Shoshie’s Rules

im-aliveIn Parashat Emor we are commanded, “Do not desecrate My Holy Name, and I shall be sanctified within the Children of Israel.” These two mitzvot (commandments), desecrating God’s Name and sanctifying it, can be interpreted as very general principles that guide us to sanctify God’s Name in every action that we do and not to desecrate it. Nonetheless, the particular mitzvah of sanctifying God’s Name is specified regarding situations in which we are required to give up our lives in total self-sacrifice.

Jewish law holds that human life has supreme and fundamental value and the Almighty wants us to live in this world and not to die. This is why any life-threatening situation usually overrides all other mitzvot, as the verse states, “Observe My statutes and My laws that an individual does and he shall live by them” on which the sages expound, “but he should not die by them.” Yet, under certain circumstances we reveal that there is something beyond even the fundamental essence of life, as Rashi comments on the verse in Parashat Emor, “‘I shall be sanctified’―sacrifice yourself and sanctify My Name.”

-Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh
“Sanctifying God’s Name”
Commentary on Torah Portion Emor
Wonders From Your Torah

Embracing the simple concept of sanctifying God’s Name as opposed to desecrating it seems comfortable and almost joyful. To say, “I bless Your Holy Name” in prayer to the Almighty strips away all of the conundrums, mysteries, puzzles, and blind arguments in which we engage every day when facing the enigma of the Bible and the infinitely greater enigma of the infinite, eternal, omnipresent, radically One, Ein Sof, God.

It’s also comforting to know that, regardless of how we perceive our responsibilities to God, that He considers (at least in Judaism) our lives so important, that in the vast majority of situations, we are free to take whatever extraordinary measures are required to preserve our lives and the lives of others. You don’t have to fret that the ambulance won’t come to take you to the hospital and that instead you’ll die of a heart attack just because it’s Shabbat. If you have had an accident and are bleeding profusely, you don’t have to be concerned that the paramedic won’t provide emergency treatment because coming in contact with your body fluids might make him ritualistically impure. And if you’re starving to death and the only food available is a slice of pork, God won’t send you to hell without an electric fan if you need to eat the pork to survive.

God says your life and mine are more important than “the rules…”

…in most cases, but then again, that’s Judaism, and how much of that applies to me anyway? All I’m trying to hang on to is the belief that God thinks my life is more important than someone else’s theology or doctrine or how they “obey the rules.”

Is just being alive sanctifying God’s Name? I don’t know. Probably not. Lots and lots of people are alive and they don’t give God a second thought, or if they do, they curse His Name, or laugh at Him, or certainly laugh at those who love Him, deeming them ignorant, superstitious, bigots, anti-progressive, or all of the above.

groucho-marxFor the past couple of weeks, I’ve posted a series of reviews on most of the essays that were published in David Rudolph’s and Joel Willitts’ book Introduction to Messianic Judaism: Its Ecclesial Context and Biblical Foundations. A number of people registered their displeasure at my opinions, and the endless back-and-forth wrangling about religious concepts in the blogosphere and in other realms makes me despair for religion as an institution. Or as Groucho Marx famously said, “I don’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member.”

I find great comfort, wisdom, and illumination in God, I’m just not always sure about those who say they follow Him (including me). Actually, that reminds me of another famous quote.

“I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. They are so unlike your Christ.”


The irony is that we have all of these Internet arguments because we say we’re trying to be more like Christ. Go figure.

Our teacher the Baal Shem Tov said: Every single thing one sees or hears is an instruction for his conduct in the service of G-d. This is the idea of avoda, service, to comprehend and discern in all things a way in which to serve G-d.

“Today’s Day”
Hayom Yom: Iyar 9, 24th day of the omer
Compiled by the Lubavitcher Rebbe; Translated by Yitschak Meir Kagan

So every single thing I see or hear, including in these blog conversations, is an instruction for how to serve God. It is also said:

The theme of Pesach Sheini is that it is never too late. It is always possible to put things right. Even if one was tamei (ritually impure), or one was far away, and even in a case of lachem, when this (impurity etc.) was deliberate – nonetheless he can correct it.

I suppose it’s unreasonable to expect that I can avoid hurting someone’s feelings by expressing my personal opinions, especially religious opinions. How do I simply sanctify God’s Name and experience the peace and joy at knowing, at least from God’s perspective, each and every one of our individual lives is exceptionally important to Him? The minute I stray away from “meditations” that are more suited to a greeting card and that involve looking at different perspectives on the Bible, life doesn’t seem so special anymore, and the sanctity of God’s Name comes into question, at least if that sanctity depends on the behavior of God’s followers (including me).

But what choice do I have?

“Against your will you live; against your will you die”

– Ethics of the Fathers 4:22

Woman in fireI have no control. Nadav and Avihu brought “strange fire” before God and were incinerated for their efforts, and theologians, saints and rabbis have been trying to figure out for centuries what that meant. What if Nadav and Avihu were the strange fire themselves? There’s a commentary on Pirkei Avot 4:22:

“The soul of man is a lamp of G-d.”

The flame knows no rest, for it lives in perpetual conflict between two opposite tendencies. On the one hand, it cleaves to its wick, drinking thirstily of the oil that fuels its existence. At the same time, it surges upward, seeking to tear free of its material tether. It knows that such disengagement would spell the end of its existence as a manifest, illuminating flame; nevertheless, such is its nature.

