Freedom in Relationship

Behar By :  Matthew Berkowitz Former Director of Israel Programs, JTS Posted On May 17, 2003 / 5763

Coercion is part of the essence of Judaism. Indeed, a well known midrash describes God coercing the Israelites into the acceptance of Torah. Sparked by the Hebrew phrase “the Israelites were rooted underthe mountain” (Exodus 19:17), (most translations read “the Israelites were at the foot of the mountain”), the rabbinic imagination conjures up a threatening portrait of God holding Mt. Sinai over the heads of the those assembled, declaring, “if you accept the Torah, well and good; but if not, this shall be your resting place” (BT Shabbat 88a). Coercion is indeed at the heart of this teaching and potentially at the heart of Judaism. Most observant Jews feel a sense of external motivation — observance is not simply a matter of personal choice, but a response to a God who has expectations.

In teaching this midrash and the principle learned from it, I encountered a student justifiably troubled by this notion. So disturbed was this thoughtful, loyal Shabbat attending synagogue—goer that he woke up this past Shabbat morning, thought about the midrash we had learned, and decided that he would not be coerced into going to synagogue that Shabbat morning. His wife was in shock (as was I when he related this story to me — not to even mention the Jewish guilt that overcame me!) Typically, I am blessed with students becoming more observant. Where did I go wrong? How could I respond meaningfully to this student’s spiritual and intellectual challenge?

This week’s parashahParashat Behar, wrestles with this same tension. In the end, however, I believe our Torah reading does provide us with an answer. In Leviticus 25:55, God declares, “The children of Israel are servants to Me; they are My servants that I brought out of the Land of Egypt, for I am the Lord Your God.” This verse continues in the vein of our somewhat unflattering portrait of God. God took us out of Egypt and now, we owe a debt of gratitude toward God. That debt is reflected in our servitude to God. Yet, the servitude of which the Torah speaks culminates in meaningful relationship. Note well the latter part of the verse: ‘for I am the Lord Your God.’ God is not merely a communal, impersonal God. God becomes the God of each and every one of us. God becomes personal through our individual embrace of commandedness.

Our freedom, then, is found in relationship. I would suggest that in every relationship there is some element of coercion. In particular, the parent—child relationship comes to mind. Coercion is elemental to raising disciplined children. And although each of us may go through a stage of rebellion in our teenage years or beyond, we realize quickly we have a lot more to gain from the blessing of being in relationship — from the predictability, the structure, the rules. Opting out leads us to a point of emptiness and rootlessness; but reflection can lead us back to the Source.

Yehudah HaLevi, a prolific poet of the Golden Age of Spain writes, “The slaves of time — slaves of slaves are they; the servant of God — that individual alone is free, And so when every human seeks his portion — my soul says, ‘My portion is the Lord’s.’ “

May each of us have the insight and gumption of Yehudah HaLevi — understanding that our freedom derives from the precious and treasured boundaries with which God has circumscribed us. From within the confines of Torah, life is always the richer.

The publication and distribution of the Rabbinic Fellows’ Commentary has been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.