I enjoy having my theology stretched or rocked off its foundations because it allows me to learn and to grow. It removes my complacency and replaces it with a desire to rekindle an equilibrium, which only comes from further study. If we’re convinced of our own brilliance and wisdom, and we think we’re always right, we only convince those around us of our stupidity and eventually we will be left alone and behind. This is one reason Yeshua states, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Whoever humbles himself like [a] child shall be greatest in the Olam Haba…” I love the conversations I have with people; they give me an opportunity to teach and to learn from those who are willing to learn and teach.
One of the best things we did was to split the Torah into 54 pieces so we can read complete the Torah every year. On the other hand, the worst things we did to ourselves is to split the Torah in 54 neat little boxes. We even separate these units by the turning a page of the Chumash, which completely severs them. Why not split it? After all, we do this with people. We put blacks in one box, red-necks in another, Italians and the Irish belong in their own box as well. We give everyone in a particular box over-arching characteristics and caricatures, so that our minds are blown when we see someone from one box suddenly portray attributes of those placed in another box. Too often, we get entangled in our preconceived notions. We get lost in our sea of boxes. We become blind to simple truths that stare us in the face. How many times have you placed your keys on your desk, only to return in five minutes to discover the item has vanished? We hunt around, castigating and accusing everyone around us. Just as our emotive responses begin to peak, someone shows us it’s been there all along – we simply placed our paycheck stub over them, obscuring the keys from sight. These earth-shattering, “yeah, duh,” moments are very healthy. They give us an opportunity to tear a hole in our boxes. We get an opportunity to stop being a jerk to those who share in the Image of G-d [and we ALL are made in the Image of G-d] and allow us to repair or build meaningful relationships.
By putting our reading of Torah into 54 weekly sections, we fail to see some obvious connections. For instance, today’s portion begins with the mitzvah to appoint judges in our cities. In the first 19 verses, Torah describes the duties of Shoftim. In matters of difficulty, we are to take our grievances or concerns to the place that Hashem your G-d shall choose, which is Jerusalem. When is this generally done? We discover the answer when we look at the end of last week’s Torah portion, which is in juxtaposition: the shalosh regalim. This allows people to conduct their business in the areas outside of Jerusalem and to see a profit on their labor without fear of competitors hiring people to repeatedly force them to Jerusalem to stand before the Sanhedrin.
Torah provides a very interesting comment in regard to the Shoftim. If decision is particularly difficult, Torah says, “…You shall arise and go up to the place Hashem your God will choose. And you shall come to the Cohanim and to the judge in office…, and you shall consult them, and they shall declare to you the decision. Then you shall do according to what they declare to you… And you shall be careful to do according to all they direct you. According to the instructions they give you, and according to the decision which they pronounce to you, you shall do. You shall not turn aside from the verdict they declare to you, neither to the right hand nor to the left.”
Four times in that passage, we’re instructed to obey those who make verdicts of law. Does this mean the Rabbis or the Torah Teachers share infallibility? How do we know that this is not true? The Torah provides for the situation when a leader makes an error, by creating korban for when the people are led astray by a shofet’s incorrect decision [Leviticus 4].
In our opinion, Judaism concentrates on ethics over ritual. This doesn’t mean ritual is unimportant because ritual is very important; ethics simply carries more weight. A midrash is told to address this issue (The midrash ignores some aspects of the Yom Kippur tradition, but does so to stress a point).
The Cohen Gadol is walking toward the Temple. It’s Erev Yom Kippur and he is thinking about his duties and going over the sequence of events because the service is performed but once a year. As he is walking, he comes upon a dead body. What does he do? The Deputy Cohen’s wife died two days ago, so he cannot rely on a stand-in to take over in his stead. Does he serve as an escort for the dead body and render himself unfit to perform any Temple task for seven days? Does he go to the nearest town and tell the leaders there how to find the corpse? If we are going to say Judaism is a religion concerned with ethics over ritual, we need to be consistent. Every source I can find indicates the Cohen Gadol would concern himself with the fate of the deceased.
The world, from the outside, sees Judaism as a religion of ritual, far more concerned with the kippot, talleisim, and saying the blessings as fast as our lips can move. We, from the inside, see Judaism more as a lifestyle surrounding ethics. This doesn’t mean ritual is not important because it’s very important. It simply means our ethical behavior is paramount over ritual.
A Rebbe was invited to the baker’s home to celebrate Kabbalat Shabbos on Friday evening. This was a special treat because the baker was known for making the finest tasting and the most beautiful challah in the community. The Rebbe dressed in his finest clothes, rubbed the dust off his shoes, and walked with happy purpose to the baker’s home. He came to the door and the baker opened it before the Rebbe could take his knuckles and rap on the door leaf. He welcomed the Rebbe in and the warmth of the hearth and the flickering flames lit the home and the Rebbe felt quite at home. As he took off his coat, the baker noticed the Shabbos table. The Kiddush cup, the wine, the Shabbos candles, and the challah all were waiting for the baker’s wife to welcome the Shabbos. The baker noticed the challah was not covered!
The baker raised his voice in anger and walked with heavy feet toward the kitchen. “What have you done? You know full well the challah is always covered! Now the Rebbe is here and the Shabbos table is not properly prepared! Why must you embarrass me all the time?”
The wife hung her head and quickly snatched up the cover and walked to the table, but the Rebbe put his hand out and touched her arm. She stopped, still looking down.
The Rebbe asked, “Baker, why do we cover the challah?” He looked toward the baker and waited for him to answer.
“The challah is to be covered in order to save the bread embarrassment because the blessing is always given over the wine first, of course,” the baker stated.
“Yes,” the Rebbe said. “But more importantly, we cover the challah to remind us that while we treat an object that has no feelings with respect, how much more are we to treat each other, especially our wives and family, with respect and love.”
The baker got his priorities cross-thread. He wanted the ritual to be so perfect for his Rebbe that he neglected the weightier things of Torah: compassion, love, respect. We, right here in this congregation, within other Shuls I’ve attended and helped lead, and within Messianic Judaism and Judaism as a whole, we forget. We place our priorities on getting things perfect. We want to read the unmarked Hebrew of the Torah or Tikkun perfectly, yet we will mistreat our pets. We concentrate on learning every tune for every Kabbalat Shabbos prayer, but we treat our wives with contempt or as if she is a child. We can’t seem to remember that the relationship that counts the most – the one between us and G-d – can never be greater than the relationships we have with others. The ritual aspect of our religious experience is meaningless unless it’s intrinsically tied to our ethical behavior.
 Matthew 18:3-4
 Heb. Judges
 Deuteronomy 17:8
 The holidays of Pesach, Shavuos, and Succos
 Deuteronomy 17:8-13
 (1) do according to what they declare to you
(2) do according to all they direct you
(3) according to the instructions they give and according to the decision they pronounce, you shall do
(4) you shall not turn aside from the verdict they declare
 1 Corinthians 13:1-3; Matthew 23:23; Michah 6:8; Zechariah 7:9