Maybe you have seen this before:
In October, 1995, the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier, the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln, was traveling off the coast of Newfoundland.
Canadians: "Please divert your course 15 degrees to the South to avoid collision."
Americans: "Recommend you divert your course 15 degrees to the South to avoid a collision."
Canadians: "Negative. You will have to divert your course 15 degrees to the South to avoid a collision."
Americans: "This is the Captain of a U.S. Navy ship. I say again, divert YOUR course."
Canadians: "No, I say again, you must divert YOUR course."
Americans: "This is the Aircraft Carrier U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln, the second largest ship in the United States Atlantic Fleet. We are accompanied by three destroyers, three cruisers and numerous support vessels. I demand that you change your course 15 degrees north. I say again, that's 15 degrees north - or counter-measures will be undertaken to ensure the safety of this ship."
Canadians: "This is a lighthouse. Your call."
I am not sure if this is an actual transcript as has been alleged or an urban legend, a bogus story, teaching a lesson about self-importance or inflexibility. Some say it's an old joke with variations going back to the old galleon days. Or, maybe even earlier when the Ptolemys built one of the 7 wonders of the world, on Pharos Isle approaching Alexandria, Egypt.
Lighthouses have become almost obsolete, picturesque reminders of a time when they guided mariners into safe harbors. Originally using fires on high promontories above dangerous straits of water, and then a system of lights and lenses, lighthouses were a beacon to guide us through dangerous coastlines, coral reefs, and hazardous shoals.
Today, we have sophisticated navigation systems and the GPS. We can use mapquest, googlemaps, Waze, to help us get where we're going but we still need a beacon to guide us through life.
Last week's Torah reading contained a magnificent description of the revelation at Mt. Sinai, our lighthouse as it were. The scene was dramatic: the people gathered at the foot of the mountain as Moses ascended. There was smoke, fire, thunder, and loud sounds of the shofar. Then God revealed Himself and gave the 10 Commandments, representing the first laws of the mutual covenant between God and Israel. In this week's reading, Mishpatim, we receive the rest of the law, a legal system for how to live as a society and as human beings. It is filled with rules that would make Plato proud, describing how to craft and navigate our way to build a civil society and a social network.
Here is our GPS, our global position system, that tells us if we need to recalibrate: 15 degrees north or south if we veer from the path. The Torah gives us a map for our lives.
Cecil B. DeMille's observed in his epic movie, The Ten Commandments, that "it is impossible to break the law. We can only break ourselves against the law."
The covenant between God and Israel at Sinai became the cornerstone of the Jewish legal system, and the foundation of Jewish national, spiritual and cultural life. Throughout its later history, the nation was judged on how it measured up to keeping the covenant. The prophets who arose at various times cajoled, pleaded, warned, and threatened the people to keep the covenant. They repeatedly charged that the nation had violated the covenant and optimistically hoped that the people would return to it.
"This is a lighthouse. Your call."
What is remarkable about this collection of laws is the combination of criminal, civil and ethical law entwined together. Amid laws dealing with the safekeeping of property, seduction, sorcery, bestiality, idolatry, blasphemy, are humanitarian laws dealing with the protection of the stranger, the widow, the orphan, and the poor: the four groups who are without power and without legal protectors, who must depend on the good will of society to protect them. They depend on the concept of kol yisrael arevim ze b'ze: we are responsibile for each other.
It is true that a society with a legal structure can be reduced to no more than laws. But the Talmud teaches us that the purpose of the commandments is both l'tzaref, to refine, and l'tzrof, to bind - the legal system help us to elevate our spiritual selves as well as join us together as a community. It is how we fulfill the mitzvot, what we bring to their observance, and how we let them influence our lives that makes all the difference.
I believe that Judaism's legal system, halakhah - which means the way we walk, the path we take as we live our lives - is a rich and varied portal to spiritual expression, a starting point to a life of meaning and performance of mitzvot. Judaism is both a system of laws and a compendium of ethical values that create a caring community. It is my moral compass...