Disobedience School


I want all of us to turn to our announcement sheets and take out the photo of Angelina, the very sweet black Labrador. Angelina was our poster dog for our Hebrew campaign, but she has since moved on to bigger and better things.
Recently, I ran into Debra Mailman who has been raising Angelina, and who has brought her to the synagogue on many occasions. Debra told me that Angelina is now fifteen months old and fully grown. She has graduated from her training program, and she has made the first cut to being a seeing eye dog. We are very proud of her.

Sixty percent of the dogs who get this far make it to the end and become seeing eye dogs. So, I asked Debra, what could possibly prevent such a sweet dog from getting to the end goal? And, Debra said, first of all, Angelina is interested in other dogs. That’s not fatal. But, if she is too distracted, she won’t be able to do her job.

More importantly, seeing eye dogs have a lot of responsibility. Not only do they have to learn to be sensitive to their owner’s every need. Not only do they have to learn to obey. They also have to learn something called Intelligent Disobedience. So, for example, if their owner tries to step off the curb into oncoming traffic, the dog has to learn to disobey her owner. This is a higher level of disobedience. It’s not defiance. It’s disobedience as an act of service.

And, that puts a lot of stress on a dog. Most dogs go to obedience school, and that is enough for them. But, Angelina is an exceptional dog. She is going to disobedience school. And, that means she is learning to decide when to obey and when not to obey—all for the same lofty goal of serving her human. That’s a lot of responsibility. It’s not easy to hold those two sides of your personality in proper balance.

It’s not easy for humans either. We, too, have to attend disobedience school, if we aspire to a life of service. In fact, we have a long tradition of graduates of this school in the Tanach, in the Bible.

One of my students recently noticed the irony of Abraham smashing his father’s idols. He said, ‘wait a minute. Abraham wasn’t very respectful of his parents. What kind of role model is he for Jewish children?”

The rabbis noticed the same thing. They said the Bible is not very happy that Abraham left his father in his old age, even though God told him to. So, the Bible kind of hides it, and makes it seem as if Terach had already died when Abraham got the call from God. But, it wasn’t so.

And, this is Abraham’s greatness. He had to learn when loyalty to God meant saying yes, and when to say no to God as an act of service. When God wanted to destroy the wicked Sodom, Abraham was convinced God was about to step off the curb into ongoing traffic. So, he challenged God. And, God said, ‘congratulations, you’ve just earned your diploma in intelligent disobedience.’

When the midwives, Shifrah and Puah disobeyed Pharoah’s order to murder innocent children, they did it as act of service to humanity and to God. And, in a few weeks we are going to celebrate the holiday of Purim. The whole Purim story revolves around intelligent disobedience.

Mordecai refuses to bow down to Haman. Haman doesn’t get Mordecai or the Jewish people. He accuses us of being disobedient. He says to Achashverosh: v’dateihem shonot mi’col am/their peculiar laws are different than everyone elses. So, he acknowledges we have laws. Yet, v’datei ha’melech einam osim/but they don’t follow the King’s laws.

It’s as if Haman is saying: this is a strange people. They are both obedient and disobedient. That makes no sense to me.  But, it makes perfect sense to Mordecai. He’s not being defiant. He just senses from the beginning that Haman is a dangerous man, and that serving him will only increase his appetite for power.

And, in the same way, when Esther is faced with the possibility of our people’s annihilation, she has no choice but to break with protocol.  She disregards the laws of the kingdom, and she sees the king without an appointment. Some in the king’s court may have been shocked by Esther’s boldness. But, Esther realized that the king was about to step off the curb into ongoing traffic. If Haman’s plan were allowed to succeed, not only would it spell the end of the Jewish people. It would also spell disaster for the King and the Persian empire itself. Because, Haman’s appetite for power knew no bounds. And, if he could eliminate the Jews for no good reason, he could do the same to anyone who challenged him in any way.

The Purim story is about abusive power. It begins with the story of a queen who  refused to entertain her drunken husband and his buddies. Then the King issues a decree that all the women in the kingdom must obey their husbands without question. To challenge this kind of ruler is not an act of defiance. It’s an act of service to humanity. It’s an act of intelligent disobedience.

American democracy expects its citizens to graduate disobedience school. But, increasingly we are having trouble balancing the two sides of our personality that must both remain strong if we aspire to a life of service. We should be able to challenge America and love America. We should be able to love our country and obey its laws, but also sense when our country is about to step off the curb.

But, frankly, it’s stressful to live in between obedience and disobedience. It’s stressful to have to decide all the time when to go along and when to protest. So, too often, we make a choice. There are those who love America with an unswerving loyalty that implies that America can do no wrong. And, for those of us who go only to obedience school, making America great means not listening to anyone else, not seeing the beauty in America’s brilliant diversity.

And, then, there are those of us who go only to disobedience school, and are so critical of America, that we can see no greatness in her, and assume that we can do no right, and that every complaint that is lodged against us in the world must be true, even complaints against us by those who loathe democratic values

And, it’s true in our approach to Israel, too. Too many of those who criticize Israel really hate Israel, and can so no good in her. And, too many of those who are loyal to Israel do not acknowledge that disobedience can be an act of service and deeper loyalty. It’s as if it’s simply too stressful to live in the land in between these two extremes.

And, we have lost touch with role models like Abraham and Moses who were both obedient and disobedient, all in the name of a greater service to humanity. We have lost touch with the idealism of a Ghandi and a Martin Luther King, jr who when they challenged did it out of a deeper love. I’m afraid that if we were given the Angelina test to decide whether we could graduate to a life of service, we wouldn’t make the cut.

But, it’s not too late for us. That’s why we are here today. Becoming a bar mitzvah is about entering into a life of service. And, to do that, we have to graduate both obedience and disobedience school. When we’re little, we naturally follow what adults ask us to do. When we reach thirteen, we start to push back. We have our own ideas. We have our own opinions.

Ben, you are a good guy, and I’m sure you have been the perfect child. But, if at your age, you sometimes have the feeling that you would like to go your own way, that is natural.  That is what’s supposed to happen at your age.

The question is what to do with those feelings and those impulses. Along comes bar mitzvah and challenges you to elevate that independent spirit to a higher level. Becoming bar mitzvah is about learning to be intelligently disobedience. It’s about graduating the school of Mordecai and Esther and Moses and Shifra and Puah who learned to say no as an act of service.  It’s about going to the school of Martin Luther King who refused to obey when he sensed our country was about to step off the curb into ongoing traffic.

Religion is not about obedience. Nor is patriotism. They are about service. Knowing the difference will determine whether Angelina makes the cut to be a guide and a helper.

And, the same is true for us.