So much of the philosophy of the mitzvot sounds wonderful, but when you try to
take it home, a thousand little details threaten to choke you. Why are Jews
always obsessing about details? The late Rabbi Shimshon Pincus, in the
life-altering introduction to his book Tiferet Torah, talks about how important
it is to know the purpose of any activity we are involved in. If someone owns a
store and enjoys setting up the window display, that’s nice, but if the owner
begins to think that the window dressing is the reason for the store’s
existence, he has missed the point.
Similarly, being married is very
useful. It makes things easier to have two adults around the house. It is
convenient to have someone to carry in the groceries and someone to do the
laundry. But if one makes the mistake of thinking that those benefits are what
marriage is all about, he has missed the boat entirely. Marriage is about the
union of two halves of one soul. Having someone else to take a turn driving
carpool is a side benefit.
So why do we need so many mitzvot? What are
all the details about? They are not just about earning a good place Up There.
They are not just about being good or holy. They are not even just about having
a meaningful life in this world. God tells us clearly why He took us out of
Egypt and brought us to Mount Sinai: “You have seen what I did to Egypt and that
I carried you on the wings of eagles and brought you to Me. And... you will be a
treasure to Me from among all the peoples... ” (Exodus 19:4-5).
us out of Egypt in order to bring us to Him – to be close to Him. He took us out
because He wanted us to enter into a relationship of love with
Maimonides compares the love of God to the all-consuming love of a
man for his beloved. “He thinks of her constantly: when he rests and when he
gets up, when he eats and when he drinks. More than this should be the love of
man for his Creator.”
The love Maimonides described is so
all-encompassing that one wonders what the words “more than this” add? How can
one possibly love more than what is described? An answer (which I heard from
Rabbi Moshe Eisenstadter) is that there is an intrinsic problem with human love.
Life goes on, and sitting around gazing forever into one another’s eyes is not
an option. The lovesick man goes to work and comes home. He does this and he
does that. And despite the fact that he is busy with a million things, he still
thinks about his beloved.
But what if all the things a person had to do –
the laundry and the child care, the business and the shopping – were not in
contradiction to the relationship but an expression of it? What if we went to
work not despite our love but because of it? A relationship with God means that
every aspect of life is about this relationship: the work and the play, the
running and the doing. Every single action carries within it the potential to be
an expression of our Godly nature and of this all-encompassing bond.
though our souls may want closeness with God, our physical selves want to run in
the other direction.
How can we lowly, petty, selfish human beings
possibly forge a relationship with the Source of All Good? Maimonides tells us
that the many details are there only in order to refine us. It is the details
that take us through a process that is meant to turn us into a “kingdom of
priests and a holy nation.”
IDEAS FADE, inspiration dissipates. It is the
details that harness the ephemeral concepts to reality. More, it is the details
which harness us to the ideal. Every small action shaves away at our base nature
and clarifies the soul hiding underneath. Slowly, but surely, the details cast
us in the mold of God’s nation.
In an interesting dynamic, it is the
details of the caring that create the love. Once committed to the relationship,
the endless details are not irrelevant, irritating nitpicking that complicates
our lives. They are the threads that bind us together. Judith Viorst, the famous
children’s writer, is quoted as saying that marriage is a useful institution,
because “when you fall out of love... [marriage] keeps you together until
maybe you fall in love again.”
Like the commitment of marriage, the
commitment to the intricacies of Judaism keeps us connected even when, with the
ebb and flow of life, we feel distant from Him. With that commitment, there is
always something to go back to.
Many years ago, a relative of mine was in
the airport when someone asked him why Jews wear that “beanie” on their heads.
My relative explained that wearing something on one’s head creates awareness
that there is Someone above us and that that awareness, in turn, influences our
actions. The man chewed this over for a minute or two, then asked, “Does it
work?” Does it? Does this framework of details really engage us in a close,
passionate relationship with God? Does it really change us? Does it make us into
a more Godly nation? The reality is that, as dynamic human beings, our feelings
of connection fluctuate. Sometimes God feels like a solid Presence in our lives,
and sometimes we wonder where He is. Sometimes our Judaism feels relevant and
purposeful – sometimes we would rather slither out from under that
thousands-of-years-old burden and forget the whole thing.
But when God
gave us 613 commandments, He was asking us to move into a relationship with Him
and to become the kind of people that He could have a relationship with. He
doesn’t want us only on Sundays. He doesn’t want us only when we are in the
mood. He wants us with Him always, in a relationship of love, where our
closeness to Him is reflected in all of our actions.
Perhaps the answer
to the man in the airport is yes, it does work. Despite the ups and downs, it is
the unrelenting totality of the framework that never lets us stray too far. It
is bringing the beautiful ideals right down into the nitty-gritty of our lives
that bring those ideals to life.
The thousands of details that surround
so many of our actions become the threads that do not choke but, rather, bind us
to God in an everlasting relationship.
The writer lectures weekly to
hundreds of Israeli university students on Jewish thought, through the
organization Nefesh Yehudi. She welcomes comments and questions and can be
reached at firstname.lastname@example.org