The Doctor and The Map:
How to Get, and Stay, In Touch With Reality
by Braha Bender
There’s a certain misconception about Jewish religiosity that is very common. Most people think that Judaism is a set of beliefs and values. Out of those beliefs and values, they assume, arise the entire corpus of Jewish law and tradition. First come the ideas, then come the practices.
Uh-uh. Totally backwards.
Now, anyone who has been reading this column for any length of time will probably be aware that this author is fairly “Jewish” in her concern about being intellectually hoodwinked. What do I mean? Put a bunch of Jews in a classroom and you have got yourself a room full of questions. The joke goes that two Jews mean three synagogues - “The one I go to, the one the other guy goes to, and the one neither of us go to.”
It goes further than that. Our strong-mindedness often brings us to be the ones leading the movement. Example: in the fight for civil rights, Jews represented a majority even greater than African Americans.
It isn’t surprising that Jews don’t like the idea of blind faith. I think we’re actually allergic to it. Which is why I am prepared to field the tomatoes thrown at the following assertion: Torah is the map of reality.
“Try It, Maybe You’ll Like It!”
What, no tomatoes? Maybe you didn’t understand me. Let’s try that again: just as you would follow a good map without criticizing why it guides you as it does, so do the wise follow the Torah without criticizing why it guides us as it does. Follow first, understand later. Laws first, ideas later. Na’aseh first. V’nishma later. (It all begins to come together!)
Or in the immortal words of Jewish mothers around the world, “Try it, maybe you’ll like it!”
But I know, I know, you’re Jewish, you don’t like it. You don’t want to buy into something before you understand it. You don’t want to do what the Torah says to do before you understand why He says it.
This is why we are so dear to the Almighty. We are such stubborn little buttons. I can’t help thinking that He must find our stiff-necked little complaints adorable sometimes. Sure, we’re kicking ourselves in the foot, but we’re kicking ourselves in the foot with such fine, staunch spirit, you know what I mean? You’ve got to appreciate that in a kid. We’re dealing with G-d Himself and we still have kashas!
Nonetheless, comical and endearing as we are, at a certain point we have to drop the smart-alecky Woody Allen stance and take reality at face value: once we have established that a statement has a reliable source, we had better trust that statement. Once you learn that the source of the Torah is really G-d, things begin to look a lot different.
We don’t like obligation, we don’t like being told what to do, but there it is. Sinai happened. Now the question is, what are you going to do about it?
The Dubna Maggid, a sage whose stories have continued to illumine far beyond his passing in 1804, offers three possible answers:
Three men fall ill with the same potentially fatal disease. All three of them visit the same brilliant, world-class specialist, who provides each of them with identical instructions for the medical, psychological, and lifestyle procedures they must undertake to be entirely cured of this disease.
The first man, Woody Allen (just kidding), knows a thing or two about medicine. He isn’t as much of an expert as the specialist he visits, but he knows just enough to ask a few educated questions. In a toxic mélange of seeking multiple second opinions and heavily consulting Google Medical and WebMD, the first man decides to drop the specialist’s instructions, follow an entirely different plan of treatment based on his own creative, albeit faulty and ignorant, thinking. Sure, the specialist’s advice is good, but it isn’t good enough...
He drops dead within a few weeks.
The second man knows nothing about medicine and follows the specialist’s instructions blindly. He gets well and goes on to live a long life.
The third man, Woody Allen’s religious cousin (he went to Arachim), knows a thing or two about medicine as well. However, he also knows a thing or two about respecting legitimate authority. He looks into the specialist’s advice, finds it to be sound, has a few questions, but nonetheless concludes that since he isn’t as knowledgeable or experienced as the specialist, he had better follow the instructions. He’ll ask his questions to the specialist when the opportunity arises.
Meanwhile, he does exactly what the specialist says to do and gets well. He, too, goes on to live a long life, a long life that eventually includes the opportunity to explore his questions in greater depth and fully appreciate the brilliance and wisdom of the specialist’s guidance.
