One-Sided Unconditional Love
Our Gemara on Amud Aleph delves into the intricate relationship between God and the Jewish people, particularly when the latter stray from their divine path:
תַנְיָא: ״בָּנִים אַתֶּם לַה׳ אֱלֹהֵיכֶם״, בִּזְמַן שֶׁאַתֶּם נוֹהֲגִים מִנְהַג בָּנִים – אַתֶּם קְרוּיִם בָּנִים, אֵין אַתֶּם נוֹהֲגִים מִנְהַג בָּנִים – אֵין אַתֶּם קְרוּיִם בָּנִים, דִּבְרֵי רַבִּי יְהוּדָה.
“You are the sons of the Lord your God,” indicates that when you act like devoted children and cleave to the Holy One, Blessed be He, you are called His sons. Yet, when you do not conduct yourselves in such a manner, you are not considered His children. These are the words of Rabbi Yehuda.
רַבִּי מֵאִיר אוֹמֵר: בֵּין כָּךְ וּבֵין כָּךְ אַתֶּם קְרוּיִם בָּנִים, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״בָּנִים סְכָלִים הֵמָּה״, וְאוֹמֵר: ״בָּנִים לֹא אֵמֻן בָּם״, וְאוֹמֵר: ״זֶרַע מְרֵעִים בָּנִים מַשְׁחִיתִים״, וְאוֹמֵר: ״וְהָיָה בִּמְקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יֵאָמֵר לָהֶם לֹא עַמִּי אַתֶּם יֵאָמֵר לָהֶם בְּנֵי אֵל חָי״.
Rabbi Meir, on the other hand, argues that in both scenarios, the Jewish people are still referred to as sons. This is supported by the verse: “They are foolish sons” (Jeremiah 4:22), and it also states: “Sons in whom there is no faithfulness” (Deuteronomy 32:20). Additionally, it says: “A seed of evildoers, sons who deal corruptly” (Isaiah 1:4). Furthermore, it mentions: “And it shall come to pass that, instead of what was said to them: You are not My people, it shall be said to them: Sons of the living God” (Hosea 2:1).
At first glance, the dispute between Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Meir appears to revolve around the concept of unconditional love.
Maharal (Netzach Yisrael 11) provides deeper insight, explaining that Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Meir are not fundamentally at odds; rather, they are speaking from distinct perspectives. (In the realm of mysticism, halakhic disputes often serve to emphasize different facets of a concept. After all, each opinion is considered “words of the living God” (Eiruvin 13b). For instance, Gemara Rosh Hashana 34a dictates the use of a combination of sounds for the Shofar because the exact nature of a “Teruah” sound remains unclear—is it Teruah, Shevarim, or Shevarim-Teruah? However, Zohar (III:230b) interprets each sound as representing a distinct spiritual activation, corresponding to Avraham, Yitschok, and Yaakov.
Maharal elucidates that, from God’s perspective, His unchanging wisdom renders His choice of the Jewish people and His oneness inseparable. Therefore, in God’s eyes, the Jews always remain His children, regardless of their actions. However, when the Jewish people sin, they create a rift and distance themselves from God. Consequently, from their own perspective, they no longer resemble His children.
Maharal’s notion of our intrinsic worthiness to God aligns with Abraham Maslow’s principles of Humanistic Psychology, particularly the third principle:
- Someone’s present functioning is their most significant aspect. As a result, humanists emphasize the here and now instead of examining the past or attempting to predict the future.
- To be mentally healthy, individuals must take personal responsibility for their actions, regardless of whether the actions are positive or negative.
- Each person, simply by being, is inherently worthy. While any given action may be negative, these actions do not cancel out the value of a person.
- The ultimate goal of living is to attain personal growth and understanding. Only through constant self-improvement and self-understanding can an individual ever be truly happy.
Pour on the Effort
In our Gemara on Amud Beis, the discussion centers around whether the Jewish people in the wilderness were obligated to provide accompanying wine libations for their sacrifices, was required in the Temple. This inquiry seems to touch upon practicality, specifically the extent of effort the Torah expected from the Jews to procure wine for these libations in the harsh wilderness conditions.
