In an era when a person can choose his or her identity, sex and orientation, why choose to be Jewish?
It appears that this is a question many Jews face, today. The reflexive answer of my generation, as children of Holocaust survivors, does not seem to be particularly satisfying to everyone. We had a simple pithy response; it was about survival. In response to the Nazi led genocide in World War II, we had to rebuild the Jewish people and preserve our legacy. However, times have changed and more needs to be said.
The issue is not a new one. It all started at the very origin of our people, on that first Passover in Egypt[i], more than 3,400 years ago. It was then that we first began to experience the authentic traditions, known as the Mitzvot. These are the commandments set forth in the Bible, as interpreted and amplified in the Oral Law. The first commandment[ii] was to fix the month in which the event known as Passover was to occur. Everyone was to join in groups of family and friends. Each group was to slaughter a sheep and consume it communally, as a prelude to the Exodus from Egypt.
Consider the trepidation the Jewish people must have felt. Sheep were revered and worshiped as idols by the ancient Egyptians[iii]. Yet, here were a group of slaves fixing to slaughter these venerated sheep for personal consumption. Imagine the fervent atmosphere. The Jews were to corral the sheep and set them aside for slaughter days in advance of the celebratory event. There was a very real fear that a pogrom might break out[iv], had the Exodus not timely occurred. The tension was further enhanced by the commandment that the blood of this original Passover offering was to be used to mark the lintel and doorposts of each Jewish home. What an inviting target? Nevertheless, the Jewish people were commanded by G-d to set themselves apart from the prevailing mores and customs, put themselves at risk and trust in G-d to deliver them[v].
As they sat closeted in their homes, enjoying that first Passover Seder with family and friends, a maelstrom surrounded them. It was at this time that G-d visited the final climactic Tenth Plague on their Egyptian oppressors. Then in the middle of the night, the Jewish people were ordered to leave Egypt, en masse. For those who chose to follow G-d’s commandments, the experience must have been exhilarating. They had taken a chance that they might be shunned or worse, but they trusted G-d would save them, as promised. The Bible records[vi] that their efforts and participation in the Exodus experience were rewarded.
However, not every Jew had been willing to throw in their lot with their brethren[vii]. Many were fully acculturated and integrated into the fabric of Egyptian society. Life in ancient Egypt presented some of the same challenges we face today. It was a superpower, which attracted many talented people from around the world. It boasted a cosmopolitan, permissive society, steeped in art, science and the pursuit of pleasure. Not everyone was a slave[viii]. Indeed, the Midrash[ix] records that some Jews benefited from Egyptian patronage and rose to prominence. These individuals were wealthy and well respected. Assimilation was prevalent and the statistics cited in the Midrash[x] don’t differ much from those reported in a recent Pew study[xi] of Jewish life in America. Only approximately 20% of the Jewish people left Egypt as a part of the Exodus. The rest didn’t and were all but forgotten by history.
What then animated those who were redeemed? Was it the awesome experience of divine providence openly at work in effectuating the Exodus and then the divine revelation at Mount Sinai[xii]? These are often cited as defining moments, but somehow they did not have a long lasting effect. Indeed, despite the miraculous displays of G-d’s overwhelming power and even as Moses was being handed the Tablets containing the Ten Commandments, the sin of the Golden Calf[xiii] was already being committed. Some suggest[xiv] that the experience of the revelation at Mount Sinai was so overpowering that it created a situation of duress. Hence, notwithstanding the unanimous[xv] declaration, by the entire Jewish people at Mount Sinai, that they would perform and listen[xvi] to the Torah, some felt they were somehow not bound by the commitment.
At a later time, after the hidden miracles of the Purim experience, the Jewish people recommitted[xvii] themselves. This time they invoked a new formula for expressing their obligation. It was no longer a promise of future performance. They declared[xviii] that they had upheld and accepted[xix] the Torah. The Jewish people, under the leadership of Mordechai and Esther, had played an active role in effectuating their miraculous deliverance by G-d. Passively observing miracles was just not an effective means of assuring continuity of the Jewish people; something more was required. What then is a sustainable solution to the question of why be Jewish?
