Divrei Torah Blogs

Rosh Hashanah 5769 (First Day)

After sitting in the congregation for the High Holidays last year, I found I missed leading services too much to want to just sit on the sidelines again, so I volunteered to lead services at Kibbutz Hanaton in the Galillee. A lot of Israeli rabbis take High Holiday gigs – mostly they find paying ones in the States. For some of them, it’s a significant chunk of their annual income. I feel fortunate that I don’t need to look for paying rabbinic work, so my rabbinic work can all be done “lishmah” for it’s own sake, out of love, not money. So I’m glad I was able to do a mitzvah and help the small community at the kibbutz, which has been through some difficult times in recent years.

For my drash on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, I led a discussion on the concept of “na’aseh v’nishmah,” we will do and we will understand, the idea that through doing mitzvot we draw closer to God. I recently read AJ Jacob’s book “The Year of Living Biblically” which is a fascinating exploration of what happens when a secular Jew tries to spend a year following all the rules in the Bible literally.

As Jacobs puts it in a description of the book on his website:

“The Year of Living Biblically is about my quest to live the ultimate biblical life. To follow every single rule in the Bible – as literally as possible. I obey the famous ones:

 * The Ten Commandments

 * Love thy neighbor

 * Be fruitful and multiply

But also, the hundreds of oft-ignored ones.

 * Do not wear clothes of mixed fibers.

 * Do not shave your beard

 * Stone adulterers

Why? Well, I grew up in a very secular home (I’m officially Jewish but I’m Jewish in the same way the Olive Garden is an Italian restaurant). I’d always assumed religion would just wither away and we’d live in a neo-Enlightenment world. I was, of course, spectacularly wrong. So was I mssing something essential to being a human? Or was half the world deluded?”

The book sometimes comes across as a bit flip and irreverent – “gimmicky” even – but I suppose that was the idea, to bring a somewhat snarky attitude to what to a secular person might seem to be a bit of a stuffy topic.

At services we shared a discussion around some questions the book raises:

Is it possible to do what the author was trying—to follow the Bible literally?

What problems do you think the author encountered?

Which commandments do you think were the most difficult, or impossible to follow?

For three months, he tried to also live by the rules in the New Testament; is it possible to follow both? Is there any point if you don’t believe in Jesus as Messiah?

The author said “…this project would be my visa to a spiritual world. I wouldn’t just be studying religion. I’d be living it.” Is that true? What religion was he living? I pointed out that theologically, he was trying to be a “Karaite,” a formerly Jewish sect dating to the 9th century that rejected all rabbinic interpretation. 

Which commandments were most rewarding?

The author maintained “It’s impossible to immerse yourself in religion for twelve months and emerge unaffected.” Is that true? What would be effect?

What’s better – to jump in and try following the Bible, like Jacobs did? Or to try and understand the rules first, one at a time, and then start following them?

The most difficult commandments for him to obey were the ones surrounding gossip – not surprising for a journalist at a popular publication, gossip is their stock in trade. The one that seems to have been the most transformative was observing Shabbat – hard at first, but he seems to have become a believer in the power of Shabbat.

He did not, however, really become a believer in God; he became what he describes as a “reverent agnostic.” Still doesn’t God as pulling strings necessarily, but I think he believes at least in the power of the transcendent, in a consciousness of something greater than just the world around us. He didn’t become over the top religious after his year of living according to the Bible, but he did join a synagogue (Reform).

But for me, the book did speak in a very contemporary way about the power of “na’aseh v’nishmah,” the power of taking what Heschel describes as “a leap of action” instead of a “leap of faith.” He did learn the power of the commandments through doing, and he did draw closer to his people and God — just as the rabbis teach.

You can see a fuller treatment of “na’aseh v’nishmah,” which I used in the conclusion of my talk, by clicking here.

Shana tova!

Rav Barry

Barry Leff

Rabbi Barry (Baruch) Leff is a dual Israeli-American business executive, teacher, speaker and writer who divides his time between Israel and the US.

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