Kenneth Brander
President and Rosh HaYeshiva, Ohr Torah Stone

Parshat Shelach: Stolen objects, robotic mitzvot & owning our observance

A mitzva may not be performed with “dirty hands.” In other words, when we are engaged in the fulfillment of the Torah’s commands, it would be antithetical to the whole enterprise, and hence prohibited, to do so by means of stolen objects or other forbidden materials. This is how the Talmud understands the words in our parsha: va’asu la’hem tzizizit (Bamidbar 15:38). And they shall make for them tzitzit of their own, to exclude the use of stolen ritual fringes” (Tractate Sukkah 9a).

The Talmud in multiple locations warns us against a mitzva haba’a ba’avera, a mitzva ensconced in a transgression. If we have stolen assets, how dare we use them to purchase a lulav, or a sukkah, or even make a charitable contribution to a worthy cause? The Torah refuses to assign holiness to objects that have come into our hands through forbidden means.

Yet perhaps there is another paradigm of stealing to which we also must be sensitive.

Allow me to explain what I believe to lie at the core of this issue with a story. Two American sailors had shore leave in Amsterdam and decided to visit a church. Knowing neither the language nor the liturgy, and fearing being out of step, they selected one well-dressed young gentleman and decided they would do whatever he did.  All went well for a while until at one point the gentleman stood, so the sailors stood, and pandemonium broke loose. Much later the sailors discovered that they had happened upon a baptism and the pastor had just asked the father of the child to rise.

It is easy to understand why stolen ritual objects disqualify mitzva performance. But perhaps the mitzva may also be disqualified when it has become robotic, “stolen” from a previous time in which the performance was still meaningful. When we perform a mitzva – whether it be wearing tefillin, davening, celebrating Shabbat – but do so by rote, failing to imbue the act with meaning, passion, and relevance, it becomes a “stolen act,” a mitzva that is not truly our own.

One of the most moving aspects of this war has been witnessing the reinfusion of mitzvot with meaning, passion and relevance – not only amongst observant Israelis but also by those who might not identify as traditionally religious. Soldiers preparing for battle and putting on tzizit for the first time; soldiers previously unfamiliar with the blessing of Hagomel – recited when one is saved from a dangerous situation – reciting the blessing after battle; groups of soldiers in Gaza going to great lengths to ensure that they wrap tefillin everyday despite the difficult conditions of war. Women participating in challah-baking events to feed the soldiers and support them spiritually, or lighting additional Shabbat candles on Friday evenings for the sake of the hostages in Gaza.

These thriving religious practices are emerging naturally in response to the trauma and serve as a beautiful example of what religious practice looks like when it is claimed, owned and imbued with meaning – and not a robotic, “stolen” act of past habit.

Along similar lines, perhaps a productive way to understand some Israeli movements seeking an alternative to the state rabbinate for events like weddings or conversions, as well as the promotion of halakhic prenuptial agreements and affording women more pronounced roles in the halakhic religious life is to see these as a desire to make Judaism and mitzvot more relevant for the current generation.

It serves to remind us that if a mitzva is not yet truly our own, then our Avodat Hashem remains incomplete. It is our responsibility to take ownership of our mitzvot and religious experience. We must find meaning and relevance within the mitzvot we perform, and to use them to foster deeper relationships with God, with ourselves and with the spiritual community around us.

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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