For the week ending 13 February 2010 / 28 Shevat 5770

Myriad Mitzvot

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Sandra

Dear Rabbi,

As a Jew, I find the beliefs, morals and customs of Judaism meaningful and generally relevant. However, what I find hard to accept is the many laws which are so hard to keep and intrusive. Why does it have to be this way?

Dear Sandra,

It is very nice that you find meaning in Judaism and its customs. That is a very good starting point.

However, regarding your question: Do you mean to ask why the laws are so numerous and intrusive, or why you find them to be this way?

Now, of course, I understand what you intended to ask. But my question intends to show you that while G-d’s requirements are absolute, the way we view our obligation is relative. Let me explain.

The first and most direct answer to why we are bound by “so many” laws is simply because G-d said so, period. That is an immutable absolute, but it is not arbitrary.

It makes perfect sense that there should be rules. Rules assure that things work for the best collective and individual good. We all ascribe to such rules as members of clubs, teams, organizations, companies/firms, states, countries and society. By and large, we understand and accept that the better one keeps to the rules and the more the system runs according to them, the better it is for everybody. For that reason, not only are we generally happy to keep the rules, we usually become indignant when others don’t. That’s how serious we take rule taking.

A typical example is waiting in line. When there’s a number system and people keep to the order, everyone’s calm and patient while spending the time constructively till their turn arrives, which the system ensures will be as soon as possible. But if someone jumps the line, or worse yet, if there is no line, havoc breaks out, people waste their time arguing and the chaos results in the whole thing taking longer than if folks would just follow rules.

But what’s the guy who’s skipping the line thinking? His take is, “I don’t care what other folks are here for, or what I have to do with them – I’m only interested in taking care of what I want and need.” And in truth, what’s wrong with that position? In a very basic sense, it seems to make sense, right?

The answer should be obvious to someone like yourself who finds the beliefs and mores of Judaism meaningful: We are interested in why others are here, what we have to do with them and how what we do or don’t do affects ourselves and others. And we are willing and even eager to forgo our own self-interested wants and needs to ensure the good of all, which ultimately includes our own good as well.

Since this is basically our approach regarding keeping the laws of any of the groups mentioned above, it should certainly be our approach regarding the G-d-given laws which are certainly designed with the greatest good in mind for all – even if we don’t understand how and why all of those laws are beneficial.

Still, at the end of the day, practically speaking, there are not that many mitzvot to keep. And while some may seem intrusive, they provide tremendous practical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual rewards that become clear to one who has invested the time and effort to understand them.

Of the 613 mitzvot, many simply do not apply because they relate to specific conditions such as the Temple, agriculture, livestock, tribal affiliation or are gender-specific. Those that do apply are often only infrequent such as mezuzah or circumcision, which are performed only once in a while (in the case of latter, let’s hope only once!). Those that apply more regularly are things which every human should be doing regularly anyway like giving charity, performing acts of kindness, refraining from theft, slander, lying, immorality, idolatry, etc.

So after all, the things that Judaism requires of Jews on a regular basis, beyond their basic obligations as human beings, are keeping kosher, prayer, Torah study, Shabbat/holidays, and family purity. I suggest you focus on learning about and practicing these and I’m sure that you’ll find them not difficult and intrusive but rather meaningful and liberating. And regarding all of the mitzvot, consider the teaching, “G-d wanted to increase merit and reward for the Jewish People, and for this reason He commanded them to learn Torah and perform the mitzvot.”

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