Acharei Mot - Kedoshim: Virtual vitality

How can we bring enthusiasm and life into our spiritual lives of mitzvah observance? Why is it so difficult?

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Rabbanit Shira Smiles

Judaism Learning Torah
Learning Torah
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Adapted by Channie Koplowitz Stein          

L’iluy niahmot chayalei Tzahal who gave their lives in defense of our nation and our land.

Parshat Acharei Mot includes a verse often quoted as a source for Rabbinic decisions involving matters of life and death: “You shall observe chukotai/My decrees and mishpotai/My laws vechai bohem/and by which he shall live-I am Hashem.” Rashi comments on the phrase “and by which he shall live” as referring to olam habo, the future world, since we are all destined to die in this physical world. However, our Sages emphasize that the phrase is an affirmation of the importance of life, that in all matters, except for the three cardinals sins, where there is physical danger to life [or limb] when observing a Torah command, the sanctity of life takes precedence over the observance of the mitzvah.

Are these two views, live in this world or live in the world of eternity, in total conflict, or can we reconcile these two views?

Rabbi Asher Weiss notes that even physical life can be experienced on multiple levels. For a Jew, living his life within the dictates of Torah values and mitzvoth gives him the fullest life experience possible.

Taking this idea one step further, Rabbi Tatz suggests that mitzvoth create a bridge between this world and the next. Man is composed of a physical body and a spiritual soul. With very few exceptions, mitzvoth are physical actions. However, to be fully effective, one should perform the mitzvah with the proper intention/kavannah of acting for the sake of Heaven. Our minds, which control our thoughts and intentions, are part of our spiritual souls. Therefore, although we are performing a physical action, we are affecting our souls which will receive their reward in the future world where they will continue to exist after our physical death. The more intense our spiritual intention, the greater will our reward be in the eternal life of the soul.

The Slonimer Rebbe, the Netivot Shalom, proposes an even stronger connection between the world of physical performance and the world of the spirit. One can indeed perform all the mitzvoth of the Torah punctiliously, and yet do them all by rote, investing no spirit, infusing them with no spark of life. If a Jew does not feel the joy of mitzvah observance, the exhilaration of Shabbat, for example, how will he enjoy being in the radiance of God’s presence in the world of the soul? If he has not experienced the joy of God’s presence in this world, he will not experience that joy in the eternal world. He will be, writes Rabbi Rabinowitz in Mesillot Bilvavam, like a blind man in an art gallery, unable to appreciate his surroundings.

The Netivot Shalom brings this point home by noting that our verse mentions chukim in addition to mishpatim. While we may understand the reasons for the mishpatim/social laws, chukim are those laws which we as human beings cannot logically understand. Nevertheless, we should invest the same joy and exuberance in performing all the mitzvoth, whether we understand them or not, because they help us form a connection to Hakodosh Boruch Hu.

When we are told, “And you shall live by them,” we are being instructed to invest our hearts and entire being into the mitzvah’s observance, writes the Osherover Rebbe in Be’er Moshe. Just as we cannot properly perform the mitzvah of the four species with a dried out lulav,  the Gemara instructs us, so should we not perform any mitzvah in a withering and “dead” mood.

Why is the lulav specifically used to to teach this idea? If we divide the four Hebrew letters of lulav into two words, we get Lo lev/to Him is the heart, and its numerical equivalent 68, the same as chaim/life. Hashem wants us to become alive and enthusiastic in our mitzvah observance. When you infuse the mitzvoth with energy, you yourself are impacted and become more alive, adds Rabbi Rabinowitz, so that, although you will receive your reward in the world to come, your physical life on earth is impacted and rejuvenated as well.

How can we bring enthusiasm and life into our spiritual lives of mitzvah observance? Why is it so difficult?

Rabbi Eisenberg gives us some insight into human psychology. Physical pleasure provides instant gratification, albeit the pleasure is short lived and demands constant refueling. This need overpowers our sensibilities, so that we may realize our actions are harmful even as we keep doing them, like overeating when we know we’ll regret it later. Spiritual satisfaction, on the other hand is delayed gratification. It requires time, effort, and training. But its pleasure remains with you for extended periods of time, often forever.

Further, the spiritual activities and venues that are fulfilling for one person are rarely the same as those for another person. Each of us must find our own calling, our own energy source to plug into what will spur us to have the patience and make the effort to grow. For one person, that may be raising tzedakah for a worthy cause (or several), for another, it could be studying Torah and teaching, for yet another, it might be immersion in prayer especially for others, and yet for another, it might be cooking for families in need.

Find the path that gives you pleasure in this world so that you can build on it for eternity.