Personally, I would like to transpose the story onto a bunch of mental patients, because that’s what we’re really dealing with here. We’re wise enough to ask questions and crazy enough to believe we have the answers without any real source of knowledge, experience or perspective. But that wasn’t what the Dubna Maggid said, and it isn’t my story.
The Dubna Maggid went on to explain that vis-à-vis the Almighty, we are like one of those sick people who desperately need sound treatment guidance. We can choose to be like the first or second, but the Torah ideal paints us as the third, people who are smart enough to both ask questions and respect authority. It’s a win-win situation – the third man both lived long enough to eventually get all his questions answered and lived, period.
Wouldn’t that be nice? A long, meaningful life? The trick is to follow the instructions.
Imagine a map accurately depicting a treacherous landscape. The path winds through woods and desert, even over long, thin bridges spanning rough and churning waters. If you stick to the path, your footing is perfectly secure. However, a single step off of the path and the consequences may be dire – brambles, swampland, or much, much worse – a cliff? Dangerous animals? The sky is the limit!
We are walking through the world blind, explains the Torah. We can’t see spiritual reality with our physical eyes, yet if we pull the wrong lever or press the wrong button, we may be unwittingly setting off a nuclear explosion. There is a certain extent we can figure out with a good head on our shoulders – i.e. being a decent human being usually leads to a better tomorrow than being, say, a cannibal or an ax-murderer – but there is a much larger extent that we simply do not have the tools to grasp without guidance from someone who can see, who has been there. Or Who made it.
Halacha is the map. Follow the Shulchan Aruch and you will become a refined, fulfilled, spiritually rich human being. It’s a six hundred and thirteen step plan and it works every time. (Actually, the widely known number of 613 is only the number of the general categories of steps of spiritual truth and refinement. The number of actual, practical halachos derived from each of those general categories is much larger.)
It is in recognizing the Source of the map that we are brought to follow it and that relationship, not a bunch of philosophies, is what Judaism is really all about.
The Emunah Commitment
Aharon (Aaron), the original and quintessential kohen gadol (high priest) was commanded to light the menorah in the Mishkan. This commandment would apply on a daily basis.
Strangely, the Torah praises him for performing this commandment: “Aharon did so; toward the face of the menorah he kindled its lamps, as Hashem had commanded Moshe (Moses).” (BaMidbar-Numbers 8:3)
Why did the Torah praise Aharon for lighting the menorah? Was there any doubt that he would do so?
Aharon was like the third man in the Dubna Maggid’s parable. Despite being a highly educated, independent and original thinker, Aharon followed G-d’s commandments not primarily because he thought they made sense, but because he recognized and trusted their Source. For Aharon, performing mitzvos was not about grabbing strokes for his own intelligence (read: ego). It was about fulfilling the will of and connecting to the Almighty, regardless of whether he understood His will or not.
Kind David phrased this beautifully: “I have chosen the way of emunah; your commandments [I made equal before me] .” (Tehillim-Psalms 119:30) The same depth of commitment applied to the mitzvos Aharon understood and the miztvos Aharon didn’t understand; they were equal in his heart.
When you recognize the Source of the Torah, it isn’t just about you anymore.
Lighting the Darkness
We do and we understand. Torah explains a great deal (after all, here you are reading this article, I didn’t make it up), but you can’t really describe the color blue to a blind man. Torah heals our blindness.
Torah makes us into heroes and heroines who live on a plane altogether more equipped than the rest of humanity can even dream of. They wouldn’t know what to dream! But here we are, meant to be a light onto the nations. By following the Torah, we are meant to glow so sweetly that even if words can barely be put to the vision, a vision of greatness is nonetheless planted in the hearts of all of humanity, to follow, to aspire towards, and ultimately to become.
By following and understanding halacha, we come to understand reality. We come to understand relationships. We come to understand ourselves. The understanding is not static, stuck to rot in an ivory tower. It is a living, breathing mesora, passed on from generation to generation, from heart to heart, a living flame that is slowly warming even the coldest passages through history.
Go ahead. Set your soul on fire.