Indeed, though the Torah explicitly mentions that the Jews took livestock with them when leaving Egypt (Shemos 10:9), indicating their preparedness in regard to offering sacrifices, but where would they get the required wine? Rav Yaakov Emden, commenting on this Gemara, suggests that the Jews likely purchased wine or grapes from merchants of other nations during their travels. Similarly, Birchas Asher (Shemos 27:20) notes that the Jews obtained olives for sacred oil from local gentiles.
The intriguing question arises: If God miraculously provided the Jews with Manna for sustenance, water from a rock, and ensured that their clothing did not wear out during their wilderness sojourn, why did He not also supply them with wine and oil?
The answer, both logical and “Psycho-Logical,” lies in the notion that wine and oil were designated for sacrificial offerings. God’s decision not to provide these items was a deliberate choice meant to emphasize the importance of human effort in making offerings meaningful. It can be likened to a child saving their allowance over many weeks to purchase a heartfelt birthday present for a parent. Technically, the child is using their parents’ money, but the act of putting in their own effort and thought is what imbues the gift with significance.
In this context, God’s intention was for the Jewish people to actively participate in the sacrificial process, symbolizing their devotion and commitment. By requiring them to obtain wine and oil through their own efforts, God encouraged them to invest themselves in their offerings, thereby making their worship more sincere and meaningful. This is even represented halachikally in that it is preferable to employ a chazan who is financially compensated (see Shulkhan Arukh, OC 52:22) over one who works as a volunteer. This concept underscores the profound connection between human agency and spirituality in Jewish tradition.
The Gemara on Amud Aleph discusses how, on the day of Moses’ passing, the Manna ceased, but the Jewish people continued to be sustained by the leftover Manna until the 16th of Nissan. Similarly, the Gemara mentions that the dough-cakes the Jews took from Egypt tasted like the Manna. Is the Gemara merely recounting historical events, or does it hold a deeper significance?
Shem Mishmuel, in Shelach 10, offers an explanation that goes beyond historical narrative. He suggests that living off the Manna was an extraordinary experience, and transitioning from regular food to this heavenly sustenance, and then back to regular food, would have been challenging for the human body and psyche. Therefore, the dough-cakes before entering the wilderness and the Manna leftovers at the journey’s end were made to taste like the Manna. This provided a smoother transition from a physical to a heavenly diet and vice versa.
This idea reflects a fundamental human need for transition and adjustment periods. The Torah acknowledges this need in various aspects of Jewish life:
Chametz is already prohibited before Passover (Mishna Pesachim 1:4), allowing for a transition period as people prepare for the holiday.
There is a practice of adding time to Shabbos, refraining from work before it is officially evening. Some authorities consider this a biblical requirement (see Mishna Berura 261:19).
Before receiving the Torah, the Jewish people were instructed to prepare for two to three days (Shemos 19:15), recognizing the need for a mental and spiritual transition.
The High Priest (Cohen Gadol) underwent a seven-day preparation and consecration process before performing the Yom Kippur service, inaugurating the Mishkan (Tabernacle), or offering the Red Heifer.
In today’s fast-paced world, we often overlook these truths of human nature and push against them, which can be detrimental to our well-being. We try to stay awake when we are too tired, we wake up too early, we push new mothers to get back to work, expect mourners to “get over it”, and demand that our children to act as adults at times that are beyond their capacity. It is essential to strike a balance between hard work and respecting the natural needs of the human body and psyche. Allowing for adjustment periods and transitions can lead to healthier and more sustainable outcomes in our lives, aligning with the wisdom from the Torah.
Your Special Mitzvah
Our Mishna on Amud Beis presents a cryptic concept, highlighting the potential power of just one mitzvah:
Anyone who performs one mitzvah has goodness bestowed upon him, his life is lengthened, and he inherits the land, i.e., life in the World-to-Come. And anyone who does not perform one mitzvah does not have goodness bestowed upon him, his life is not lengthened, and he does not inherit the land of the World-to-Come.