The actions taken in the aftermath of the disastrous sin of the Golden Calf provide some guidance. To better understand the appropriate remedy, the sin itself must be viewed in context. It appears that after the extraordinary and somewhat passive experience of the revelation at Mount Sinai, many had an exuberant and misdirected outburst of energy. They attempted to come closer to G-d, through the artifice of the Golden Calf. The sin was an outlier. The Jewish people were otherwise pious Sabbath observers[xx]. To solve the problem, a new approach was required. In response, G-d commanded the Tabernacle be constructed as atonement [xxi].
The Bible notes that all of the Jewish people were involved in building the Tabernacle[xxii]. It was an active and cooperative process, where the Jewish people were fully engaged in the effort to come closer to G-d, in the manner expressly prescribed by G-d. As Maimonides explains[xxiii] it was a rectification designed to wean the Jewish people from the prevailing idolatrous practices. It served the purpose of transitioning the Jewish people into a more mature and enlightened form of worship, where spiritual attachment to G-d, could be achieved everyday, almost everywhere and even through everyday activities.
It is suggested the experience of being fully engaged, as a group, in the project elevated personal feelings of satisfaction and accomplishment into a sense of unity, completeness and peace. Everyone had a role in the mission of building the Tabernacle, which served a higher purpose that transcended the individual. However, as the Sfas Emes[xxiv] points out, the act of following the precise instructions regarding the building of the Tabernacle, as G-d commanded, was not easy. People have a tendency to overdo, embellish, improvise and put their own personal mark on things. These are indicative of actions taken for the purpose of personal ego gratification instead of for the sake of Heaven. This is why the Bible text repeatedly declares that the Tabernacle, its component parts and accoutrements were built as commanded. The completed Tabernacle is referred to as the “Tabernacle of Testimony” because it testifies to the atonement the Jewish people achieved, through building it precisely as G-d commanded. It rectified the sin of the Golden Calf, where they didn’t act as G-d commanded. The performance of each Mitzvah as G-d commanded is a tangible way of demonstrating acceptance of the yoke of Heaven.
The mention of the Sabbath in the Biblical text[xxv] describing the completion of Tabernacle is cogent. The Sabbath requires the cessation of work, as commanded by G-d. As the Sfas Emes notes[xxvi], observing the Sabbath was an integral part of the process of rectification for the misconduct of doing things that were not prescribed by G-d. Unlike the sin of the Golden Calf, the Jewish people now acted precisely as G-d commanded and stopped the work of building the Tabernacle on the Sabbath. The building of the Tabernacle was also representative of the process of creation. Thus, just like G-d completed creation by terminating the creative process on the Sabbath[xxvii], so too were the Jewish people to rest on the Sabbath. It is the cessation of work on an object, which establishes its existence. It’s not finished until the person actually stops working on it. This is a critical element in life. As a recovering workaholic, I can testify that unless there is an overriding directive to stop work, it is never done. Yes, work can and should be rewarding, but it’s not an end in and of itself. The Sabbath and Jewish Holidays, like Passover, are overriding directives to cease creating and stop work for a fixed period of time. They are periods set aside for, among other things, both physical and spiritual refreshment, renewal, reflection and pure enjoyment. These are essential to the quest for meaning in life and appreciating its the benefits. As the Torah commands[xxviii], six days shall you work and on the seventh day rest.
There is something unique about fulfilling a Mitzvah, as G-d commanded. It’s not just about fulfilling an ordinary obligation, like paying back a debt, which also yields a sense of good feeling[xxix]. Some might suggest that when an obligation is performed, it is no longer a burden. It, therefore, might generate a sense of relief as a result of being unburdened. Is that all there is to the performance of the Mitzvot? It feels like there is something more to it than that. Indeed, in the celebration of the Purim miracle, Megillat Esther[xxx] reports how the Jews had light, happiness, exultation and preciousness. The Talmud[xxxi] interprets this to mean, respectively, that they were able to experience the enlightenment derived from the study Torah, enjoy the Jewish Holidays, celebrate circumcisions and wear phylacteries. In essence they were once again able to perform the Mitzvot, without interference.
