detail of Van Gogh painting of old bell tower

Twenty-seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

For some reason, this weekend turned out to be particularly challenging for my awkward gentile Christian’s crush on Judaism.

Maybe because yesterday was Shabbat Shuvah, the shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the shabbat when the Jewish people are specially reminded to turn back towards God and make amends (which is the governing theme of the Days of Awe anyway) and prepare for the annual Day of Atonement by actually doing some major spiritual inventory-taking and own-side-of-the-street cleaning. This is something I know from reading books.

Knowing something from reading books is really different from knowing something from practicing it, a consequential fact of which I am perpetually aware. It’s just not the same thing. It is different different DIFFERENT to know about a religious practice than it is to practice it.

Anyway, yesterday was Shabbat Shuvah. It was on my mind.

Yesterday was also the day that had been set for Us to go to the St. James Court Art Show, another annual event. It’s not actually my annual event, it’s D’s and her mom’s annual event, since we moved to this part of the world about 25 years ago. Sometimes I tag along.

Last year the occasion was interrupted because D was in the hospital. This year she was in the hospital, too; this time she was working, not being worked on, a marginal improvement but still not enough of one to let her go art shopping. So I was promoted from tag-along-er to local tour guide, custodian of the map to parking, and stand-in for D. Her sisters joined us this year for the first time, too, so Explaining Things to Newbies got added to the job.

The day was brilliant. The heat had broken by about 20 degrees, so we didn’t melt, as we’d feared we would on Wednesday. The Newbies gushed over everything and found lots of art to take home and give people for birthdays and Christmas. And I finally broke down and bought an etching of the Hebrew letter beit that I have seen and thought about every year when we pass the artist’s (Mel Fleck’s) booth.

“Are you Jewish?” he asked.

“No,” I said. “If I were, I wouldn’t be very good at it, what with carrying money and buying things on shabbat.”

“Well, I wasn’t going to say anything about that …”

So then Shabbat Shuvah was really on my mind.

Especially when we passed the booth of another artist, someone I’d never seen there before, who had mezuzot and what I at first thought were spice boxes but which turned out to be tzedekah boxes on display, beautiful ones in shiny metal and set with brilliant stones. D’s mom asked me what they were and I said “TzedeKAH boxes – right?” and the artist said “Mmm, TzeDAKah boxes, yes.”

Like I said, I know about Judaism from reading books.

D’s mom acted like she didn’t care that I didn’t even know their name in actual practice. “What are they for?”

“You keep them in your house and before shabbat and praying and eating, you collect money in them, to help relieve the suffering of the poor.”

“Oh, charity.”

But it isn’t charity, exactly. “Charity” feels a little more optional – giving it makes you “a good person.”

Tzedekah is a mitzvah, a commandment. So while not doing it makes you less than good, doing it doesn’t exactly make you especially good, it just makes you … compliant, a law-abiding citizen. Like carrying car insurance, or paying your taxes.

So this morning of World Communion Sunday, fresh from not being a good enough Jewish person to keep Shabbat Shuvah or to know how to pronounce tzedekah, which is actually completely understandable since I am not Jewish and only know about Judaism from reading about it in books and crushing on it when I am not busy crushing on Christianity, we started the day by studying Deuteronomy and “the statutes and ordinances” and so we took a look at some of the kinds of things that would be included in those statutes and ordinances.

In my habitual effort to head off the predictable Christian comments about “legalism” and “the law,” I reminded the class that

Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe. (Deuteronomy 30:11-14)

That is, to “do.” Which, I said, we get the wrong idea about sometimes, being Christians, and gentiles. So then, “well, what is in it?” So then we looked at some of the statutes and ordinances in Deuteronomy and then suddenly there was all kinds of conversation about “well, why …?” and “there is a lot of …” and “I like Matthew 25 better” and “there are only 7 things in there to have to do” until I was sorry I had even brought it up.

Not that it is my job to defend the religion I crush on when I am not busy crushing on Christianity, but …

We – “the nations,” that is, we gentiles – have such fundamentally wrong ideas about “the law” after 1700 or so years of thinking and saying and believing that gentile Christianity is intrinsically superior to it and doesn’t need to have anything to do with it that we persistently ignore some obvious facts:

The “statutes and ordinances” are no more arbitrary than stopping on red and going on green, or than “no wearing white after Labor Day.” (And I know people who “do” that last one more faithfully than they do any word that ever came out of Jesus’s mouth.)

The “statutes and ordinances” are no more detailed than the Indiana Rules of the Road, and we expect people to comply with all of those, all of the time, as if it is nothing special, as if we are not asking anything out of the ordinary. Because … we aren’t.

The “statutes and ordinances” are no more picky than my mother’s rules for dealing with butter. (“Thou shalt not butter toast with the butter knife! Thou shalt not scrape butter from the top of the stick! Thou shalt not cut butter from both ends of a stick!) I have followed those instructions my entire life. [And they don’t honestly feel burdensome; the burden has been the lifetime it has taken me not to think, automatically, “Don’t you know anything?” when I see someone Breaking The Rules.]

People, all people, we, routinely comply with incredibly detailed, often arbitrary, sometimes nano-technically picky rules and regulations for our behavior, constantly. We call it “culture,” “way of life,” “experience,” “skill,” “business,” “socialization,” “policies and procedures,” to say nothing of actual legal compliance in this or that area.

Halakhah, the body of detailed religious regulation that Rabbinic Judaism developed on the basis of the study of Torah, God’s “instruction,” is not really an outlier in this regard.

And feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty, welcoming strangers, clothing the naked, taking in the homeless, caring for the sick, and visiting people in prison is not intrinsically easier than not allowing your neighbor’s animals to wander off without doing anything to stop it. (Deuteronomy 22:1)

“Love” in the abstract sounds so easy.

Love when the baby is crying at 3:30 a.m., or the traffic is crawling at 5:30 p.m., or … pick your poison, love in the particular practical circumstances of your actual daily life is hard.

We are constantly tempted to cut corners. We are constantly tempted to think of charity as optional. We are constantly tempted to think of “love” as something that does not apply here, now, to this specific situation.

So having a Torah, an instruction, that reminds us to “do this,” or “don’t do that,” here, now, in this particular practical circumstance, in this specific situation, having Torah that teaches us “this is what it looks like in practice,” this is not a bad thing, this is a good thing.

Because it is really different to know about something from reading about it in a book, than it is to know about it from someone who is putting it into practice, and teaching you how to put it into practice in the process.

It’s like the difference between knowing how to spell tzedekah, and knowing how to pronounce it. Or how to do it.

Then, after worship, we went to the Jay C and bought food for the local food pantry.

“But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.” James 1:25

2 responses to “Twenty-seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time”

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