Besides telling us to live by the mitzvoth, the Torah also provides the parallel command to choose life. But life for a Jew is “not by bread alone, but by all that go forth from My mouth,” says Hashem. Therefore, choosing life means not only physical life provided by bread, but especially spiritual life provided by observing the 248 negative commandments that correspond to the 248 limbs that comprise the human anatomy, writes Rabbi Rothberg in Moda Labinah.

We can thus extrapolate that there is no life of the body without nourishment from the Torah. This explains why our medrash relates that Hashem held the mountain over Bnei Yisroel at Sinai like a dome, declaring, “If you do not accept the Torah, there will you be buried;” If you do not accept the Torah and abide by its 248 negative commands and its 365 positive commands, you will surely die, for you will have no sustenance for the soul that animates the body, explains Rabbi Sheinerman in Ohel Moshe.

We are all in God’s service, but we can be compared to the servants of a human king (lehavdil). Some servants serve in the palace, in the king’s inner circle. Others are in the distant reaches of his kingdom, performing perfunctory but necessary services, but seldom if ever in direct contact with the king. Which kind of eved Hashem do we want to be, asks the Sifsei Chaim, one who serves by rote, out of pure necessity, or one close to the King, One with Whom we can communicate on a personal level?

If Torah is our life, it is meant to be continuous, without interruption, not delegated only to specific times and hours, writes Rabbi Wolbe. During the course of our day, fill those empty minutes (waiting on line, riding in your car, walking, etc.) with Jewish thoughts, whether to review a Torah lesson, figure out how best to prepare for Shabbat or Yom Tov, or how to observe any mitzvah. [My favorite dream contemplation: If I win the lottery, how would I distribute double maaser? While this may not be realistic, it fills a void that is well worth the $2.00 I may spend on the lottery ticket. CKS]

Western culture convinces us that the essential part of life is our profession, rather than our spiritual life.  If that is the case, let us treat our Torah as a profession, writes the Tosher Rebbe in Avodat Avodah. As the Nusach Sfard includes in the Prayers upon Arising, “Torah teheh emunasi…/Let my faith be in Torah...” or, alternately translated, “May the Torah be my profession...” Let us invest Torah and mitzvoth with at least the same importance we invest in our professions. Let us identify ourselves as a servant of God, not only as a lawyer, sales rep, mechanic, or teacher. That’s why our verse of living by Torah ends in, “I am Hashem [spelled YKVK],” Signifying that if you make Torah your life and your identity, then I will interact with you as the God of compassion, even to the extent of annulling a negative decree. Further all the time and each step taken in preparation of a mitzvah is equally rewarded.

Rabbi Frand develops this idea more fully beginning with an analogy originally presented by Rav Hutner. In response to a question presented by one of his students, Rav Hutner explained that one was not living a double life by spending time practicing his profession while compartmentalizing another part of his life to Torah study. Instead, he was alternating living between two rooms in the same house. 

Expanding on this idea, Rabbi Frand then explains that even while living in the same house, one might be decorating one room elaborately while keeping another bare. Which room is he really living in? Is his time with Torah and mitzvoth like his family room or like his garage, and which is his professional room? Does he identify with his Ivri Anochi, his Jewish identity, or his worldly identity?

Just as you hopefully find a profession where you feel challenged, invigorated and fulfilled, find an area of Jewish life, whether individual or communal, that will equally challenge you but also invigorate and fulfill you. Let our children see us excited about something Jewish.

The introduction to Pirkei Avot/Ethics of Our Fathers states, “Every Jew has a portion in olam habo/the future, eternal world. Rabbi Druck notes that the verse does not say that he will have a portion in the world to come, in the future tense, but that he already has it in the present. We are meant to create that experience now, in our physical lives. Certainly, all who support Torah will be rewarded in the future world, but if they themselves do not study Torah and perform the mitzvoth, they will lose out on this experience, of the personal connection with Hakodosh Boruch Hu while they are still alive.

When we are involved in doing a mitzvoth, adds Rabbi Yoffe in Leovdecha B’Emet, we are already bringing the holiness of that future world of Gan Eden into the physical world and surrounding ourselves in that aura and atmosphere. We can already live the future world in this physical world.

In a profound idea, Rabbi Schwab suggests that we are not to view this world and olam habo as two separate entities, but rather as one continuous life, the only difference being that the physical aspect of our lives have fallen away while the spiritual aspect of our lives continues. As the blessing before reading the Torah says, “Hashem has implanted eternal life within us.”

With our study and observance of Torah and mitzvoth, we are planting the seeds for our eternal life during our physical time on earth. These seeds grow and bear fruit both in this world and in olam habo. Life is a continuum from the moment we are born into the physical world through the eternal world of the soul.





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