BY RACHEL LAVICTOIRE / AJT//
Last week, as with many other times since I left for school in August, I was left with a decision to make by myself. It was nothing major.
My sorority was hosting a “bonding” event to provide my pledge class an opportunity to get to know the Kappa Kappa Gamma sophomores. It was on a Wednesday night, starting at 8 p.m.
Now, on Wednesdays my schedule is more than a little hectic. I have class from 10 a.m. to 11, from noon until 2:30 p.m. and again from 3 to 5:30. And on that particular Wednesday, I had a meeting at 6 in the evening, so it wasn’t until 6:30 that I started to walk back to my dorm.
To protect myself from the whipping wind, I put my head down and shoved my hands deep into my pockets. The whole walk back, I was debating whether or not I would go to the event. Here’s what I was thinking:
Yes: I love everyone I’ve met so far, so it will be fun. No: It’s really cold.
Yes: There are so many girls I haven’t met yet, and I really should get to know some other people. No: I have no idea what time it will be over, and I still have homework to do tonight.
Yes: When I decided to be in a sorority, I knew it would be a time commitment, and it’s disrespectful to bail on people. No: Really, there are 49 freshman, so they won’t really notice if I’m not there.
I picked up food to-go and went back to my room. I put my backpack down, opened up Hulu on my computer, put my food out and sat down in my chair – my decision was made, I wasn’t going back outside.
Even with my mind made up, though, I had to survey my floor. I found 10 or so kids lounging around in one room, and I said to everyone, “Tell me it’s OK for me to not go to my sorority event tonight.”
I know I’m 18, and I know it was a small decision, but the truth is that I struggle – as I imagine many do – with the ultimate paradox of growing up: I hate rules, but I’m scared of freedom. I don’t like being told what to do, but when I choose for myself, I crave the reassurance that someone agrees with me.
Speaking of rules, this week’s Torah portion is called Mishpatim, which can be translated to mean either “sentences” or “laws.” It’s in this week’s parshah (the one before Moses receives the Torah) that G-d lays out 53 of the 613 commandments.
Some of the laws concern justice:
“One who strikes a man so that he dies shall surely be put to death (Exodus 21:13).”
Some, however, are more arbitrary:
“The choicest of the first fruits of your soil you shall bring to the house of the Lord, your G-d. You shall not cook a kid in its mother’s milk (Exodus 23:19).”
With these 53 laws, the Israelites are instructed on how to treat strangers, how to punish criminals, how to give sacrifices to G-d, etc. Many people first look to the nature of these mitzvahs: There are 23 laws detailing things to do and 30 commanding things not to do.
More well-versed scholars, though, look at the mitzvot in three categories: mishpatim, chukkim and eidot.
Mishpatim (“laws”) are considered to be the logical rules – the ones you would expect to exist in any society. These include punishment, the owning of a slave, and other judicial issues.
Chukkim (“decrees”) are on the other end of the spectrum. These are the laws that some see as irrational and random, like the laws of keeping kosher.
Finally, the eidot (“testimonials”) are those divine rules that have more of a logical reasoning. An example would be the law to eat matzah on Passover in order to remember our ancestors in Egypt.
In these chapters in the Torah, G-d lays out law upon law, and when He is done, the Israelites say, “All that the Lord spoke we will do and we will hear (Exodus 24:7).”
If you’ve begun to pick up on my analysis, then you might have noticed the abnormality in the Israelites saying they will “do” first and “hear” second. It seems more logical for people to hear a law, consider its validity and morality, and then decide to implement it.
However, the Israelites do not respond as such. I suppose it’s possible to criticize them, to judge them as ignorant for blindly following laws that they may not agree with. I see it differently, though.
I like to imagine that it’s actually a three-step process: Do, hear and then choose.
As a “Reform” Jew, there are many laws that I don’t observe. I eat shrimp, use my phone on Saturdays, kiss boys and wear shorts. I’m proud to say, though, that all of those are choices. I have recognized that, personally, I don’t feel more connected to G-d by passing on a formal lobster dinner, and I don’t think I distance myself from Judaism when I hug a boy good-bye.
I have, however, thought about it.
Today, Jews are very much divided with labels. We have the Chasidim, the Orthodox, the Modern Orthodox, the Conservative, the Reform, the Reconstructionist and Jews of many other denominations that I haven’t yet heard of.
Each branch has defined a set of laws that deemed significant, as well as a set of laws found culturally irrelevant. But I struggle with the rigidity; if you’re a “Reform” Jew who chooses to keep kosher, are you still Reform?
If you’re “Conservative” but read your Nook on Shabbat instead of a physical book, are you still Conservative? Can an “orthodox” Jew wear a t-shirt in the summer and still be orthodox?
It’s much easier to observe the laws in your own community – to do what everyone does and to avoid what everyone else avoids. What if, though, you tried to do, then hear, then choose?
Observe a law, listen to the reactions, and ask yourself how you feel about your decision. Do you feel uncomfortable? Did someone get upset with you? Did someone praise you?
Thus, choose: Is this a law you will abide?
Rules make things easy. We’re told to, we do, G-d is happy. We’re told not to do, we don’t do, G-d is happy.
But at 18 years old, living in a dorm room 600 miles away from the mouths that tell me what to do, easy routes rarely exist. My current rationalization is as follows: G-d is happy with me, so long as I am making an effort to connect – whether that’s praying at Friday night services or writing this article on Sunday. I have done and I have heard.
And yet, as confident as I am with that decision, my instinct is to call every rabbi I know and ask, “Is that OK?”
Rachel LaVictoire (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a graduate of the Davis Academy and Westminster High School, recipient of the prestigious Nemerov Writing and Thomas H. Elliott Merit scholarships at Washington University of St. Louis and an active member of Temple Emanu-El and the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta.