wants than a movement whose momentum is artificially generated. Grassroots means that the people’s desire generated the movement. When the desire generates a movement, the movement is authentic. When the movement generates a desire, the desire is less authentic. It is somewhat artificial; generated by others.

When G-d gave us the Torah, He created a movement called Judaism. The question is which came first, the people’s desire for Judaism or G-d’s gift of Judaism? Did the desire generate the movement or did the movement generate the desire? In other words, is Torah a response to the Jew’s desire, or is the Jew’s desire a response to Torah?

In simple terms the question is this: Had we not received the Torah, would we still want to be Jewish? Are we grassroots Jews? Let’s make this personal: If you discovered that your maternal great, great, grandmother wasn’t Jewish and therefore, you aren’t Jewish. Would you convert to Judaism at your earliest opportunity or would you embrace your authentic non-Jewish self and break with Jewish herbage and tradition? 
Do you want it because it is you or is it you because you want it? Is your Judaism grassroots?
We each need to answer that question for ourselves and we stand to learn much about ourselves when we do. This essay can’t help you answer that question, but it can explore the history of this question and determine the state of our ancestors’ desire for Judaism as they gathered at Sinai.

A Mountain of Love

Our sages taught that when G-d descended to Sinai, He suspended the mountain over the heads of the people and proclaimed: “If you accept my Torah, all will be well. If not, I shall drop the mountain upon you and this will become your grave.”

The hassidic masters explained that a mountain represents love for G-d. Scaling a mountain means ascending within the hierarchy of our soul to find our love for G-d. By lifting the mountain, G-d revealed His splendorous beauty and inspired an ecstatic love in the Jew for G-d. This love was not chosen by the Jew. It was aroused, or artificially generated, by a force beyond.

There are two ways to arouse our feelings of love for our children. The first is to channel the feeling until it overwhelms us and we pull out their picture to gaze at them. The second way is to pull out the picture and gaze at them until the love flows through us. In the former, the love generates the emergence of the picture. In the latter, the picture generates the emergence of the love. In other words, the former is grassroots, the latter is not.

Our people were desirous of G-d at Sinai, but the desire was not grassroots. It was generated by the sudden revelation of G-d as He lifted the mountain, the symbol of supernal love.

Was it meant to remain this way? Did G-d intend for us to always be inspired by the awesome sight of His presence?

The answer is as obvious as is history. After Sinai, G-d receded and concealed His presence. Today, we don’t have the picture of G-d to gaze at to help us generate the pulsing feeling of love. We need to find that love within ourselves and let it flow through us until the picture emerges.

G-d stimulated the love at Sinai, but expects us to stimulate that love today. G-d wants us to be grassroots Jews. He wants us to love it because it is us. There is no question that we can love G-d more forcefully when we can see Him. But we can love G-d more authentically, when we can’t see Him. When we are forced to find that space within our soul that loves G-d even when we can’t see Him, we find a most authentic and enduring love. At that point, we don’t just love Him, we become Him.

Two Names

The last two Torah portions in the book of Leviticus are often combined and read on the same day. The first is called B’har, on the mountain. The second is called B’chukotai, my edicts. We talked a lot about the mountain. Serving G-d on the mountain in today’s age means that we join a large community of enthusiastic, energetic, scholarly, inspirational and loving Jews, where we pray with thousands, study Torah with erudite scholars and socialize with people who share our values. The collective enthusiasm generated by the community is greater than what we can muster on our own as individuals.

But the Torah isn’t satisfied with the mountain. On the same day that we read the portion about the mountain, we read the portion about the edicts. B’chukotai, the Hebrew word for edicts, is a homophone. It means edicts and it means engravings. G-d’s edicts must be engraved on the panels of our heart and soul to the point that it becomes us. A written word is added to the paper. An engraved word is part of the stone.
When our enthusiasm is generated by the mountain, by people or forces outside of ourselves, they are like written words. They are added to our soul. They can be intense and uplifting, but they are external to us. They will only last as long as they are nurtured. When our love for G-d is engraved on our hearts, it is part of us. It is grassroots and therefore has staying power. No matter where we live or what we do, it remains a part of us.

The message of the dual portion is that relying on others is a good beginning strategy, but it is never enough. We must graduate and move to the next level. Whether we live in a small community or a large one, whether we are surrounded by many fellow Jews or are alone on an island, Judaism must be part and parcel of who we are. Engraved on the panels of our heart. Grassroots Judaism.

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