Why this particular focus on doing Mitzvot? Why not just take the verse in Megillat Esther at face value? The Jews were saved and it was a happy occasion. However, if that were the intent then the emotional response could have been expressed in a word or two. Why the string of expressive terms, including light and preciousness, which don’t readily fit the pattern of the text[xxxii]. Indeed, in the very next verse, the feelings of celebration are expressed using only the terms happiness and exultation.
Perhaps it is the very performance of these Mitzvot, which helped generate these intensely good feelings. When seemingly ordinary physical acts are infused with the purpose of performing a Mitzvah, they give meaning to life, because they involve a higher purpose. They enable a person to be a part of something greater than the individual.
In contrast, consider, for example, the feeling engendered by eating a good meal. It is somewhat satisfying. But after the meal is done, that satisfaction wanes. Hunger returns all too quickly and a new meal is required. It is for the most part a physical reaction, although there may be an emotional component, as well.
However, participating in a meal at a Passover Seder is a whole other dimension of experience. It is something more than merely satisfying our appetite. While, the Seder is also, typically, a time of socialization among family and friends around the table, this alone can’t be the difference. After all, the social aspects can be replicated at a meal on any other day, on a more casual basis. Yet, this does not yield the same experiential effect. What is it then that distinguishes the Passover Seder from any other meal? Indeed, isn’t that inquiry an implicit part of the famous Four Questions?
Is it the stylized retelling of the story of the origin of the Jewish people and the miracles G-d performed in the Exodus? Is it the active participation by children in the telling of the story, including through the Socratic methodology embedded in the text of the Haggadah? Is it the pride we take in the efforts made by the young children to play a gainful part in the Seder and how well they have performed? Children can be so thoughtful and inspiring. Their unabashed identification as Jews, who are sincerely interested in understanding the meaning of the Seder rituals, is infectious. It often engenders animated discussions among people of all ages attending the Seder. Is it the emotions generated when we frequently behold three and perhaps four generations sitting together at the Seder in celebration of Passover? What an incredible setting to recite praises to G-d and joyfully join together to sing the traditional melodies, found in the Haggadah.
Are these what make the Seder so special? There is no denying that the feelings experienced at the Passover Seder transcend those of an ordinary meal. It’s a wonderful energizing experience and it still feels awfully good even after it’s done. Indeed, we look forward to renewing the experience year after year. Few who have experienced it want to miss out when it next occurs. What then is it that makes it so special? Is there something spiritual about a Passover Seder, which transforms an otherwise ordinary meal into something more? I daresay it is.
It does, however, take effort. Most things worth doing are worth doing well. Doing something in a watered down fashion just doesn’t compare to performing it, fully, in the manner it was originally intended. Why not strive to have a complete and genuine experience? This includes the many activities needed to prepare for Passover and the Seder. There’s the obligatory cleansing of any Chometz. Make no mistake about it; this is not an idle exercise. It involves an intensive search for and removal of Chometz, wherever it may be found. Perhaps, the effort to find the tangible remains of Chometz might also be applied to the spiritual variety, in order to cleanse our souls too. Man-made schemes and rationalizations that puff up a person are no substitute for humble observance of the Mitzvot and faith in G-d[xxxiii].
There are also the preparations needed to study, understand and master the intricate and complex laws of Passover, as well as, the story of the Exodus. This most especially includes the miracles G-d performed in delivering us from Egyptian slavery, which are to be recounted at the Seder. All of this effort can help provide profound insights into the meaning of the Seder and its customs and rituals. Preparatory activities also include organizing, cooking, setting the Seder table and making any other arrangements needed for the proper celebration of the Seder and the Passover Holiday. Joining with others in performing all these tasks can amplify and reinforce the favorable experience. There is a group dynamic that takes hold as a result of the social and mental engagement required in order to coordinate a team effort. Each individual in the group is responsible for performing his or her tasks, as specified. Not performing the task in accordance with the plan, no matter how seemingly insignificant, can seriously affect the outcome. Therefore, balance and boundaries must be maintained for the group to succeed. Perhaps that was a part of the rectification process of the Tabernacle? As the Bible stresses[xxxiv], in repeated references, the work was done as G-d commanded.
