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Jewish World Review
May 21, 2007
/ 4 Sivan, 5767
Observant Jews as robots?
Why so many mitzvos?
Fulfilling Judaism's religious duties does much
more than provide self-discipline. It make us constantly aware of G-d's presence
Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetzky, then the dean of American
Rabbinical seminary heads, once found himself seated on a flight next
to Yeruham Meshel, the secretary-general of the
Histadrut political party. Throughout the flight, Reb Yaakov's son and
granddaughter kept coming to speak to him and to ask
him whether there was anything they could do for him.
Near the end of the flight, Meshel expressed his
amazement at the warmth of Reb Yaakov's relationship
with his offspring. He confessed that he only rarely saw
his children, and his grandchildren, almost never.
Reb Yaakov explained to him that the difference in their
relationships to their children and grandchildren was a
natural outgrowth of their differing worldviews. "You
believe in a Darwinian universe of random, purposeless
events. In your children's eyes, you are just one
generation closer to the apes than they are.
"But for us, the central event in human history was the
moment when the Jewish people stood at Sinai and heard
G-d speak. The generations immediately after the
Revelation lived in awe of their parents as people to
whom G-d spoke...
"My children and grandchildren honor me as one who
had contact with spiritual giants beyond their
comprehension, and therefore attribute to me a wisdom
and spiritual sensitivity they lack."
Tomorrow night Jews all over the world celebrate that Revelation.
We attempt to reconnect on Shavuos to the same spiritual
energy that our ancestors experienced over 3,000 years
ago the ever-present voice from Sinai. At Sinai, we
became a people by virtue of our receipt of the Law.
Both in our own eyes and in the eyes of those who hate
us, we are defined as the people of the Law.
No religion has so many rules governing every aspect of
life: about how and what to eat, even detailed laws of proper and
improper speech. We recite blessings upon rising in the
morning and before going to sleep at night, blessings
before and after eating. To many Jews today the myriad details of
Jewish observance seem incomprehensible, even absurd.
Why do we need so many mitzvos? Don't they turn
people into mindless automatons? they ask.
Without at least some partial answers to those questions,
we cannot join ourselves to the giving of the Law at Sinai.
MAN, in Jewish thought, is born imperfect, and his task
in life is to perfect himself. When G-d said, "Let us create
man," writes one of the great medieval commentators, he
was addressing man. You and I together are necessary to
create you, He told Adam. The perfection for which we
are always striving but never attain encompasses thought,
word and action.
Of the three, the last is most easily
controlled, and our quest begins there. Through the
discipline of mitzvos, we experience ourselves as human
beings capable of choice. Every time we confront a
mitzva, we simultaneously confront our yetzer hara,
usually manifest in the urge to say no and to assert our
independence. Judaism demands that we become aware
of the choice involved in everything we do. Sometimes
we win the struggle, sometimes we lose.
And when we begin to win consistently on one level, we
find ourselves confronted with new challenges higher up
the ladder. If, for instance, we stop trying to win
popularity by always having a juicy piece of gossip ready
for consumption, we next confront the even harder
challenge of not using our spouses to ventilate our
negative feelings about others.
At one level, the discipline of mitzvos is a kind of spiritual
gym. One does not enter the gym and start
bench-pressing 200 pounds. Only through endless
repetition at much lower weights does one reach that
level. Similarly, only by accustoming ourselves to
conquering our small desires can we hope to prevail when
confronted by larger challenges later on. A child whining
at a supermarket checkout for his mother to buy him a
certain candy who falls silent when told that the candy is
not kosher has a better chance of saying no to bigger
temptations later in life.
No guarantees, of course; just a better chance.
But the mitzvos do much more than simply provide
self-discipline. They make us constantly aware of G-d's
presence. Every time we stop to make a blessing, every
time we ask ourselves whether this word or this food is
permitted, we are made aware of the One Who spoke
and the world came into being. The Hebrew word
"mitzva," commandment, derives from a root signifying
joining or connection. The mitzvos connect us to G-d.
Mitzva, of course, also implies a commander and a
commanded. Every time we perform a mitzva, we are
forced to admit that the world did not begin with us and is
more than our playground. A perfect G-d, Who was
complete unto Himself, did not bring the world into
existence for His own amusement, to see what a mess we
could make. He created the world with a purpose a
purpose that depends entirely on man, and particularly on
the Jewish people, fulfilling our tasks.
Rather than feeling the mitzvos as a burden, the observant
Jew cannot imagine life without them. They reinforce
every moment that view that life has purpose and that
everything we do is meaningful. For a Jew, there is no
such thing as standing still: At any given moment, we are
either ascending the ladder towards perfection, or
descending. Time, for us, is not something to be killed.
Every moment is a priceless opportunity. Kill time and
you kill yourself.
The ubiquity of the Law distinguishes Judaism from every
other religion. Indeed, Judaism is not, properly speaking,
a religion at all. Rather it is an all-encompassing way of
life. Everything we do is equally before G-d. May we all
merit to reconnect this Shavuot to the giving of the Law.
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JWR contributor Jonathan Rosenblum is founder of Jewish Media Resources and a widely-read columnist for the Jerusalem Post's domestic and international editions and for the Hebrew daily Maariv. He is also a respected commentator on Israeli politics, society, culture and the Israeli legal system, who speaks frequently on these topics in the United States, Europe, and Israel. His articles appear regularly in numerous Jewish periodicals in the United States and Israel. Rosenblum is the author of seven biographies of major modern Jewish figures. He is a graduate of the University of Chicago and Yale Law School. Rosenblum lives in Jerusalem with his wife and eight children.
© 2007, Jonathan Rosenblum