Parashat Tazria: Freedom to Be Yourself
Asher Lopatin, an alumnus of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship, is the rabbi of Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel Congregation. He has rabbinic ordination from Rabbi Ahron Soloveichik and from Yeshiva University and was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army with the rank of Second Lieutenant after serving over two years in the Army reserves. He can be reached at email@example.com.
My wife Rachel always laughs when I complain about my six-week tour of active service in the U.S. Army as a chaplain candidate in Fort Monmouth, NJ. “I couldn’t deal with the regimentation: always following orders and rules!” is what I say when people ask me how it went. “Asher, you are an Orthodox, halachik Jew! What could be more about orders and rules than that?”
But the truth is that, although I’m a believer in the classic “Torah from Sinai,” I don’t feel the orders and rules of my Judaism come from the outside any more: I feel that God has eagerly given them over to every Jew, and that I am taking them on as part of my own faith, my own personal responsibility. As a Jew I have ownership of Jewish law, and it is my obligation not to follow it blindly, as if it were someone else’s, but to cherish and care for it as my own, and to strive to understand exactly what it means to me and how it impacts those around me. I can’t hide behind someone else’s orders; I cannot ignore the consequences of Torah and Mitzvot: as an owner I have all the liability that comes with possession. I have to make sure that the Torah I practice and preach is really the Torah I believe I own – that it is really the Torah gave to us at Sinai.
This week’s reading of Parshat HaChodesh celebrates the idea of the Jewish people owning up to their destiny. The first Mitzvah given to the People of Israel is one they have to take for themselves: “This month is for YOU – “Lachem” – the beginnings of all months.” (Exodus 12:2) As our rabbis understood the process, the New Moon, Rosh Chodesh, along with all the subsequent holidays, is not sanctified by God, but, rather, our calendar is sanctified monthly by us, the Children of Israel: the moon is seen by two witnesses and validated by the court, the Beit Din, and then time – Jewish time – moves forward. Moshe is telling the Israelites that slavery is over, but responsibility for our future has not been turned over to God. God explicitly says, “Lechem” – ‘You need to start the holiness of your future through your own selves.’
Then, two weeks after the beginning of Nissan, after we accept responsibility for our own destiny, we are ready to celebrate Passover, the celebration of being able to worship our God the way we feel God has asked us, to move out of Egypt, and to reclaim our own tradition given to us from our matriarchs and patriarchs. Rosh Chodesh, the New Moon of Nissan, established safe time – taking control of time; Pesach establishes safe space, and the responsibility of making that space holy and meaningful based on Divine guidance, but in a way only each person, each family, each community can determine for itself.
This year, three days after Pesach, 100 Orthodox rabbis are planning to gather to declare our independence and our responsibility in the safe space of a hotel in West Palm Beach. I have been privileged to be on the steering committee of this effort, called the Rabbinic Fellowship, an effort which may challenge the establishment, take Wexnerian-sized risks, and hopefully usher in a new era for Orthodox Judaism. Hopefully we are entering a time where every person celebrates our God-given Torah liability which we cannot delegate to anyone else, as great a rabbi or person as they may be. The Rabbinic Fellowship will allow every attendee to freely express their dreams for a Judaism that they can own up to, and freely vent their frustrations with a reality which all of us need to take responsibility for. Unlike traditional Orthodox gatherings, the format will not focus on gleaning from the brilliance of great Torah scholars or on hearing halachik rulings that we are supposed to follow. To the contrary, every participant’s voice will be heard; there will be 100 VIPs, because every rabbi, every Jew, is a full owner of Torah. The vision for this gathering is for there to be no hierarchy of powerful rabbis or scholars or decisors: no one can take responsibility for our Torah except for us.
Just as Rosh Chodesh Nissan and Pesach ushered in a new era for the Jewish people, I hope we are entering a new era for Orthodox Judaism, one of “Lachem” – proudly declaring that every Jew is an owner of the Torah, and every Jew, rabbi or not, needs to personally struggle to understand it for him/herself. Certainly we listen to the age-old words for our great rabbis, or those alive today. But the halachic “buck” stops with each and every one of us. Only we can be the witnesses and the creative minds to determine the future of the word God gave us at Sinai.