By all means, be involved in the entire process or as much of it as is possible. It’s worth the effort. As Avot[xxxv] reports, the reward is commensurate with the effort; or, in modern parlance, no pain no gain. You’ve got to try it to like it. Maimonides also notes[xxxvi] that doing it all with joy not only enhances the experience, it amplifies the reward. Indeed, why not actively and joyously participate in the celebration of the entire Passover holiday, which includes the Sabbath. It may provide a profound insight into how Classical Judaism provides a sustainable solution to living life well, generally.
Being Jewish is not some abstract phenomenon. It is at its essence a way of life. Hence, the term “Halacha”, meaning the way, which is used to describe Jewish law and practice. It enables people to transform the mundane tasks of everyday into something more. The immersive experience of being an active participant in the Passover Seder, steeped in our traditions, is also a spiritual one. Performing the other Mitzvot is like that too. It’s uncanny how good it feels to perform a Mitzvah, precisely as G-d commanded it be done. The Talmud[xxxvii] analyzes the nature of being commanded to do a Mitzvah, as compared to the voluntary performance of the good deeds embodied in the Mitzvah, per se. It concludes that a person commanded to do a Mitzvah earns greater reward than someone performing the same act voluntarily. At first blush, intuitively, this statement seems flawed. Don’t we applaud those who volunteer? However, as Tosafot[xxxviii] explains, the basis for this conclusion is a psychological one. The person who has the obligation to perform may have greater anxiety and concerns about any failure to do so. Someone who is just acting on a good impulse can elect to stop, at any time, without consequence. On another level, it’s not unusual for a person to bristle at being told to do something, especially something he or she might be inclined to do anyway. It’s also natural to balk at just blindly following orders. It takes a great deal of effort, training and trust to overcome this instinctual response. Tosafot[xxxix] describes a person’s internal struggle to overcome his instinctual nature and instead follow G-d’s commandments. Doing so can yield great satisfaction as noted above. Is this a part of the reward for performing Mitzvot as commanded?
Maimonides[xl] posits that the Mitzvot were selected by G-d because they are, in effect, transformative. It is not by contemplating spiritual matters that a person embraces the spiritual. Rather, it is the experience of performing the Mitzvot, which is an essential element in the process of perfection. It is the means by which the soul trains the mind and body and habituates them to behave properly. By doing the Mitzvot, wholeheartedly and with joy[xli], a person can achieve a higher level of consciousness and connection to the divine. This connection to the spiritual manifests itself in the good feelings that it engenders, which suffuse the mind and body. It is like a form of euphoria that is long lasting and repeatable. It is this traditional approach of Classical Judaism, which is premised on actual practice that has served us so well over the years.
The annual cycle of experiences, embodied in Passover and the other Jewish Holidays, as well as, the Sabbath are an essential part of the renewable sustainable model of Judaism. There is no need for pictures to remember the experiences. They can be relived each year and each week, again and again. They provide a time to unplug and reconnect with family, friends and your own self. This cannot be done digitally, virtually, by face time or skype; it has got to be done in person. They are an opportunity to revive the part of us that yearns for a spiritual connection. Doing so joyfully, with others seeking sincerely to enjoy traditional and authentic Jewish experiences serves to enhance and reinforce the favorable feeling. Whether it is in a large Synagogue, little Shtibel, Happy Minyan or other Minyan, the Jewish Holidays and Sabbath are a communal experience.
The Passover Seder is not just another meal. It provides sustenance for the soul, which gladdens the heart and inspires long lasting feelings of joy. The experience is a fundamental part of the reason of why we should be Jewish. Try it; I believe you will like it. It does take some effort; but it is worth it. There is no substitute for experiencing yourself. Just do it.
[i] See Exodus 12:33-43 and 13:3-10.
[ii] See Exodus, 12:2 and Rashi commentary thereon, as well as, the description of the observance in Exodus 12:3-51.
[iii] See Exodus 8:22 and Rashi, as well as, Ibn Ezra commentary thereon. See also Genesis 43:32 and Rashi commentary thereon.
