In a recent episode of Master Chef, new judge Christina Tosi, criticises the dish of one of the finalists. It looks right but tastes wrong. The contestant explains to her that since he ran out of butter he put oil instead and averaged an amount. “Tonight you have failed,” she says. Why? Because, “baking is not an art; it is a science!”
In this week’s parsha, Vaera, Egypt is hit by the first seven plagues as Pharaoh refuses to let the Jewish people go. Pharaoh is on his high horse. Egypt is mighty, pyramids are being built, the economy is prospering. Life is wonderful. Until Moshe comes and tells him otherwise. Moshe warns him if he doesn’t let the Jews go, the waters of Egypt will turn into blood. Pharaoh says no, and the water turns into blood. But Pharaoh is unimpressed, because his magicians can do the same trick.
So Moshe says if you don’t let the Jews leave there will be frogs jumping all over your belongings. Again Pharaoh is not moved because once again his magicians can accomplish the same with their magic. Undeterred, Moshe comes back a third time and warns him that this time there will be lice everywhere. Feeling all proud and mighty, Pharaoh says, “No, I will not let them go!” But this time his magicians are not able to produce lice. They apologetically tell Pharaoh that this plague must be “the finger of G-d.”
What made lice different? Why was this particular plague clearly the finger of Hashem? In the Gemara (Sanhedrin 67b), Rabbi Elazar teaches that black magic has no power over miniscule matter. The dust of the earth, from which the lice came forth, was just too small for the Egyptian sorcerers to deal with.
Why is the size of the item the dividing line between Divine power and idolatrous sorcery? The message of the Torah is that our G-d cares about the little things. If a leaf falls off a tree, Hashem cares. He is not some transcendent force removed from this world; He cares about what happens to an infinitesimal speck of dust. And when Hashem cares about the little things in life, He wants us to care. In fact, it’s precisely the little things, the tiny details, through which He bonds with us.
Does Hashem really care if we light the candles at 5:06pm and not a minute later? Does He really care if we eat a tiny bug that was on a salad leaf? We have enough laws to keep; why bother with the details of how to keep them? Why would such a big G-d care about these little nothings?!
But that’s the difference between Judaism and other religions. Every other religion is about the big picture. Be a good person. Love your god. Commit to your pillars of faith.
But imagine that was the extent of your relationship with your spouse.
‘I told you I love you. Isn’t that enough?’
‘Not unless you’re willing to take out the trash.’ Love is more than just a commitment. Love means caring about the tiniest aspects of the relationship. Every time you do a little thing for your spouse or loved one, you are cementing the relationship.
Rabbi Chanania ben Akashia teaches: Hashem gave us lots of mitzvos with lots of details so that we would have lots of opportunities to connect with Him. Every crown of every letter in the Sefer Torah is important. Every word of the davening is important. Every sound of the shofar is important. It’s not just about the big picture; every little detail is an opportunity for us to show our love for Hashem.
As arbitrary and random as halachic details may sometimes feel, Hashem is giving us the recipe to a healthy relationship with Him. If you change the ingredients of a recipe, it doesn’t turn out the same. Cooking is a science; there’s a rule book, there are directions to follow. It may look like a soufflé but if it doesn’t taste like a soufflé, it is not a soufflé.
On Master Chef, the challenge of the competition is for you to be creative within the guidelines. While we can be creative with how we keep the Torah laws it still must be within the guidelines delineated by tradition. We can’t mold it into what we believe it should be or what we think it really means, because it makes more sense or because it’s politically correct.
If you change the details of the mitzvos, then it’s no longer from G-d; it is not the Torah that was given to us at Sinai. And just like in a physical relationship, if you are not careful about the details; if you are not loving the other person the way they want to be loved; you are only serving yourself. You can’t decide what’s important to the other person and how to love them. If they like hiking in the woods, but hate walks on the beach, then no matter how romantic you think it is to walk on the beach, you’d better get used to walking with those insects!
To be a good Jew, you need to serve Hashem the way He wants to be served. Judaism is a science, not an art. You cannot just vary the recipe and hope things will work out. May we care about the details as much as our Husband in Heaven cares!