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Parashat 06/07/2011

Parashat BeHa’alot’cha

by Robert Rabinoff

We remember the fish that we would eat for free in Egypt (11:5)

Rashi: If they wouldn’t even give them straw [to make bricks] for free, would they have given them fish for free?!  What does it mean “for free”?  Free from mitzvot.

Siftei Chachamim: That is, our sustenance was not dependent on mitzvot as now – if we perform the mitzvot the Land will give its bounty, if not He will stop up the heavens.

Those men said to Moshe: We are ritually unclean through contact with a dead body.  Why should we lose the chance to offer Gd’s offering in its proper time along with the rest of Israel?! (9:7)

The Holy One Blessed be He wished to give Israel merit, so He multiplied for them Torah and mitzvot. (Pirke Avot)

One of the distinguishing characteristics of our Jewish faith and tradition, is that it is action-based.  While one certainly needs to have some correct ideas about the structure of creation and the existence of the Creator and His relationship to creation, one’s primary obligation as a Jew is that he live a Jewish life, and that means performing the mitzvot of the Torah (positive commandments/mitzvot aseh) and refraining from doing that which Torah forbids (negative commandments/mitzvot lo’ ta’aseh).  When a non-Jew wishes to join the Jewish people, there are certain necessary ritual aspects to the conversion, but the main question that the prospective convert needs to answer positively is whether he or she is committed to performing the mitzvot.


To understand this emphasis on mitzvot, we should understand a bit about what a mitzvah is.  On the surface value, many mitzvot have some sort of physical performance associated with them.  We eat matzah on Pesach and we build a temporary shelter and cover it with greenery for Sukkot.  We eat festive meals, we say blessings before we enjoy anything in the world.  All these are actions.  Along with these actions, the mitzvah has a mental and spiritual aspect.  The mental aspect is our intentionality when we perform the mitzvah, and in certain cases it can make or break the performance.  When we put on t’fillin in the morning, Torah tells us that we are (or should be) wearing them so that “the Torah of Gd will be in your mouth,” and we wear tzitzit so that we may “remember and do all Gd’s commandments.”  If we just mechanically perform the action of putting on the t’fillin or tzitzit, but don’t have the corresponding mental state, the performance is almost completely vitiated.  In the case of prayer, where intentionality (kavvanah) is of the essence and reciting the prescribed text is secondary, lack of attention does completely vitiate the prayer.  The only reason we don’t repeat a prayer that we said without kavvanah is that there is no reason to believe that we’d do any better the second time!


The most important aspect of the mitzvah of course is its spiritual aspect.  The purpose of all mitzvot is to create a closer connection between Gd and the individual, the community and the creation as a whole.  Our Sages tell us that the 613 mitzvot are divided into two groups: 248 positive commandments, corresponding to the members of the body, and 365 negative commandments, corresponding to the days of the (solar) year.  I believe that what this means is that each part of our body (the microcosm) and each day of the year (the macrocosm) has a particular characteristic which needs to be enlivened and integrated with the other aspects, and that there is a particular performance that is “tuned” as it were to those specific needs.


It is important to understand that creation as a whole, and every little bit of creation separately, can only grow and thrive if it is connected to its infinite Source.  If the connection is broken, it is like a cut flower, that will wither and die once its connection to its roots and to its source of nourishment in the soil is severed.  It may be very humbling to realize that we are not self-sufficient, but that is the reality.  Therefore, as the passage (from the second paragraph of the Sh’ma) alluded to by Siftei Chachamim states, our material success is dependent on our connection to Gd, and that connection in turn is dependent on our acting in accordance with Gd’s Will, i.e. performing the mitzvot.


Recognizing our dependency on Gd is often a tremendous challenge.  Our response to this challenge informs our attitude towards mitzvot.  Those who rebel against our existential condition as Gd’s creatures who owe our lives to His goodness, also treat mitzvot as a burden.  Rashi quotes a Midrash where the Sages describe this situation as the people of Israel leaving Mt. Sinai “like schoolchildren running away from the schoolroom,” before Gd could “saddle” us with more obligations.  Those who not only accept our subservience to Gd, but welcome and relish it, are like the men who were ritually contaminated and could not offer the Pesach offering – their response was “why should we lose an opportunity to come closer to Gd?!”


Ultimately it is our mission as Jews to bring the entire creation to a state of perfect integration, where it can reflect its essential Divinity without distortion and without diminution.  We have to create this state both within ourselves (microcosm) and in our environment (macrocosm).  Gd has given us the blueprint, and has provided us with prophets and sages to translate the blueprint into a practical program we can all participate in.  If we do so our lives will be filled with all the blessings of heaven and earth!


Pirke Avot, Chapter 1

Mishnah 3

Antigonus of Socho received the tradition from Shimon the Righteous.  He used to say: Be not like servants who serve their master for the sake of receiving a reward; rather be like servants who serve their master not for the sake of receiving a reward, and let the awe of Heaven be upon you.

R. Bulka comments: The prospect of meeting the leader of a country surely excites the person involved.  Such a meeting is a thrill of its own.  It would be absurd for one who is visiting a leader to expect some tangible reward for the experience.  The visit is its own reward; the relationship, if it develops, ample recompense.


The mitzvot of the Torah are our way of serving Gd.  Gd of course has no need of our service, but, being the infinite source of all good, Gd “needs” to bestow blessings on us.  Gd has structured the universe in such a way that He steps back as it were and leaves us free to choose whether or not to serve Him by acting in accordance with His Will, and Gd takes great pleasure when we make appropriate choices and become worthy and effective receptacles for the blessings He wishes to bestow.  Ideally, we do not do the mitzvot in order to receive Gd’s blessings – in fact, there are cases where Gd sees that withholding the blessings at present and bestowing them at another time, perhaps even in the World to Come, will be to our advantage.  Rather, we should perform the mitzvot simply because we love Gd and wish to please Gd, and personally should be completely detached from any reward.  In R. Bulka’s words, the relationship is ample recompense.  In the words of another Mishnah in Pirke Avot, the reward of a mitzvah is [the opportunity to perform] another mitzvah.


A Happy Shavuot to everyone!