Rules Have A Purpose

This week I traveled to Los Angeles to officiate at the wedding of one of our Ramat Shalom families. Cheryl and the kids joined me on the trip. Having lived in LA for a year during rabbinical school, I am familiar with the “culture” of the area. For Jonah and Abigail, however, the glitz and the glamour of Hollywood (magnified, of course, by the fact that the Oscars took place while we were in town) and the quirky, offbeat ways of LA bedazzled them. Interestingly enough, one of the things that really stood out for the kids was the nice relationship between the pedestrians and the drivers of Southern California. As many of you know, once you step into a crosswalk in the LA area, cars give you the right of way. At the same time, as a pedestrian in Southern California, you take jaywalking rules very seriously and you cross the street in designated crosswalks. As I explained to my kids, when I first moved to Los Angeles in the early 90’s, I had to finesse my way out of a ticket that was almost issued to me for crossing a street before the light said that I could do so. Jonah and Abigail had a hard time believing this. These very strict “rules of the road” were foreign and fascinating to my suburban children whose street crossing experience is limited, for the most part, to parking lots.

Upon returning from Los Angeles, I did my weekly run to Whole Foods in Plantation. Those of you who have been there know that the parking lot can be horrific. As I drove into the lot, two women dashed directly in front of my car. As I slammed on my brakes, they both glared at me as if I was doing something wrong. From the back seat of the car, Abigail piped up: “Those ladies are lucky we didn’t hit them. They wouldn’t have done that in Los Angeles. They would have crossed up there” she said as she pointed to the crosswalk which was surrounded by stop signs making it clear that drivers must stop for pedestrians. As I approached the crosswalk and stopped, a car in the opposing lane rolled up to the crosswalk as a woman with a baby stroller was crossing the street. Perhaps the driver was too busy texting or simply did not have the time to follow the rules and stop. He blew through the stop sign almost clipping the stroller. An outraged Abigail, keenly aware of proper crosswalk etiquette was speechless. To make matters worse, the driver blared his horn at the woman with the stroller and zoomed off to find himself a parking spot. “Daddy, that man broke the law. He almost killed that woman and her baby! We should have the same rules as Los Angeles!”

As usual, one of my kids provided me with some great insight into the weekly Torah portion (Vayakhel-Pekudei) which begins with Moses explaining the rules of Shabbat. Work is not permitted. A complete rest is required. No fire is to be kindled. Lots of rules. And a consequence: if you break the rules you might die. For most of us, especially those of us who don’t observe Shabbat, this threat is troubling. Why is this threat mentioned? Simply to get us to observe Shabbat and keep us from deviating from the rules? Yes!

After Abigail and I found our parking spot, I explained to her that we do have the same rules as Los Angeles. Technically, we are expected to cross in crosswalks and stop at stop signs and give pedestrians the right of way when they abide by the appropriate rules. We are often just too busy to follow these rules. We rush to get places and get annoyed that people (or cars) get in our way. And we forget that most of the “rules of the road” were put into place to keep us safe. When we disregard these rules, we might very well put ourselves or someone else in harms way. Breaking the rules can get us killed.

I do not believe that one will die if they violate Shabbat. I do believe, however, that our ancestors were convinced that if you violated the commandments of the Torah, you put yourself at risk of being seriously harmed, or worse, killed. And they weren’t afraid to say so because they felt that by warning people, they could save lives.

We tend to overlook consequences in our world today. We don’t often think through how our actions will affect us or other people. Who has the time to do this? The problem is – by not thinking things through and by failing to realize that our actions have consequences, we often learn, after it is too late, that by violating a simple rule we can destroy our life or someone else’s life. This why this week’s Torah portion makes it explicitly clear: break the rules and you put life in jeopardy. As troubling as this concept might be – it is the truth. And it is a lesson that can’t be taught and re-taught enough.

This Shabbat (and from this day forward) please drive safely, cross the street at the crosswalks, and remember that rules are there to keep us all safe.