The Gemara goes on to explain that this “one mitzvah” refers to the mitzvah that tips the scales, upgrading one’s status to having a majority of merits in their favor.
The Penei Yehoshua (ibid) refers to the Yerushalmi, which identifies this “one mitzvah” as a mitzvah that an individual takes upon themselves as a special priority and diligently observes without fail. Arvei Nachal (Naso 39-43) expands upon this idea by suggesting that each Jewish person has a unique mitzvah deeply rooted and connected to their soul. There’s an innate attraction toward this particular mitzvah, an intuitive sense of its significance. The Ishbitzer (Beis Yaakov Vayechi 26) even posits that a Tzaddik, a righteous person, cannot transgress a mitzvah deeply tied to their soul and must even martyr themselves to uphold it.
The story of Rabbi Akiva’s willingness to give up his life for a rabbinic mitzvah, such as washing hands (Eruvin 21b), is cited as an example of this deep connection to a specific mitzvah. It is also known that the Klausenberger Rebbe maintained their mitzvah observance, even in the most dire circumstances like Auschwitz, where he would eat touch non-kosher food, nor even use non-toiveled utensils and would fast on Tisha B’Av, demonstrating an unwavering commitment to certain mitzvos, even in life-threatening situations.
The idea that each Jew may have a specific mitzvah deeply connected to their soul is indeed fascinating. It suggests that there may be an inherent, spiritual connection between an individual and a particular mitzvah that goes beyond rational explanation. If you find yourself passionately drawn to a specific mitzvah, it’s worth recognizing and honoring that feeling, as it may be an expression of a unique connection between your soul and that particular commandment.
Unnatural Responses to Natural Temptations
Our Gemara on Amud Aleph tells us that if one successfully overcomes a particular temptation to sin, they will merit miraculous salvation.
Ben Yehoyada explains that this is “Middah K’neged Middah,” a measure for measure response from God. In other words, if we, as individuals, choose to forgo immediate gratification of our natural desires and drives for a higher spiritual purpose, God reciprocates by suspending natural laws and granting us miraculous salvation.
Ben Yehoyada also provides an additional perspective on how this act of overcoming temptation leads to miraculous salvation. He refers to the principle that the reward for mitzvos (commandments) is typically reserved for the World to Come. He argues that God is not violating the Biblical commandment of not paying one’s employees on time (Vayikra 19:13) because performing the mitzvos is not a “job”; rather we owe this performance to God no matter what. As Hashem says in Iyov (41:3):
מִ֣י הִ֭קְדִּימַנִי וַאֲשַׁלֵּ֑ם תַּ֖חַת כׇּל־הַשָּׁמַ֣יִם לִי־הֽוּא׃
Who has a claim on me from before, that I should repay him? whatever is under the whole heaven is mine.
Yet, refraining from sin represents a unique situation. When someone refrains from sin, they are exercising their free will in a way that goes beyond a standard contract. This choice is fully within the realm of human domain, and God, in a sense, “owes” immediate reward for this act of self-control. As a result, the reward often comes swiftly in the form of miraculous salvation.
The Gemara in Berachos 33b reinforces the concept of free will, particularly in matters related to “fear of Heaven.” Rabbi Ḥanina’s statement that “Everything is in the hands of Heaven, except for fear of Heaven” underscores that individuals have the free will to choose to serve God or not. When a person actively overcomes the temptation to sin, they are exercising this free will in their own choices and this an “employment arrangement”, requiring immediate wages.
Spiritual Dusting Off Before Shabbos
Our Gemara on Amud Aleph discusses how great rabbis would personally tend to Shabbos preparations, even tasks that might be considered menial, to honor the sanctity of Shabbos:
Rav Yosef said: It is more fitting that the mitzvah be performed by the person himself than by means of his agent. For example, there is a story of Rav Safra, who would singe the head of an animal on Shabbos eve himself to prepare it for consumption on Shabbos. Similarly, Rava would salt a turbot fish himself to fulfill the mitzvah of preparing for Shabbos, although others could have done these tasks.
