For the past five months I’ve been making my way through the Talmudic tractate Shabbat as part of a commitment to learn a page of Talmud a day.
Please God, I’ll be completing this Tractate in the coming week and making a Siyum on the eve of Passover.
The tractate opens with a discussion of the laws of carrying. The discussion is illustrated by discussing what a beggar may and may not take from the hand of a willing charitable donor. Some 150 pages later the topic is the areas of conversation and planning for the week to come which it is forbidden to engage with on Shabbat. And again the subject is illustrated through a discussion of whether it is permissible to work out distributions from charitable funds for the relief of poverty on Shabbat (it is).
The point is that the laws are not just laws, they define and make tangible our values.
Shabbat law is bound up in narrative realities that shape our approach to life. As Robert Carver, the American legal theorist put it; there is no law without a narrative framework.
There is no ‘logos’ without ‘nomos.’
It’s a profoundly Jewish insight.
The laws of Passover, from the cleaning to the ritual of the Seder are ultimately predicated on a narrative – the redemption from Egypt, the redemption from slavery.
This is the great challenge and the great secret of Jewish life. The stories become rituals. The rituals hold the stories. Stories without rituals wither into literary curios devoid of life. Rituals without stories risk pointlessness. Together rituals and stories become a chain that connects us to our past, to our contemporaries and to God.
As we enter the week of the New Moon of Nissan, this is the challenge, the same as it is every year – to make the narrative infuse the practice and make the practice the way we keep the narrative alive.
Two weeks and counting – Pesach is coming.