On my podcast this week, I shared a bit about my recent struggle to walk our dog, Phoebe, in the midst of all the cicadas that now line the sidewalks of our neighborhood. (Folks, the cicada invasion is real, and it’s here, at least in Illinois.) While it’s okay for her to eat a number of them, too many could cause her to have stomach issues.

We’ve tried a muzzle (she hated it and got it off). We’ve tried the cone of shame (she outsmarted it). So where we’re at now is that I just have to hold the leash pretty tight when we’re walking, and I kind of yank her every time we approach a cicada. It seems to be working alright, but it makes for an unpleasant walk for her and a tired arm for me. But so far, so good: No major digestive issues to speak of, just a dog who is very eager to go in the backyard as much as possible (where there are many more cicadas).

I’m finding that, in its own way, the whole episode reflects a lot about the relationship my family and I have with Torah and Jewish mindfulness. First and foremost, we take the health of this creature of ours seriously. “V’chai bahem–v’lo yamutu,” as the Talmud comments on Leviticus 18:5: The Torah is meant to be lived by and not died by. (The interpretation is offered as a proof that we violate almost every prohibition in the Torah to save a human life.) So we approach the question of what to do about Phoebe and the cicadas with the value that her life matters. (The cicadas’ lives matter too, but… priorities. And common sense.)

Further, we’ve approached this question in a way that also asks about what is doable and practical. Can we completely shield Phoebe from the cicadas, just leaving her inside? No, that would harm other parts of her health and wellbeing–and ours! Could we create or buy some kind of robotic device that would walk ahead of us and vacuum up the sidewalk in advance? (Note to the Roomba people: This idea has potential. You heard it here first.) Again: impractical, cost prohibitive. As my teacher Rabbi Yitz Greenberg observes, God’s covenants with the world and the Jewish people are intended to operate on a human scale and pace–in ways that are achievable. So we’re looking for solutions that have some chance of implementation.

The basic motivating impulse here is to find a solution, to literally walk our talk. We espouse and hold dear some extraordinary values–honoring and sanctifying life, enabling the divine presence to be made manifest in the world in every action, every step. So, like our tradition, we take the ethical and practical questions seriously. That, in a nutshell, is halakha–often translated as “Jewish law,” but perhaps more fully and even literally rendered as “the way Jews walk in the world” (halakha which comes from the same root as the verb lalekhet, to walk).

A couple weeks ago I read a poem in The New Yorker by Ocean Vuong called “Theology.” It contained this line:

I thought gravity was a law, which meant it could be broken.
But it’s more like a language. Once you’re in it
you never get out.

Vuong’s words have been ringing in my ears since because I think they capture this challenge of understanding halakha so well: While at one point in my life I related to it as law–imposed by some external force, operating under the threat of punishment–as I’ve gotten older it has become much more like a language, operating in a more fluid zone of culture, explicitly and implicitly negotiated meanings, intertextualities and connections. It still has to make sense–languages have to make sense–but as language, halakha has a great deal more expressiveness and suppleness than when it’s understood only as law.

Concluding the halakha-rich book of Leviticus, Parashat Bechukotai begins with the words “If you walk in my ways.” Commenting a little later on the verse, “I will walk in your midst: I will be your God, and you shall be My people” (Lev. 26:12), Rashi picks up on the linguistic connection to the primordial image of the Divine walking in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:8) and interprets: “I will, as it were, walk with you in the Garden of Eden as though I were one of you, and you will not be frightened of Me.”

That’s the goal and the promise of our halakha: If we can act in the world in ways that are mindful, aligned with the covenantal values of the Torah, compassionate, present, loving, and attentive, then we reveal the Divine presence that is here walking with us. We discover that this world can indeed–even now–be a redeemed Eden. That’s what it’s really all about, even and perhaps especially when the obstacles to sensing that possibility are greatest.

Josh’s Friday Reflections

Every Friday morning, IJS President & CEO Rabbi Josh Feigelson shares a short reflection on the week in preparation for Shabbat. Josh weaves together personal experience, mindfulness practice, and teachings from the weekly Torah portion in a uniquely accessible and powerful way. Sign up to receive Josh’s weekly reflections here.

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.