The other day while making a social call I was privy to a well-known local figure railing resentfully against the Jewish law requiring seven days of mourning for a departed parent. Why, he asked, should a person have to give up seven days of work and recreation to honor a father who abandoned him at birth, while a foster parent who cared for him for years and paid for his education does not get the same consideration? (Incidentally, a voluntary mourning would be permitted and highly appropriate in the latter instance, but not required.)
It was not appropriate to comment in that environment, but I could not resist reveling in the irony.
This man achieved fame as an attorney by representing a place of worship that had set up in a neighborhood of Hollywood, Florida. The people attending services were well-mannered and unobtrusive, but a few ornery neighbors had used technicalities of zoning to press for eviction. The municipality unwisely backed the troublemakers and was defeated in court by our friend. In the end, the city had to pay damages of a few million dollars.
Now, many residents of Hollywood favored the cause of this congregation, cheering this attorney as he plied their grievance through the courtrooms of Broward County. They were nothing but pleasant and supportive at every step. Yet when the judgment came though, those friendly open-minded taxpayers paid exactly as much as their crabby, hostile neighbors.
This is how the law works. It imposes systems on human activity. These systems bring order and clarity according to a set of guiding principles. Our transactions, our interactions, are measured against a yardstick based firmly in the ground of justice. Still, not every result is pleasant or convenient… or even, taken by itself, so very just. Yet the irritation experienced when the law rumbles over our foot with a heavy tread is itself a contribution to a noble cause.
The holiday of Pentecost (Shavuot), celebrated this year on May 29 and 30, commemorates the Law being handed down at Mount Sinai. This law has brought an encompassing clarity to the behavior of mankind. When it is followed good things happen. When it is ignored life becomes that much less dignified, that much less edified. It is possible for individuals to skate through their lives in disregard of its tenets, but when the world at large tries to navigate without it, very little time elapses before chaos reigns triumphant.
There is a secondary meaning to this holiday as well. Tradition says that mankind is judged on this day, to determine how much fruit will grow on its trees. It seems reasonable to assume this covers more than just apples and oranges. Our creativity on all levels is given its motor on this day.
This year all this arrives in the midst of great economic turmoil, accompanied by a sort of moral disorientation. People are struggling to grab hold of a rudder, to right the shift of life. They are sensing more and more that government and courts, shredding the meaning of marriage and the sanctity of life, do not hold the key to our salvation. It is a time to return to our creativity, to ask for a new inventiveness and ambition, but only within the context of honoring the great law by which mankind has been ennobled.
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