[iv] See Midrash Rabbah, Exodus 16:3.
[v] Maimonides, Guide to the Perplexed 3:46.
[vi] See Exodus 12:35-36, as well as, Rashi, Ralbag, Rashbam and Chizkuni commentaries thereon.
[vii] See Rashi commentary on Exodus 10:22. See also Pesikta d’Rav Kahana 11:11, as well as Shir Hashirim Rabbah 2:13.
[viii] See Meshech Chochma, Parshat Vayera 8 and Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Rosh Hashana 3:5, at page 17a.
[ix] Midrash Rabbah, Exodus 14:3.
[x] See Rashi commentary on Exodus 13:18 and 10:22, as well as, Mechilta d’Rabbi Yishmael on Exodus 13:18, Mechilta d’Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai 13:17, Pesikta d’Rav Kahana 11:10 and Midrash Tanchuma, Beshalach 1:4. See also Ezekiel 20:8-9 and Radak commentary thereon.
[xi] Pew Research Center-A Portrait of Jewish Americans, dated October 1, 2013.
[xii] Exodus 19:3-8.
[xiii] Exodus 32.
[xiv] See Babylonian Talmud Tractate Shabbos, at page 88a, as well as the Rif commentary thereon. See also Meshech Chochma on Exodus 19:14.
[xv] Exodus 19:8.
[xvi] The famous expression of: “Na’aseh V’NIshma”.
[xvii] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbos, at page 88a.
[xviii] Esther 9:27.
[xix] The famous expression of: “Kimu V’Kiblu”.
[xx] See the Sfas Emes commentary on Parshat Vayakel and on Parshat Pekudei, which offers a number of striking observations with regard to the sin of the Golden Calf and its rectification through the building of the Tabernacle..
[xxi] See Maimonides, Guide to the Perplexed 3:32.
[xxii] G-d’s command to build the Tabernacle, in Exodus 25:8, states they (i.e.: all of the Jewish people) shall make G-d a Tabernacle. See also Exodus 39:32 and the Sforno’s commentary thereon, as well as, Exodus 35:21 and the Ramban’s commentary thereon.
[xxiii] See, for example, Exodus 39:42; Exodus 39:1, 5, 7, 21, 26, 29 and 31; and Exodus 40:16, 19, 21, 23, 29 and 32.
[xxiv] Supra, Note 20.
[xxv] Exodus 35:1-3.
[xxvi] Supra, Note 20.
[xxvii] Genesis 2:2-3.
[xxviii] Exodus 35:2.
[xxix] See the Mishna, in Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Avodah Zara, on page 2a, as well as, Talmudic discussion at page 6b and Tosafot commentary thereon.
[xxx] Esther 8:16.
[xxxi] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Megillah, at page 16b.
[xxxii] See Alshich commentary on Esther 8:16, which critically analyzes these words, although he comes to a different conclusion regarding the meaning than that expressed in the Talmud, as noted above. The Ibn Ezra takes note of the word light and the Ralbag takes note of the words light and preciousness (or honor, as he interprets it). It would appear that they are the words that seem out of place in the verse, which otherwise expresses pure joy and, hence, their comments and interpretations.
[xxxiii] See Netziv, HaEmek Davar commentary on Leviticus 2:11.
[xxxiv] See Midrash Rabbah, Exodus 51:8, as well as, Rashi commentary on Exodus 31:18. See also Maimonides, Guide for the perplexed 3:32. However, Nachmanides, in his commentary on Leviticus 8:2 and Exodus 25:1, appears to disagree.
[xxxvi] Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuva 9:1.
[xxxvii] See Babylonian Talmud, Tractates Kiddushin (at page 31a), Bava Kamma (at pages 38a and 87a) and Avoda Zara (at page 3a).
[xxxviii] See the Tosafot commentary on Kiddushin, at page 31a. See also the Ritva commentary as to Kiddushin 31a.
[xxxix] See the Tosafot commentary on Avodah Zara, at page 3a.
[xl] See Maimonides, Guide to the Perplexed 3:54. See also Maimonides, Shemonah Perakim, Chapters 2-4.
[xli] Deuteronomy 28:47.