Once upon a time a donkey and a tiger were lazing nearby each other on a hot summer day. Suddenly the donkey sat up, looked at the tiger, and said, “Grass is blue.”
“No,” said the tiger, “Grass is green.”
“Nope,” said the donkey, “Grass is most definitely blue.”
The discussion heated up, and the two decided to take their dispute to the lion, the king of the jungle.
The tiger ambled along in the heat, knowing he was right and sure that the king would agree with him.
But the donkey trotted ahead happily, delighted that he was getting the attention of both the king and prince of the jungle. Breaking through the jungle to the lion seated on his throne, the donkey didn’t even to pause to greet the king, and instead shouted, “His Highness, isn’t it true that grass is blue?”
The lion replied gravely, “True, grass is blue.”
At that moment the tiger walked into the clearing, with a confused and troubled look on his face.
The donkey pranced delightedly and said, “Prince tiger disagrees with me and contradicts and annoys me, please punish him.”
The king declared: “The tiger will be punished with one year of silence.”
The donkey jumped for joy and went on his way braying, “Grass is blue, grass is blue, I win, grass is blue.”
The tiger approached the lion, bowed deeply, and asked, “Your Majesty, why did you punish me? We both know that grass is green.”
The lion replied, “Indeed, grass is green.”
“Then why are you punishing me?”
The lion replied, “This has nothing to do with the question of whether grass is blue or green. The punishment is because it is ridiculous for a brave and intelligent creature like you to waste time arguing with a donkey, and on top of that to come and bother me with such nonsense.”
This is how I felt early Friday morning when a rabbi friend asked in a Facebook forum: “For those using zoom to enhance services in person and keep people connected, how are you framing this within the context of halachah?”
I see questions about halacha, Jewish law, all the time and usually just scroll by. But this morning I was annoyed by the premise of the question. So I replied:
“I’m not concerned with the context of Jewish law. I’m framing it within the context of my congregants’ spiritual needs, and how I can use the tools available to me to enhance their spiritual experience of Shabbat and the holidays.”
As it happens, the questioner agrees with me. She just happened to inadvertently push one of my hot buttons.
Like the lion, I don’t think the argument is worth the breath spent on it. I firmly believe that halachic rulings about using electricity and digital equipment should have no power over how we worship during a pandemic.
Of course I’m going to use Zoom and other electronic tools to communicate with my congregation. From my perspective, it’s irresponsible not to do so.
And while I’m speaking my truth, I’m perfectly OK with understanding the Torah as being written in a particular time by a particular group of people. They were inspired by God, certainly. But they were not enlightened about other issues that are important to us, such as gender equality.
For example, this week’s Torah portion starts with the words: “It shall come to pass, if you listen to these laws, that God will maintain faithfully for you the covenant that he made on oath with your fathers.” Deuteronomy 7:12
I don’t want to worry about why it doesn’t say “fathers and mothers” or “ancestors” or some other neutral term. These are distractions from the deeper questions that I want to explore.
I’m far more interested in the fact that many translations use the phrase “if you obey these laws” rather than “if you listen to these laws,” even though the Hebrew word is from the root of the word shema.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote, “[Shema] is one of the most important words in Judaism, and also one of the least understood… It is fundamentally untranslatable into English since it means so many things: to hear, to listen, to pay attention, to understand, to internalize, to respond, to obey. It is one of the motif-words of the book of Devarim, where it appears no less than 92 times.”
As Rabbi Sacks pointed out, shema can mean obey. But because Deuteronomy places such a strong emphasis on hearing, I believe that a better translation is the word listen, which can lead to deep discussions about what it means to truly listen and pay attention to what we hear.
Moses spent the entire last book of the Torah pleading with the people to listen to him. This was his last hurrah, and he wanted to impart as much wisdom as he could. And although we often use words related to sight for understanding, he didn’t ask the people to see. He asked them to listen.
If we are willing to understand the Torah on a metaphorical level, rather than literal, there are important messages that we can take into our own lives. We don’t have to be distracted by questions that are easily answered by understanding the time and place from which they sprang.
The folk tale has an important message too, if we just listen. The name we use for the color of grass is irrelevant. Spending time arguing with donkeys about it is time badly spent.
The tiger’s punishment was to spend an entire year listening; carefully, deeply, without responding or counterarguing. Had the tiger paid attention and listened to what his companion was really saying, he might have noticed that the donkey wanted nothing more than attention.
The Torah and our tradition have given us a set of tasks: To be a light unto the nations, to make the world a better place for everyone, to strive to be our higher selves. And not waste our time on asses.