My master, my lips open, and I cannot but speak your praise…
Servitude. It is the beginning of the silent prayer I say three times a day in synagogue. Today’s prayer is no different and I stand in a closely packed room, shoulder to shoulder with my fellow congregants. My Tallis is draped around me and I pull it closer around my head, veiling my face as I scan the room. All stand in deep concentration as they bow in subservience to the creator of the universe and begin the amidah.
I bow as well but it has been many years since I have chosen to converse with my master.
He has an odd nature, my master does. Half mystical, omniscient, and kindly father; half enraged kindergartner ready to kick whatever is closest.
He has chosen to have us remind ourselves of his, shall we say “quirky”, personality traits three times a day in the Shema.
“Now remember kinderllach”, the master chides us children, “If you follow my impossibly complex and ridiculous rule book, and love me for it, you will enjoy the bounty of the earth.”
But then his face turns dark and he draws back, “Heshomru lachem…watch yourselves, if you turn away from me…. Viavoditem mihara maol haaretz hatovah…. I will suddenly destroy you off the face of my good earth.”
Interestingly, the Jerusalem bible translates "Vi’avadatem" as make “you perish” which is close to the meaning I have always learned as “destroy”. Ever careful artscroll sanitizes God in his many temper tantrums, translating it as "banish", based not on the actual wording but on a drasha from the Vilna Gaon. The text itself suggests loss of water and food resulting in starvation.
So there it is… the central tenet of our religion. This mafia threat, this rule through terror, this is the keystone of our relationship with our maker. It is so crucial to his plan for us, that God wants us to place it closest to our hearts, on our doorposts, and keep it ever in our conscious minds.
This is what we are asked to believe? That the sum total of unlimited intelligence, unlimited creative power, and unlimited knowledge result in a two bit Costa nostra who’s threats of physical pain and punishment are to be taken as the very evidence of his concern for our ultimate well being? Are we to have faith that the method every power hungry despot uses to coerce humanity through fear and intimidation using personal physical pain is one and the same with the infinetly wise conclusion reached by the Almighty?
It cannot be.
This is who we are asked to love? The most powerfully benevolent force in the universe, creator of the unfathomable infinity that is the cosmos, designer of the powerful machinery of biology and physics; who has boiled it down to one thing you really better not forget… “I can make it hurt real bad”
It cannot be.
If there is a force behind the universe it is not you, my master.
After all, master, if you were a super intelligent being you would not pick pain and starvation as the core icon by which to remind us of our duty. Only humanity could be so cruel a manipulator of it’s own.
“We know the author by the mark of his claw”; someone once praised Newton upon finding an unsigned copy of his work in Calculus.
Here as well, tracks have been left showing us the real author of our faith, and it is the heavy hand of man.
Many in the synagogue have finished their prayers and I sit down as well never having spoken a word. As the services conclude I ponder the fact that the very paragraph that this group of orthodox Jews sitting around me utters three times a day to preserve their faith, has directly led me to lose mine.
Hands reach toward me as Kiddush ends.
“Good Shabbos, Good Shabbos.”
The crowd busies itself in another well loved and timeless tradition of last minute preparations for a morsel of herring and snippet of scotch. They are in love with the details of the rituals. The kiddush cup is filled so high, and the order of the brochos is just so. Does the tea bag go in the cup first or is it the water ? So many mountains of delicate minutia, and a people so attentive to detail. It is easy to be distracted from the core of the faith, which would likely leave an unpleasant taste in their mouths anyway.
Perhaps my fellow Jews manage not to think of it. After all, there is a shiur starting soon and many halachos of shabbos that they need to brush up on to get it just right.
Though it may set them free, they are not yet ready to hear the truth.