The website of Rabbi Moshe Pitchon

The World in Which We Live

by Rabbi Moshe Pitchon

“If I should suddenly find myself alone with myself, I would be existing, but that existing would not be living,” reflected José Ortega y Gasset. The Spanish philosopher stated that human beings have no other way of living than by being in another entity called “the world.”

This world, this environment in which we live, demands responses to the difficulties and facilities it produces. We respond to this confrontation through culture, that is, the series of more or less satisfactory solutions we are forced to invent to handle our problems and the needs of our lives.

Long ago, the Talmud used the cubit- a measuring unit at the time- to name what for centuries was the equivalent of what today we call Jewish culture. The rabbis referred to the culture’s task of framing our lives as “the four cubits of Halakhah.”

For halakhic Jews, today –”the four cubits of Halakhah”-is all about serving God.

Claiming that Judaism’s purpose is not the development of individual potentialities but serving God in a particular way, residents of dozens of enclaves such as Borough Park, Williamsburg, Crown Heights, Bnei Brak, Har Hamor, and so on, not only depreciate humanity’s heroic effort to surmount life’s complexities, they misrepresent the Hebrew Scriptures’ message.

Tellingly, the Torah and prophetic sections designed to be read during the High Holidays are not those that have to do with God’s creation of the universe-the supposed subject of Rosh ha-Shanah. Instead, tradition chose to read biblical passages dealing with the banishment of Hagar and Ishmael not as Jews but as a mother and a son, as well as the emotional and moral conflicts surrounding the near sacrifice of Isaac.

“Such omissions,” noted Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis, “suggest a deliberate decision to deflect attention from the creation event and place emphasis upon human moral struggles.”

On Yom Kippur afternoon, the Torah reading includes Leviticus 19: 17, where the loud message there is “lo tisna” (“You shall not hate.”)

Lo tisna means that we should understand that the hate pervading our world is unacceptable if we want to believe that there is an entity called “humanity.” Lo tisna implies that we shouldn’t justify any lies and violence that chip away the concept of human commonality.

Closing the Torah reading on Yom Kippur, we open the book of Jonah to remind us that even a Jewish prophet is chastised for refusing to call out the evil generated by a powerful nation

So, for those not living in the medieval “four cubits of Halakhah” but in a Jewish culture that follows the model of the patriarch Abraham’s tent- a structure framed by four open sides- the High Holidays offer much food for thought regarding living as Jews in the world today.

Among those “tidbits,” Psalm 69 verse 14, a standard in Jewish liturgy, tells us what prayer is

The Psalm exclaims: “Va’ani t’filati l’cha, Adonai et ratzon.” Generally, this is translated as: “As for me, may my prayer come to You, O Lord, at a favorable moment.

 Yet, the literal meaning of the verse is: “I am your prayer.” 

The High Holidays are a reminder that when humans actively work to stop divisiveness based on lies and hate; when humans are sensitive to the needs of all the other beings that inhabit the same world; when they are not afraid to call out evil by its name, then they become the actual prayer then eternity hears.

Judaism is not solely a religion; it is a culture where religion is a significant part.

  • Only sects- the caricature of religion- build walls dividing those living within the four cubits and those living in Abraham’s tent.
  • Only cliques distinguish between Jews and Zionists.
  • And only those with an excess of chutzpa differentiate between Jews and Israelis.

Putting it in another way, fostering Jewish culture instead of ritual and nostalgia, pathetic lifestyles, and flimsy ideological flavors of the day could be the apt response to a world that seems to be worryingly closing on our descendants and us.

Perhaps an apt way of celebrating Rosh Ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur for those not living in sectarian enclaves but in the whole wide world should be to sit around a table with family and friends and talk about these things.


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