Social and Ritual

What does it take to be able to say, I am religious? Most will tell you that to be religious, you need to observe Shabbat and holidays, the dietary laws and those of family purity. But are we really religious if that is all we observe? What of honesty and kindness? If I don Teffilin every day, but gossip, if I pray thrice daily, but cheat, am I religious? Are the ritual religious tenets superior to the social ones?
 
The answer is of course a resounding no. Cheating and lying are just as forbidden as lobster and shrimp. Arrogance and anger are just as forbidden and bacon and pork. Gossip and lewdness are just as sinful as desecrating the Shabbat. To declare yourself religious is to pledge fidelity to all the Torah laws, not just to the ones you like best.
 
Pascal Lamb
Ritual Torah laws and social Torah laws are equally divine and nowhere is this more evident than in the first commandment that we received as a nation. Yet before leaving Egypt, G-d commanded us to partake of the Pascal Lamb. Let’s review the peculiar requirements of this ritual.
 
It was a ritual requirement. The slaughtering of a sheep, the painting of its blood on the doorposts and the pre-midnight roasting and consumption of its meat. But, there were also social requirements. The meat could only be consumed in groups. Once you joined a group and the lamb was slaughtered, you could not switch to a different group. Once the meat was brought into the house, it could not be removed. No bone could be broken during consumption. And most unusual, only circumcised Jews were permitted to partake.
 
I suggest that G-d ordained a blend of ritual and social laws as our first commandment to underscore the equal importance of both. Embracing one without the other is neither G-dly nor religious.
 
Social Dynamics
In every group there are those whose company we enjoy more than others. When social tensions surface, fissures begin to appear that threaten the group‘s integrity. Several outcomes are possible. The group can agree to break up into smaller groups, it can stay together and ignore the simmering tensions until they come to a boil or it can stretch wide to accommodate the variant streams.
 
G-d didn’t want our ancestors to eat their Pascal lambs alone at home neither did He want them to eat it in a huge convention. He wanted them to eat it in small manageable groups, comprised of just enough people to consume an entire lamb in a single night. In other words, a group larger than a family, but smaller than a crowd, where it is possible to interface meaningfully with each member of the group.
 
In large crowds, Individuals can get lost. In smaller groups, each person counts. This means that every individual impacts the group with his or her personality and peculiarities. The possibility of clashes is as strong as the possibility of forming new friendships.
 
The Torah throws us together in this group and denies us the option of breaking it up. Once the group is formed and the lamb has been slaughtered, this group must survive the night. This social setting forces us to be amiable, patient and tolerant. If differences appear, we can’t opt out. We can’t even take our meal outside to create space and cool off. Neither can we allow tensions to simmer until they explode and we grow violent. I.e. the lamb’s bones may not be broken. There is no choice, but to get along. By the time this evening ends, we must learn to settle our differences and ameliorate our problems because that is the only option.
 
The message is this. You can’t partake of a ritual and be in synch with G-d, if you are not in synch with His children. The ritual laws and the social laws are equal parts of Torah, integral parts of our relationship with G-d. If you want to eat G-d’s Pascal Lamb, you must get along with G-d’s children.
 
Only the Circumcised
The question is how to achieve this and the answer lies in the requirement that only the circumcised join this group. Circumcision is performed on the organ that facilitates physical bonding. Additionally, the Torah speaks elsewhere of a symbolic foreskin around the heart, the organ that facilitates emotional bonding.
 
Bonding is our ability to share - to give and to receive, to see the world through another’s perspective and to let it rub off on our own. A foreskin conceals and encloses our bonding organ and, symbolically, our heart. To be sure, you still bond, but everything is filtered through the foreskin. Symbolically this means that when you hear another’s point of view, you filter it through your own.
(This does not suggest even remotely that uncircumcised men cannot relate to others. This discussion is completely allegorical.)
 
The secret to tolerance, patience and unity is listening to others from their point of view. We often engage in conversation to share our own thoughts and filter everything we hear through our own worldview. When something clashes with our worldview we seek to mold it to our viewpoint. When we fail, we grow frustrated and give up or lose patience. When we meet people we can’t stand, we try to change them and when we fail, we grow frustrated and reject them.
 
To foster unity we need to stop talking and truly listen. This means to view the world through the other’s viewpoint and adjust our thoughts to theirs. It doesn’t mean that we change our view, it means that we seek to understand each other. When others feel understood, they feel accepted and when they feel accepted they are prepared to accept us in turn. Conversely, when we understand each other we can tolerate the peculiarities that otherwise disturb us.
 
This kind of bonding experience can last all night. There is no need for violent bone breaking and no need for escape. There are no tensions and no disintegrations. Instead, there is lots of discussion, lots of sharing and a full acceptance of differing viewpoints. We might disagree, but we will respect.
 
The symbolic meaning of removing the foreskin is to cultivate our ability to bond by opening our hearts to others and truly seeing them from their point of view. In the end, hearing the other side enriches our own. We become more complete when we are open to new ideas.
 
This is why G-d told Abraham that by removing his foreskin he would become perfect. By cutting away a part of his body and making himself imperfect, he would become perfect. Those who consider themselves perfect leave no room for improvement and have no need for others. Such people are so self-absorbed that their hearts are closed and they cannot bond. They can perform ritual commandments, but cannot relate to G-d’s children. They are incomplete.
 
Those who remove the foreskin and open their hearts ultimately grow from it and become complete. They have true balance of the ritual and the social. They relate to G-d and to His children.
 
They can truly say, I am religious.


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