A Word (or two) From the Wise: Isaiah 29:13

Pesach/Passover will soon be upon us in only a few more days.  This year, the first day coincides with Shabbat which of course occurs every week.  Furthermore, we know women are obligated to daven/pray at least once a day and men are obligated to daven/pray three times a day.  Additionally, we collectively as a nation have 613 primary commandments from the Chumash (Five Books of Moses) of which 248 are positive, 365 are negative.

As an aside, today, when we are sadly lacking a King, a High Priest (and the rest of the Priesthood), a Beit HaMikdash (the Holy Temple in Jerusalem), a Sanhedrin HaGadol (the Jewish religious Supreme Court and all its subsidiary Jewish religious courts), and a majority of the world’s Jewish population living in Eretz Yisrael/Eretz HaKodesh (the Land of Israel/the Holy Land), in actuality or practicality, we collectively have outside of Israel only 77 positive primary commandments from Chumash that are applicable, and only 194 negative primary commandments from Chumash that are applicable.  Today, inside Israel, we have only an additional combined 26 primary commandments from Chumash that apply to Jews living in Israel.  [See “The Concise Book of Mitzvoth:  The Commandments Which Can Be Observed Today” compiled by The Chafetz Chayim/Rabbi Yisrael Meir haKohen, including a supplement on the commandments contingent upon the Land of Israel—English adaptation and notes by Charles Wengrov, published by Feldheim Publishers in 1990, specifically the Table of Contents in the beginning].

