Human attempts to peer into the future, to borrow a metaphor from philosopher J.L. Austin, are like a miner’s hat. A small area is illuminated in front of us so we can adjust our footing. Yet when we project far into the future, darkness reigns and the shadows deceive. The only way to know more of the future is to move forward; with each step the light advances and the next patch of ground becomes visible.
The Talmud in Ta’anit envisions the “future dance of the righteous.” In Alan Brill’s book “Thinking God,” about Rabbi Zadok of Lublin, he quotes Rabbi Zadok’s beautiful comment on this passage:
“The future dance of the righteous is because dancing occurs in a circle in which all are equal. … When everything is complete, then one will not need effort to love in one’s heart the creation, because then loving creation will be as natural as loving parts of one’s own body.”
The Midrash tells of Rabbi Joshua Ben Levi who went walking through the streets of Rome. There he saw the pillars of great buildings covered in tapestries so that they would not contract and split with variations of temperature. Along the same path he saw a poor man who was dressed in sackcloth. Rabbi Joshua noted the splendor with which buildings were covered and the poverty of people.
You cannot understand a landscape, Claude Levi Strauss famously wrote in “Tristes Tropiques,” unless you know what lies beneath the surface. Deep structures explain the features we can see. Similarly, casual readers of the Bible cannot grasp its meaning unless they know the deep structure.
The Israelites, having been slaves, are freed only to then receive God’s law. At first glance, this might seem to encumber them yet again. But slaves are subject not to law, but to will. The more law, the freer. Listen to R.W. Southern in his classic book “The Making of the Middle Ages” discuss the development of law:
The 20th century saw many attempts to refashion the nature of human beings: Communism, eugenics, social Darwinism and others. Each resulted in catastrophe and tragedy. Much of the literature of totalitarianism — “1984,” “Brave New World,” “Darkness at Noon” — chronicles the horror of “perfecting” people or society.
In his book “Ambition,” Joseph Epstein points out that a large percentage of tax fraud is reported by the business associates and “friends” of the offenders. Indignation is peaked most often by those with whom we are close. As comedian Kathy Landsman says, holidays when we gather with our families are “chances to renew resentments afresh.”
‘I shall not die but live and recount the deeds of God.” So reads Psalm 118. Is it redundant? Obviously if one does not die, one lives. Yet life is not living; people die while still alive. The point is not simply to draw breath, but to live. Stephen Vincent Benet wrote: “Life is not lost by dying; life is lost minute by minute, day by dragging day, in all the thousand small uncaring ways.”
Jewish tradition is full of argument, but argument is not its essence. Judaism is a system devoted to the sacred deed.
Mitzvot in all their array — ritual, ethical, colorful, mundane, God-directed, human-centered -- mitzvot are the central stuff of Judaism. What cannot be said can be enacted. The meaning of Shabbat candles is ultimately inexpressible; lighting is the language of ritual, at once less articulate and yet deeper than any words.