This is the paradox of the flame’s life: its attachment to wick and fuel sustains both its continued existence and its incessant striving for oblivion.

Man, too, is torn between these two contrasting drives. On the one hand, he tends towards self, towards life and existence. At the same time, he yearns for transcendence, to tear free from the confining involvements of physical life, to reach beyond his material self.

“Against your will you live; against your will you die” – the tension created by these conflicting drives is the essence of the human experience. The desire to escape the trappings of physical life is what separates the human from the merely animal; but the escapist nature of man is counterbalanced by the compulsion to be, a compulsion that binds him to the material reality. Back and forth, back and forth runs the cycle of life, from being to transcendence and back again.

God drives me crazy sometimes, but He doesn’t drive me as crazy as the people who follow Him (including me).

Rabbi Ginsburgh said:

True, sometimes for various reasons we are unable to observe the entire Torah; we cannot always reach out to every Jew; and there have been long periods in history when we have been unable to occupy the whole of the land. But we must realize that in essence, the Torah is complete, the Jewish people is complete, and the land of Israel is a complete entity.

While the esteemed Rabbi’s thoughts go in directions my brain cannot follow, he touches upon the difference between the doing and the being. Sometimes we can’t do everything God wants us to do and be everything God wants us to be. Heck, most of the time we can’t come anywhere close to the expectations of God, especially when we’re in contact with other people of faith. There are days…most days, when I imagine myself sitting at the bottom of the abyss. Light filters down so I can see. It’s dry and warm and really not so uncomfortable. Most of all, it’s quiet. There’s plenty of peace and plenty of time just to contemplate God. I talk to God and He listens. There are no other voices. Only the silence of God speaks to me.

i_give_upI know I’m not supposed to give up on people because God never gave up on people. I know, I know. There are those out there who say my life only matters if I consider myself “Israel,” otherwise I’m a “non-event.” But I can’t help but believe that God cares not only about His people Israel, but the rest of the world as well. Is God only the God of Israel? Didn’t He create the Gentile as well as the Jew? Does He not cause the rain to fall on the fields of the Gentile as well as the fields of the Jew, making the crops of each grow and flourish. Does He not put food on my table as well as on the table of the Jew?

Or am I just making all this up?

Rabbi Simcha Barnett wrote a tender and heartbreaking story about a 12-year-old girl named Shoshie Stern, who lost her life recently in a tragic accident.

Mike and I are best friends, and over the years I spent a lot of time at his Shabbat table, where he and his wife Denise took tremendously good care of their guests, making everyone feel extremely comfortable and well-fed. Denise would prepare a first course of incredible bounty and variety, and Mike would jokingly refer to the rules cited above to break the ice, making a connection with the many disparate people at the table (and also to get the food circulating). Mike and Denise are my chesed (kindness) mentors, and I keep them with me always at my Shabbat table through the Rules.

Tragically, Mike and Denise lost their 12-year-old daughter Shoshie a”h last week in a tragic accident, and though I didn’t really know Shoshie well, I feel that through the experience of the funeral and Shiva, I got a glimpse into the soul of a rare human being, one created in the Stern image, yet with her own unique spin. Through this experience I discovered a whole new set of rules – the Shoshie Stern Rules:

Give up your seat, make peace, and see the good in everyone.

A 12-year-old girl had the remarkable ability to teach a Rabbi something new, but she had to die to bring “Shoshie’s Rules” to the world. Of course, the rules are not unique and I’m sure you can find their origins in the Bible with little effort. However, in the midst of struggling over who has the “right” to wear tzitzit and whether or not Christians are equally “Israel” along with the Jewish people, these are the very rules we all forget.

As I write this, it’s Thursday morning and I know I have enough commentary on Rudolph’s and Willitts’ book in my “queue” to last through Monday. That means from today through Monday, I’ll have well-meaning and intelligent people telling me I don’t know which end is up and that my blogged opinions and commentaries aren’t worth the electrons they’re printed on. Like I’ve said in the past, I don’t mind being disagreed with, I just mind being told I have to do the moral equivalent of a home invasion on Israel and the Jewish people for the sake of someone else’s theology and doctrine.

ShoshieSternRulesIt’s less important to me to wear a kippah, don a tallit gadol, and lay tefillin before prayer than it is to just pray. It’s less important to me to take the seat at the head of the banquet table than to give up my seat for the sake of the ways of peace.

And I would really, really love to have the ability to see the good in everyone.

But even Jesus said, only God is good. I guess that’s why I’d like to just bury myself somewhere alone with Him.

He won’t let me, but it’s still fantastically appealing. But it’s also incredibly selfish. Rabbi Barnett finishes his tribute to Shoshie this way:

This past Shabbat, my thoughts turned to my dear friends the Sterns, who were amidst a heart-wrenching mourning period. But instead of the familiar Mike Stern Rules, I invoked a new set of rules at the Shabbat table: the Shoshie Stern Rules:

Give up your seat, make peace, and see the good in everyone.

I’m hoping to apply the Shoshie Stern Rules to my life. May it add merit to her soul for eternity.

I don’t think you can learn any of these lessons let alone live them out unless your heart is perpetually breaking.

“Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.”

-George Bernard Shaw, Irish playwright

153 days.

2 thoughts on “Shoshie’s Rules”

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