I mention all of the above because Pesach is serious, Shabbat observance is serious, davening is serious, and being Torah-observant on a daily basis is serious business.  Life and death and the quality of our life is constantly in the balance but if we do it right–and it is not difficult as long as you focus on learning what you’re supposed to do and how you’re supposed to do it—then and only then can you fulfill your life’s purpose with joy and meaning.
The real danger is that we are doing these commandments repeatedly throughout our lives once a woman reaches 12 years old and a man reaches 13 years old:  once a year, once a month, once a week, once or three times a day and, with some of the commandments, whenever the appropriate moment arrives (which could be more than once or three times a day or less than once a year or never).  It’s so easy to do it all mechanically and without any thought.  Even worse, it’s easy to think you’re pious for having “fulfilled” a commandment, as if you’ve just checked off another box on your daily “To Do” list.  G-d demands more and you know it.  He demands your heart and mind, not just the mechanical movement of your lips, arms, and legs.
I thought with Pesach being a sort of birthday for the Jewish people (one could argue that the holiday of Shavuot [literally, Weeks] is the other part of our “birthday”) that we might want to create for ourselves a re-birth, not just as we must do at the Seder to fulfill experientially one of the key commandments of that holiday, but for everything we do in our service of Hashem/G-d from that point forward.  We must imbue ourselves with spiritual freshness.  Our neshama/soul has an endless supply of spiritual power, if we but choose to tap into it despite the endless mundane distractions and allures that constantly and consistently vie for our attention; after all, our neshama is inextricably attached to Hashem and He is unlimited in all ways, including renewal and boundless love.
The Mishna in [Pirkei] Avot (the section of the Oral Law that was eventually written down called [Ethics of the] Fathers) says in 2:13:  “Rabbi Shimon says:  Be meticulous in reading the Shema and in prayer.  When you pray, do not make your prayer a routine [perfunctory] act, but an entreaty for mercy and supplication before the Omnipresent, as it is stated (Joel 2:13):  For He is kind and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness, and renounces evil [decrees].  And do not be wicked before yourself (or “alone”).”  [Taken from Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Fathers, With a New Commentary Anthologized from the Works of the Classic Commentators and the Chasidic Masters, Compiled by Rabbi Yosef Marcus, Kehot Publication Society, Revised Edition 2010]  {In some books, it is printed as 2:17 or 2:18]
Another translation of this Mishna from Pirkei Avot is from Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau’s book (Adapted by Yaacov David Shulman and published by Artscroll) where it is placed as 2:18:  “R’ Shimon said:  Be careful in your recital of the Shema and in prayer.  When you pray, do not make your prayer a burden, but a plea for compassion before God.  As the verse states, ‘He is gracious and compassionate, patient and exceedingly loving, and regretting the evil’ (Joel 2:13).  And do not be evil in your own eyes.”
It is clear from the above two translations that praying in a routine or perfunctory manner eventually becomes a “burden” which is the exact opposite of the intent and purpose of all the commandments, not just prayer.  There are few things worse than conducting prayer in this way for it could easily lead to an abandonment of the crucial act of connecting to Hashem and in turn this could easily lead to more estrangement from our Creator and our purpose and the meaning of life.  The Pesach Seder is a perfect time to commit to reversing all of this by taking something we do twice a year in Galut/Exile (once a year if you are living in Israel) and using it as a springboard for positive growth (pun intended as Pesach must be in the Spring and that’s when vegetative growth renews).  Do NOT rush through the Seder, no matter how much you have the impulse.  Be mindful every moment of what you’re doing.
By the way, what are you doing at the Pesach Seder?  Fundamentally, it’s no different than any other commandment at any other moment:  you are fulfilling the word of G-d and you are re-energizing your life by connecting to Him more intimately through your actions and thoughts.  That’s the key.  You must unify your thoughts with your actions and then you will have meaning and lasting purpose.  Actions are wonderful, critical, essential.  Mechanical actions are most undesired and do not please Hashem.  Focus your thoughts to align with your actions and then the Pesach Seder, your davening, and your daily moment by moment Torah-observance will lift you so high and far spiritually, you will be astonished.  Keeping that level of mindfulness and connection to Hashem, no matter your current circumstances, is the key to happiness.
So what happened to the subject heading of this essay?  Where does Yeshayahu/Isaiah come into play?  I thought you’d never ask.
Consider this one verse (Yeshayahu 29:13) carefully from among the many prophetic verses in the Hebrew Bible.  Even out of context, it should shake you to the core:
“And my Lord said, ‘It is so because this nation has approached [Me] with its mouth, and with its lips it honored Me, but it distanced its heart from Me, and their fear of Me was the people’s commandment performed out of habit.’”  [translation from Artscroll’s “Rav Schwab on Yeshayahu”]
Another translation:  “The Lord said:  Inasmuch as this people has drawn close [to Me], with its mouth and with its lips it has honored Me, yet it has distanced its heart from Me—their fear of Me is like rote learning of human commands” [from Artscroll’s “The Later Prophets:  Isaiah” by Rabbi Nosson Scherman]
It is clear from the Prophet Isaiah that if we distance our heart from Hashem while we are davening, and by extension while we are performing any commandment, the overall affect is suboptimal, to put it mildly.  I will leave it to you to locate on your own and read the very next verse to find out the consequences of distancing your heart from Hashem but the Prophet Yeshayahu is making it quite clear that it is not a good thing.  Instead of routinely separating our inner selves from G-d, we should routinely be melding the desires of our neshama, the real “I,” which is alway connected to Hashem, with our actions and words.  The only way to do this is to commit to it and then immediately begin concretizing it.  Pesach is here.  Our national birthday is here.  Now is the time to take Pirkei Avot and the Prophet Isaiah seriously.  Now is the time to take Hashem seriously.  Now is the time to take your own life and future seriously.
I wish to end my essay with some commentary on this one verse from Yeshayahu.  The first is from Rav Schwab:
“The practice of Judaism among most of the population had slipped into nothing but ‘habitual religious-like activity.’  Their prayers had become mere lip-service, and their mitzvah were performed out of ’tradition.’ Judaism among the masses had deteriorated to where it became nothing but a series of meaningless acts and lip-service ‘prayers,’ with no inner meaning.  Externally, they ‘practiced Judaism,’ but in their hearts they were far removed from HaKadosh Baruch Hu.  The result was a blasé attitude with tolerance toward violations of the Torah.  And gradually, over time, the people’s sensitivity toward even egregious violations of Torah law had become dulled.  This explains why the people tolerated, and did not rise up against, the idolatry and other Torah-violating reforms promulgated by Achaz and his followers.
[The Rav noted here that a present-day example of ‘routine Judaism’ is donning one’s tefillin in the morning, and giving it as much thought as one would when putting on a tie.  For many people, tefillin are worn merely out of the routine of ‘Jewish tradition’ rather than thinking, HaKadosh Baruch Hu created me in this world, and He commanded me in His Torah to put on tefillin and He is watching me fulfill His mitzvah at this moment. . . ]”
Another Artscroll commentary says:  “ . . . God says that the people’s external conduct is exemplary.  They act and speak as if they long for closeness to God but they are insincere; their hearts are not in it. . . . The Holy One, Blessed is He, said, “Isaiah, see the deeds of My children, they are only superficial.  They hold onto Me as one holds onto the customs of his family.  They come to My house and mouth the standard prayers, like a family custom, without a full heart.  They wash their hands and recite the Hamotzi blessing, and they drink and recite blessings out of habit, but when reciting the blessings they do not intend to bless Me. . . “
May you have a great week, have a kosher Passover, and may you be blessed with re-connecting with Hashem from your heart, today and every day going forward.
About the Author
Mark Newman is married to Ellen Newman and together were blessed with raising Ariel Yitzchak a”h for 18 years in Great Neck, NY to love Judaism and Israel. Mark has worked professionally for almost three decades in the US Federal government as a civil law enforcement officer.
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