Kenneth Brander
President and Rosh HaYeshiva, Ohr Torah Stone

Overcoming the challenge of robotic Judaism (Parshat Shelach)


In conversations with students, educators, parents and colleagues over the years, one of the recurring themes is the concern about going through the motions robotically when it comes to fulfilling mitzvot.

The reasons vary from person to person, but the fact is, it can be hard to connect meaningfully on an ongoing basis  to our rituals.

What can we do to create an environment where Jewish practices empower our spirit and ritual commandments speak to us in the here and now?

What can we do to be more active partners with God,with our Judaism – rather than simply doing the spiritual equivalent of painting by numbers?

I would like to suggest an answer based on a mitzvah that we encounter in this week’s parsha, Shelach: that of the tzitzit.

And perhaps this unique meta-mitzvah status is reflected in the way the Torah formulates the commandment:

“ועשו להם ציצית…”

“And they should make tzitzit, fringes, for themselves…” (Numbers 15:38)

The Talmud addresses one aspect of this, explaining that “ועשו להם ציצית” – “and they should make tzitzit for themselves” – means that in order for one to fulfill the mitzvah of tzitzit, they must rightfully belong to me, and not be stolen. (Sukkah 9a)

As with any mitzvah, a stolen item cannot be used to achieve a sacred relationship with God.

I cannot cheat on my taxes or have corrupt business practices and think that the accumulated funds can be spiritually laundered via tzedakah.

But beyond that, perhaps the words of ועשו להם, “and they should make for themselves”, also means that we must be personally, proactively invested in what we are doing.

ועשו להם – we must take action; we must invest ourselves in the mitzvot that we perform in order for them to speak to us.

It won’t happen by waiting for inspiration to come.

ועשו להם – we must work on our relationship with God to the point where our fulfillment of His mitzvot, the expression of His will in this world, affects every part of us, emotionally,  in our kishkes, and cerebrally, in shaping our weltanschauung.

We need to ask ourselves:

ועשו להם ציצית – How can/must the rituals communicate & speak to us?

What must we do to better invest ourselves in understanding the rituals and making them relevant, not robotic.

How can they affect the way we interact as professionals, the way we engage with our spouse, children and grandchildren?

As we read about and engage with this mitzvah of tzitzit this week, let us internalize the command of ועשו להם and take upon ourselves to actively invest ourselves in the meaningful fulfillment of mitzvot, helping us reconnect to our mission of shaping the destiny of ourselves, our people and humanity.

Shabbat Shalom.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Brander is President and Rosh HaYeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone, an Israel-based network of 32 educational and social action programs transforming Jewish life, living and leadership in Israel and across the world. He is the rabbi emeritus of the Boca Raton Synagogue and founder of the Katz Yeshiva High School. He served as the Vice President for University and Community Life at Yeshiva University and has authored many articles in scholarly journals.
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