Rabbi Rachel Timoner – Shabbat Va’eira 5781 Nechemta

Joe and Sylvia, your divrei Torah today are aiming at the questions of what is true and what is right. Joe was asking what caused the ten plagues, a question that could be answered scientifically (whether through scientific theory or archeology), religiously, or literarily, through text criticism. This is a question of what is true.

Sylvia’s questions were how should we respond to evil or wrongdoing? Is revenge ever justified? What is appropriate punishment? Is collective punishment ever justified? Is repentance possible? These are religious questions. These questions are about what is right.

Joe, you raise the question of science versus religion. We often think of this dichotomy as using rational thought and active questioning (in the realm of science) versus passively or blindly following external authority or text (in the realm of religion).

In Judaism, this is a false dichotomy. The use of rational inquiry and critical thought is essential to Judaism. Questioning is at the center. Some of us are engaged in the practice of Daf Yomi, reading one page of Talmud a day, and anyone who takes time with the Talmud can see that inquiry, rational, critical thought, is at the heart of the Jewish tradition.

But for the most part, science and religion are focused on different sets of questions. Science is primarily asking what is happening or why is it happening. Religion, in particular Judaism, is more focused on the question: what should we do? How should we live?

But these realms of questions overlap. Science can help us answer religious questions, because what we believe about why something happened affects what should we do about it.

If Pharaoh hardened his own heart five times before God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, it affects how we think about Pharaoh’s punishment and potential for teshuva, repentance.

If we think climate change is caused by God, we will have a very different response to it than if we think it is caused by human action.

If we know why someone did something evil, that information can guide us as to discerning appropriate punishment.

I’m going to use an example from this week’s events. If we could know what was motivating the 147 Republicans in Congress who voted to overturn the election results and continue to rile up their base such that it results in attacks on our society, we could better discern what should happen to them. Is it a political calculation– a cynical embrace of conspiracy theories as a way to maintain power and a plutocratic, antidemocratic agenda? Or do they actually believe in the conspiracy theories that are now running their party, in the way we have seen in other fascist regimes when people get caught up in a mass delusion? This takes us into the realm of psychology and sociology, social sciences, to understand how a person believes in something demonstrably false, and how tens of millions of people do. There are social scientific theories on this that could help us better understand what we are seeing.

If they are entirely under the spell of crazy theories, they need psychological or psychiatric help, they need to be deprogrammed, to regain a grip on reality. If they are cynically exploiting those theories to try to hold power, meaning that they’re lying and intentionally inciting insurrection because they know they cannot win democratically, they should face legal consequences, possibly criminal consequences. Either way, they’re unfit to serve. But our response is shaped by our theory of what is happening.

The primary difference between science and religion is that science’s theories are determined through the scientific method, by which hypotheses are empirically tested. Science maps for us what is knowable so far, and then models out theories based on what is known. The Big Bang, for example, is a theory based on a lot of empirically tested knowledge. But the theory is describing something unknown. It’s a best guess based on what we know so far.

While our knowledge of ourselves and our world is ever-growing, there is still a lot we don’t know, in the universe and in ourselves.

So we’re left with some uncertainty, with some mystery, both in science and in religion. Religion also puts out theories to explain the unknown, and to be religious, “to believe” is to choose to go with those theories until proven otherwise. The danger in both science and religion is to forget that theories are just theories, to lock in those theories as Truth. I find that religion does best when we allow the mystery to be a mystery, when we allow the unknown to be unknown, when we retain humility and allow belief to guide us, to comfort us, but not to limit us, to always hold out the recognition that we don’t know.

And then to focus on the kinds of questions that you asked, Sylvie. What is right? Given what we do know, given our best guesses about ourselves and the world, how should we live? What should we do in any given situation? What’s right, here in this world, in this life? That is what mitzvot are all about, guidance for the right thing to do or not do in a given situation, and today you have both become b’nei mitzvah, meaning that for the rest of your lives, you’re invited into that question — what does right action look like? How should you live?

According to one reading of the Torah, the first mitzvah appears in this week’s parasha. It’s usually understood based on Rashi’s teaching that the first mitzvah in the Torah is in next week’s parasha, in Exodus 12, when God tells the Israelites that Nisan will be the first month and that they shall observe Passover in Nissan. But in the Talmud Yerushalmi (Rosh Hashanah 1) there’s a different opinion. There, the rabbis say that this week’s parasha has the first mitzvah, and it is verse 6:13 when the Torah says that God commands the Israelites and Pharaoh to deliver the Israelites from the land of Egypt.” Why would God command the Israelites along with Pharaoh to deliver the Israelites. Maybe it was a command to free ourselves. The rabbis in the Talmud interpret it to mean that our very first commandment is to free slaves. That is the cornerstone, the foundation, of all other commandments.

My colleague Rabbi Ari Hart, an Orthodox rabbi, uses this teaching this week to criticize his Orthodox colleagues and the broader Orthodox community for supporting Donald Trump and the white supremacist agenda that he has defended and unleashed.

If our first mitzvah is to free slaves, then as American Jews in the 21st century, our first obligation is dismantle all of the remnants of slavery in this country, to make reparation for the damages it has wreaked upon our fellow citizens, the Black people of this country, and to root out not only the descendants of slave owners as personified by the white nationalists storming the Capitol, and those sitting inside of it, but also its legacy in every institution of our society. If our first commandment is to free the slaves, we still have work to do.

These kinds of questions — how should we live — are where religion is at its best. Even with all of the scientific understanding in the world, we would still need to answer religious questions all the time: What should we do? What is a right action in a given situation?

Further, on this MLK weekend, we remember that it is often religion and religious leaders who are the most transformational leaders in human history, as they speak to the realm of the spirit. We often doubt we have the strength or courage or power to do what should be done—we look at the broken world and think the task before us is impossible. We need religion and religious leaders to empower us with belief, as Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King said:

“I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality….I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies; education and culture for their minds; and dignity, equality, and freedom for their spirits. I BELIEVE THAT WHAT SELF-CENTERED PEOPLE HAVE TORN DOWN, OTHER-CENTERED PEOPLE CAN BUILD UP…I still believe that we shall overcome.”

Sylvia and Joe, on this day that you become b’nei mitzvah, you have asked excellent questions. May you both keep asking questions, about why the world is how it is and what we should do about it. May you be guided by the wisdom of those who came before you asking the very same questions, and may you find in Torah and mitzvot meaningful guidance to live lives of goodness and love, righteousness and justice. Amen.