The Shalah (Aseres Hadibros, Shabbos, Ner Mitzvah 6-8) cites the Reishis Chochma, which mentions a custom of clearing the home of spiderwebs on Erev Shabbos. While this may seem like a simple act of tidying up, Reishis Chochma suggests that there is a mystical “secret” behind this custom. Shalah explains, the home symbolizes the abode of the divine majesty, known as “Malchus,” and the spiderwebs represent disruptions and imperfections caused by unresolved sin. Why are these imperfections compared to webs in the corners of the house? I suggest that, relative to the majesty of God, any of our sinful behaviors are minor disruptions and imperfections, akin to dust in the corner.
This concept recalls a Chassidic interpretation of a well-known teaching recited in many synagogues every Friday night (Shabbos 12a):
“חייב אדם למשמש בגדיו ערב שבת עם חשיכה שמא ישכח ויצא”
“One is obligated to search his garments (bgadav) Friday night as it gets dark, lest he forget that he has objects in his pocket and carries on Shabbos.”
In Hebrew, “beged” means clothing, but it shares its root with “boged,” which means betrayal. This teaching suggests that on the verge of Shabbos, one should check their “betrayals,” meaning they should review their actions from the week to ensure they haven’t wronged anyone. If necessary, they should make amends, entering Shabbos in a state of purity and resolution. In Jungian dream analysis, clothing often symbolizes the persona, so it may also imply that one should examine their projected personality traits and qualities to enter Shabbos in an elevated state.
Ensuring that personal relationships are in a state of tranquility and resolution before entering Shabbos is vital to the spirit of the day. Just as with Shabbos preparations, this task cannot be delegated to others, and no aspect of it is beneath our dignity.
Whose Orders Are We Following?
In our Gemara, we’ve been discussing the concept of agency, “shelichut.” Several important principles have emerged:
- It is more honorable to perform a mitzvah oneself rather than appointing an agent, even if the mitzvah could technically be carried out by someone else.
- The concept of “Letikune Shidarticha” suggests that if an agent performs an action that clearly contradicts the appointer’s intent, the agency is not valid for that particular action.
- There is a fundamental rule that “Ein shelich l’var averah,” meaning there is no agency when it comes to sin. This is based on the idea that no one can justify committing a sin by claiming they were merely following orders. The Talmud raises a rhetorical question: “To whom does one obey? The student or the master?” In essence, how could anyone direct another person to commit a sin as their agent when it goes against the will of God?
The Likkutei Halachos (Hilchos Sheluchim, Choshen Mishpat, 1:1, 2:6, and 5:2) provides a profound insight into these principles. It suggests that these ideas about agency relate to different levels of human consciousness and perception. The core self, represented by the human soul, possesses a level of understanding and comprehension that transcends sensory data and physical perception.
Mitzvos can be fulfilled in two ways:
- Through rational faculties, human effort, and the agency of a person. This is the more external aspect of mitzvah observance.
- Through a deeper level of knowing, perception, and performance that occurs within a realm of truth deep within the self. This aspect is not considered an agency; rather, it represents the juncture of the soul and God, completely aligned. This is the internal and more profound aspect of mitzvah observance.
Based on this understanding, we can say that it is “mitzvah bo yoser mi’beshlucho,” preferable to perform the mitzvah directly without agency. In other words, our involvement in fulfilling a mitzvah should stem from a deep awareness and connection beyond mere rational processing.
Expanding on this idea, sin itself is never truly representative of our core selves. Since there is no agency for sinful actions, our physical drives and perceptions that lead us to sin do not reflect the true essence of who we are. Instead, they are distortions that pull us away from our deeper knowledge and desires.
In this context, the statement by Reish Lakish that “a man commits a transgression only if a spirit of folly [shetus] enters him” (Sotah 3a) suggests that sinful actions result from a deviation from our true selves, a departure from our inherent worthiness, as Abraham Maslow’s principles emphasize:
“Each person, simply by being, is inherently worthy. While any given action may be negative, these actions do not cancel out the value of a person.”