March 24, 2012 | 1 Nisan 5772 | Leviticus 1:1-5:26; Numbers 28:9-15, Exodus 12:1-20
There’s an old Yiddish proverb - מענטש טראַכט, גאָט לאַכט-Mentsch tracht, Gott lacht – “Man plans, God laughs!” It took me many years to appreciate this adage but I finally came around. So many moments; so many events in my life I tried to control, tried to govern only to find out that some things are beyond my control. Sometimes life has other plans. I believe that embedded in this Yiddish saying is more than simply a statement of our silliness. Rather, I think the proverb is illuminating something about God. We all know that God has a sense of humor so it is not remarkable that God laughs. Instead, I think we are able to deduce for this age-old saying that God not only finds our planning – an often futile endeavor – humorous, but I believe that God identifies with our intentions.
God knows what it is like to plan out something perfectly, down to every detail, only to have plans thwarted by circumstances beyond one’s control. It might seem blasphemous to state that there are things that are out of God’s control but in truth, the Bible is a collection of stories where human beings act contrary to God’s explicit instruction. Think of Adam and Eve, the Tower of Babel, Cain and Abel…story after story of God making plans and man acting badly. So now that the shoe is on the other foot; now that we – humans – are so desirous of order and control, can you blame God for sitting back and having a good laugh as we scurry about on this planet trying our best to hold our lives together?!
Of course, like any good proverb, there is a meta-lesson pervading the entire maxim – be flexible! We might think we know what we are doing down here but God knows how complicated life is so be flexible and roll with it. Your frustration will only lend fuel to God’s chuckle.
Flexibility is an attribute that has helped Judaism survive generation after generation. The enterprise of rabbinic Judaism, the laws and Jewish behaviors proscribed in the Mishnah, Talmud and later codex’s were all about flexibility: how do we live out our Jewish lives today; how do we meld the words of God, spoken so long ago and under such different worldly circumstances, into our modern reality. This was the brilliance of our rabbinic tradition. However, we don’t need to look so far away to see such accommodations. We find flexibility within the Bible itself.
This week, we read a special Haftara in honor of the last of four special Shabbatot celebrated before Passover. Taken from the book of Ezekiel, our Haftara describes the sacrifices that a prince of Israel is required to bring on behalf of the people. Throughout much of the detail, our rabbis of the middle-ages were quick to illuminate the differences between Ezekiel’s proscription and the laws of sacrifices noted in the Torah. Knowing that a true prophet must never contradict the words of God, they were obviously concerned about the inconsistencies and worked diligently within their commentary to explain away the variations.
Although I give much honor and respect to our rabbis of old, I want to propose an alternative reading, one that doesn’t try to smooth over the conflicts…rather, gives voice to them. The word of God is holy but sometimes difficult. Our ability to uphold God’s instructions and live by His will rather than our own has challenged the Jewish nation since its inception. Woven into our system of worship is the idea of repentance because it is assumed that we will not always rise to the occasion. In a similar light, I think that God spoke to Ezekiel with a different instruction, not to negate the original but to show some flexibility. The ability of the people to bring the requisite number of sacrifices and offerings in accord to their livelihood, need for celebration and requirement for repentance, could easily get out of hand so God sends His prophet Ezekiel to offer a revised sacrificial schedule. Does this alternative represent a change in God’s mind? I don’t think so. I believe that Ezekiel’s message represents flexibility in God because God knows; one day flexibility will prove to be an invaluable lesson for His people.