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Judaism: It's a Mitzva? Just Do It

This week's Dvar Torah is by Rabbi David Fine, Founder and Dean of the Barkai Center for Practical Rabbinics located in Modiin & former community Rav in Kansas City.
Published: Thursday, June 26, 2014 1:45 AM


We live in a world that likes answers not questions.  We live in a world that is unable to tolerate uncertainty and where doubt and unpredictability cause paralysis and crisis.

What do we do when we confront questions that seem to have no answer?  Should this cause us to reject the entire system or is there another way?   In Parshat Chukat we confront several mysteries that seem to defy explanation.  The Torah's mystery, par excellence, is the Parah Aduma, the red heifer, the most enigmatic of mitzvot, commanded at the beginning of the Parsha.  Rashi, in his opening comments teaches that the commandment of the red heifer is a "chok" a decree that has no reason that is understandable to the human mind.

There is a long standing strand in rabbinic thought that directs us not to engage in a search for reasons for the commandments. The Talmud states quite succinctly “What has been hidden by Heaven, why are you curious to attempt to decipher?” 

So are we being asked to just follow blindly? Are we being asked to leave our intellect by the wayside?  Are we, essentially, being treated by God as children whose parents direct to do something "because I told you to do it"?  Should we act in ways that seem to defy rationality?

I believe that a possible approach to these questions lies in the response given by our ancestors when asked by God to accept all of the mitzvot at Mount Sinai: "Naaseh VeNishma" – "We shall do and we shall listen."

The response of Naaseh VeNishma understood correctly gives one an insight into the psychology of mitzvot. 

The Gemara in Masechet Shabbat says the Jewish people were crowned by the angels when "hikdimu Naaseh leNishma" –they preceded "We shall listen" with "We shall do."

Since we were children we have been taught that the reason why Bnei Yisroel were so praised is because the statement of Naase Venishma demonstrates supreme faith and commitment- that before even knowing what they were being asked to do they agreed to follow Hashem’s will.

Rav Soloveitchik zt”l posits that at the outset the Response of Naase Venishma actually conflicts with Hashem’s desire for man.    What distinguishes man from all other creation is his intellect.  If man’s thinking constitutes his singularity, how could God ask man to commit himself to precepts, the rationality of which eludes him?  Why would the angels in heaven salute the naaseh venishma response of the Israelites which, in effect, negated the rational element that is the basis of man’s divine image?

To ask man to act without reason is to bid him to be less human, while God created man precisely to be different, to be human.

Naase VeNishma was not a commendable response because the Jewish people were willing to accept responsibility without even knowing what they were accepting.  Had Bnei Yisrael been acting in this manner then they indeed would have been acting contrary to the rational way in which God wanted humans to act. Rather- Bnei Yisrael wanted to understand, they wanted to use their intellect and to delve into the reasons for the commandments.  They davka did not want to just follow blindly. However they grasped that understanding is dependent on acting. They understood that following the commandments would pull their hearts and minds along and provide them with the understanding that they so desperately wanted.

This psychology of Mitzvot which the Jewish people committed themselves to at Mout Sinai is best summed up in one short sentence by the author of the Sefer HaChinuch: Acharei ha-Peulot Nimshachim HaLevavot:  Our emotions, our feeling our very personalities are crafted by our deeds and not the other way around

This philosophy runs counter to our modern instinct.  We often think that we need feeling, emotion and understanding before we can act.  In my experience as a communal rabbi I often hear things like – “I can’t start coming to minyan until I really believe that this is what God wants me to do”.  I cannot keep kosher until I fully understand why I should. I can’t go to the mikvah unless I feel inspired to go.  I can be a good person without doing mitzvot.  Some would go so far as to suggest that acting without feeling is hypocritical and should be avoided.

The Israelites at Sinai clearly understood that if they waited around until they felt inspired or until everything was crystal clear to them that they would never follow all of the dictates of the Torah.  The Talmud uses the word “Hikdimu”- “Hikdimu Naaseh lenishma”   It wasn’t just that they said Naase Venishma. Its that they understood that Naaseh had to come first.

This idea is also evident when it comes to mitzvot which depend upon the emotion.   The sages and commentators struggle with the Mitzvah of Ahavat Hashem. How can there be mitzvah to love something or someone. Love is a feeling. I either love something or I don’t. This mitzvah is therefore understood by most to primarily be action based.  We love Hashem by DOING certain things.   The sages in one of the most beautiful Gemaras , in Yoma,  say that the way we love Hashem is by making his name beloved in the world.  How do we do this?  By how we behave, by how we talk to others, by how we act.  Obviously the requirement for actual emotional love is there. But the sages, like Bnai Yisroel, understood that action leads to emotion.

Modern psychology understands this as well.  Sometimes a marriage counselor will tell someone who claims to have trouble loving his or her spouse to start improving not necessarily by worrying about emotions but to start by concentrating on actions. If I perform acts of love and kindness towards someone then I will grow to love them.  The American poet, James Russell Lowell said it well:  “All of the beautiful sentiments in the world weigh less than a single lovely action.”

Another rabbinic statement that is also oft quoted by the Sefer Hachinuch is that the Mitzvot were given "letzaref bahen et babriyot" – to "purify man" 

Ultimately, the commandment of the Red Heifer teaches us that we, with our limited human understanding may never be able to fully grasp the "mind" of Hashem nor the working of the world.  But with a commitment to doing first and asking second we display the same faith in God displayed thousands of years ago by our ancestors at Sinai. 

Ultimately, we have faith that God wants what is most beneficial for us – our purification, our becoming the best that we can become.