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Soft Sell

On the pleasures and terrors of accepting the rules

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One of the most resplendent moments in Kafka’s The Trial is a short parable, spoken to Joseph K by a shifty priest.

It tells the story of a country bumpkin who wishes to gain entry into the law, but discovers that the law is guarded by a hulking man with a thin black beard and a large pointed nose. Approaching the guard gingerly, the man asks if he will be allowed to enter. “It is possible,” replies the guard, “but not now.”

And so the man sits. And waits. Weeks go by, then months. The man peers at the gateway, contemplating a daring dash past the guard. This only makes the guard laugh: there are more guards down the corridor, he tells the man, one more fierce and menacing than the next; try breaking in, and they will break your bones.

Growing desperate, the man tries bribing the guard. The guard accepts the gifts, but still forbids the man from entering into the law. “I am taking this,” he tells the man, “only so that you do not think you have failed to do anything.”

Years pass, and the man is now on his deathbed. With a shaking finger, he motions to the guard, asking him to come near. And with his dying breath, the man asks the question that has been haunting him his entire life. “Everyone strives after the law,” he chokes out. “So how is that in these many years no one except me has requested entry?”

“Here no one else can gain entry, since this entrance was assigned only to you,” says the guard. “I’m going now to close it.”

As with all things Kafka, this parable has many interpretations. My favorite one, however, is this: the law is freedom, a vast hall in which nothing ever happens and nothing ever will unless we take action. Charge past the guard, goes this particular analysis, and you may die, but you may also get your way. Sit and wait, and you’ll undoubtedly perish, dissatisfied and alone.

Judging by this week’s parasha, the Israelites would have nothing to do with this kind of thinking. They’re no Joseph K: in fact, as they stand on the foothills of Mount S, having just received the Ten C, they display a certainty, a commitment, a clarity that is decidedly unkafkaesque.

It all boils down to one simple sentence. As they receive the laws God gives them, governing everything from civility toward slaves to the slaying of sorceresses, the Israelites promise to obey: “All that the Lord spoke,” they swear, “we will do and we will hear.”

This logically confusing formulation—ordinarily, of course, people hear first and only then do—was a favorite formulation with Tomer, my sergeant at the Israel Defense Force’s basic training camp. Although more than a decade has passed since I first put on uniform and reported for duty, I can still hear Tomer’s surprisingly high-pitched voice in my mind, informing us that as we—trembling and tearful new inductees—were scum, and as he—tan and trim and a good ten months into his military career—was, well, God, we should respond just as the Israelites had in their moment, promising to obey blindly, to do first and only then, if at all, bother to hear.

Needless to say, this demand for oafish obsequiousness bothered me greatly at the time, and, reading this week’s Torah portion, it chafed me anew. Why couldn’t the Israelites, I asked myself, take a page out of Joe K’s book and learn to see the law not as something to be upheld without question but as something to be stormed, to be grappled with, to be interpreted at will?

Only they did. Rereading the parasha, I paid attention to its opening line, which God speaks to Moses: “And these,” He says, “are the ordinances that you shall set before them.”

For a deity who has been known, when the mood strikes Him, to make large bodies of water split in half or send frogs tumbling down from the heavens, this is a mild way of putting things. These, after all, are His laws, the very rules He believes must govern all human interaction; one, then, might expect a bit of a stronger statement, something more along the lines of “Thou shalt do as I sayeth or I shalt have no choice but to do some of that smiting I clearly enjoyeth so much.”

And yet, nothing. All God commands is that the law be set before the people. A soft sell, this, like one of those persistent folks standing at a street corner and handing out fliers for a new dry cleaners that just opened around the block: take it if you so wish, heed it if you want. Nobody’s making you do anything.

Which, of course, sounds a lot like freedom. Sure, the laws themselves are very detailed, but you could just as easily choose to reject the whole bundle. If, on the other hand, you choose to engage with the divine will, you must take concrete action; the doing truly comes before the hearing.

Accept, then, or reject, it almost doesn’t matter: the worst thing you could possibly do is sit and wait a lifetime for the law to call on you. Remember: this entrance was assigned only to you, and it won’t be long before they close it down.

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Soft Sell

On the pleasures and terrors of accepting the rules

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