Judaism: Shavuot: What Kind of Jew Are You?
Rabbi Lazer GurkowRabbi Eliezer (Lazer) Gurkow, currently serving as rabbi of congregation Beth Tefilah in London, Ontario, is a well-known speaker and writer on Torah issues and current affairs.
Do it For G-d
Are you a fair weather fan or diehard? Growing up in Boston I knew all about Diehard fans. Fenway Park is legendary for romanticizing terrible teams and losing seasons. Fans fill the stands for hopeless contests with the same enthusiasm they muster for sure winners. I’ve never been much of a diehard myself. For me it’s fair weather all the way. The more important question is, am I diehard about G-d?
Some follow G-d through thick and thin, but only when it makes sense and is rewarding. Others are thrilled simply to follow G-d. These are diehards who stay with the team till the end of the game even if the loss is certain. They aren’t there because they are thrilled to see their team lose, but simply because their team is on the field. If my team is on the field, I am in the stands. End of story.
If you worship G-d because you get something out of it, then it is not only G-d that you are serving, but also your penchant for gratification, meaning or fulfillment. If you worship G-d because G-d asks it, it is exclusively for G-d. When you study Torah because you enjoy it, you are doubtless investing in G-d, but the part of you that enjoys it is actually invested in yourself. When you study Torah, keep Shabbat or any other Mitzvah exclusively for G-d, you are attached completely and exclusively to G-d.
A team needs both diehard and fair-weather fans. The diehards keep the team afloat in difficult times, but the fair-weather fans pack the stands and bring enthusiasm to the winning games. The diehards are excited to see their team win, but they don’t muster the same energy as the fair-weather fans. These fans get so excited that they roar with passion and urge the team to win. They need the team to win so they can enjoy it. The diehards want to see their team win, but they don’t need the win as much. They also enjoy the losing games. Their passion for the win is not as electric.
Just like the team, G-d also needs both from you. He wants you excited and passionate about studying Torah and observing Mitzvot – He wants you to love Him and enjoy your attachment to Him. Yet He also wants your pure loyalty and simple obedience. Your passion adds luster and fullness to your relationship with G-d, your obedience renders your relationship wholesome and complete.
The Diehard Jew
This is why G-d gave us logical and romantic commandments as well as super-rational commandments. The logical commandments, such as the prohibitions against murder and theft, sit well with us. The romantic commandments, such as the weekly commemoration of creation on Shabbat and the annual commemoration of the exodus on Passover, strike a chord with us. However, the super-rational edicts, such as the prohibition of mixing wool and linen and the laws of ritual impurity, leave us uninspired. There is little logic around which we might wrap our heads and little excitement to inspire our hearts. What motivates us to perform these Mitzvot?
It is the opportunity to do something wholly and exclusively for G-d. The Talmud records a debate on whether the reward for fulfilling an optional Mitzvah is greater than fulfilling an obligatory one. On the surface it appears that optional fulfillments are greater because they demonstrate a spontaneous desire to do for G-d even where it isn’t demanded of us. Yet the Talmud concludes that the obligatory commandments carry greater reward. The reason is simple. When we opt to do the Mtizvah we do it because it inspires and fulfills us, had we not been inspired we wouldn’t have opted for it. In other words, we are fair-weather fans, who come to the ballpark when it serves our needs. When we have no choice and do it because it is required, we do it exclusively and wholly for G-d. We are diehards who will do anything for a chance to be in the ballpark with G-d even if we can’t see how it serves us because we aren’t in it for us, we are in it for G-d. We don’t need the win, we need the team.
The Offer We Can’t Refuse
This helps to explain a curious episode in the history of Torah. When G-d offered the Torah at Sinai, He actually lifted Mount Sinai from its moorings and suspended it above our heads, threatening to crush and bury us. “If you accept the Torah,” G-d proclaimed, “great. If not, this will be your burial site.”
G-d made what Hollywood might call, an offer we couldn’t refuse, but this makes little sense on two counts. A, why did G-d ask if we wanted the Torah if He intended to force it on us? B, Every smart business person knows that you don’t make an offer unless you already know the answer. G-d knew we wanted to accept the Torah because those Jews that didn’t want the Torah were left behind in Egypt. Why did He have to force them if He knew they would say yes happily and embrace Him fully?
G-d didn’t want us to accept the Torah because we wanted to nor did He want us to accept it because we had no choice. He wanted us to accept it for both reasons. He wanted us to want it and He wanted us to follow it out of loyalty and obedience. Had we accepted it only because we wanted it there would have been an easy excuse for any Jew who didn’t want it. I wasn’t part of the pact you made at Sinai. You wanted. I didn’t. Further, the very Jew that wanted it at Sinai might wake up a day later and change his mind with a perfect excuse. When I accepted it I wanted it, now I’m no longer interested. On the other hand, had we accepted it out of pure obedience, we wouldn’t grow passionate and excited over Torah. Every time someone grew enthusiastic about Torah s/he would be reminded to calm down; don’t get excited, this isn’t yours; it is G-d’s. Akin to a servant in a great house growing excited over a new set of silverware or dishes and being cautioned by the chief butler to remember his place. This isn’t yours; don’t grow excited. Your place is to serve, not to take ownership.
G-d wanted to give us both so He only brought those Jews to Sinai that He knew would embrace His Torah. He offered it to them, giving them a chance to take ownership of their relationship with G-d. At the same time He also denied them freedom of choice and forced them to say yes so the relationship would be constant even when we are not in the mood.
The upshot of our discussion is this. When you wake up in the morning rearing to go and in the mood of connecting with G-d, jump out of bed with enthusiasm because you have an opportunity to serve G-d with joy. When you wake up feeling blue with no interest in getting out of bed, jump out with enthusiasm because you have an opportunity to serve G-d out of loyalty and obedience. Not being in the mood is no reason to opt out of the Mitzvah. On the contrary, it presents a unique opportunity to serve G-d exclusively and completely for G-d.