The past Saturday, January 31st, I had the privilege of attending and teaching at the annual URJ East District (New Jersey & Friends) Shabbaton. This day of prayer, study, and socializing is one that I look forward to every year since I moved to New Jersey. The atmosphere, the energy, the excitement, and the desire to learn at the Shabbaton is contagious and uplifting.
This year, my now annual Talmud study session called “Those Crazy Rabbis” focused on a Talmudic discussion from Tractate Sota (pages 27b, 30b-31a) regarding Shirat HaYam, The Song of the Sea. The Song of the Sea, from Parashat Beshalach, the Torah portion from last week, is near and dear to me, not only for its importance in our history and our tradition, but also because it was the Torah portion I read at my Bar Mitzvah service.
While the “crazy” part of the discussion came in the Rabbis’ debate over how Shirat HaYam is to be recited (with even fetuses in the womb singing the song), the more enlightening discussion, and the one more relevant to us as liberal, autonomous Jews today, came immediately afterwards. In the Rabbis’ discussion of Job they attempt to answer the question of which is a better reason for serving God; out of love or out of fear. Before I comment on that question and the Rabbis’ discussion of it, we first need to understand why this discussion immediately follows one about The Song of the Sea.
The Rabbinic teachings flow by association, as if they were an active conversation between two or more parties. For example, if I were to be talking to someone about Cracker Jack, that might (read: definitely would) remind me of baseball, and the next part of that conversation would be about baseball, even if it had nothing to do directly with Cracker Jack. In much the same way, since the Song of the Sea recounts the awesome powers of God that were on display at the parting of the Red Sea, the Rabbis thought about what the response to that power might be. On the one hand, our ancestors could have felt a obligation to serve God out of love for God for redeeming them from slavery with such mighty acts. On the other hand, perhaps our ancestors felt compelled to serve God out of fear of what God might do to them with such power.
This same question could be asked of this week’s portion, Yitro, as well. As the Israelites are encamped at the foot of Mount Sinai, Moses ascends the mountain amidst the thunder, lighting and clouds. God’s power is on display as God utters to us the laws we are to follow in God’s name; The Ten Commandments. Did our ancestors follow God’s laws in fear of the thunder, lightning and clouds? Were our ancestors afraid of God’s powers as described in the midrash where God held Mt. Sinai above the Israelites until they agreed to accept the Torah? Or, did our ancestors choose to accept the Torah and serve God out of a love of God and a love of being Jewish?
According to the Rabbis of the Talmud, both approaches, serving God out of fear and serving God out of love, are valid and righteous. Both are authentic and appropriate ways of living a Jewish life. However, Rabbi Shimon ben Eleazar teaches us that serving God out of love is the greater of the two as the merit of this approach lasts for twice as long. Living a Jewish life out of a love of God and devotion to our tradition is twice as rewarding as living a Jewish life out of fear of punishment.
In our day we should not engage with Jewish life out of a fear of failing to live up to certain expectations.
In our day we should not engage with Jewish life out of an obligation to merely fulfill a certain set of rules.
In our day let us enjoy the freedom to celebrate and embrace our tradition because WE WANT TO, because WE ENJOY IT, because it has SPECIAL MEANING TO US, because it FEEDS OUR SOULS, and because WE LOVE BEING JEWISH.