Weekly Share

Food For the Soul

Removing “the unknown sin”

With anti-Semitism so rampant these days, it’s easy to forget our own transgressions which serve to help Judaism’s enemies. Among them is the baseless hatred that some Jews harbor towards other Jews. The first Temple was destroyed because of three sins of which the Jews were guilty: idolatry, sexual indiscretions and murder. The second Temple – when Jews were involved in Torah, mitzvot and acts of kindness – was destroyed because we were guilty of “the unknown sin”: harboring baseless hatred towards each other!

The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains why hatred and fighting is the “unknown sin”. On average, an idolater, adulterer, or murderer is keenly aware of his sin. People fall victim to temptation, but repentance is eminently achievable because the person himself is conscious of and troubled by the sins which defile his soul. However, the person who is guilty of participating in quarrels and hate mongering rarely believes that he is at fault. In his estimation, the other party rightly deserves all the abuse being heaped on him! Thus, while baseless hatred is perhaps the most overt of sins, so few actually recognize their own guilt.

This is true both in our interpersonal relations as well as our nation’s regrettable tendency to be heavily preoccupied with inter-faction squabbles. Left, Right, and Center. Conservative, Orthodox, and Reform. Chassidic, Zionist and anti-Zionist. And the list goes on…

As we begin the Three Weeks, an annual mourning period that starts on 17 Tammuz (Sunday, June 27) it is easy to continue blaming “them” for factionalism and divisiveness. It is much harder to find the faults within ourselves. The Redemption will come when we finally recognize that – even if in fact “I’m right and he’s wrong” – there is never a valid reason to hate a fellow Jew.

Inspired by an article by Rabbi Naftali Silberberg. For information about The Three Weeks, visit Chabad.org


Shabbat Shalom

Ethics of the Fathers, chapter six

This Shabbat afternoon we read from Ethics of the Fathers, chapter six. Here, passage 3 states: “One who learns from his fellow a single chapter, or a single law, or a single verse, or a single word, or even a single letter [in Torah], he must treat him with respect. For so we find with David, king of Israel, who did not learn anything from Achitofel except for two things alone, yet he called him his “master,” his “guide” and his “intimate,” as is stated (Psalms 55:14), “And you are a man of my worth, my guide and intimate friend.” Surely we can infer a fortiori: if David, king of Israel, who learned nothing from Achitofel except for two things alone, nevertheless referred to him as his master, guide and intimate, it certainly goes without saying that one who learns from his fellow a single chapter, a law, a verse, a saying, or even a single letter, is obligated to revere him…”


Mind Over Matter

Fearless

The pain is real. The fear is not. The pain is real, because we are not in our true place. Nothing is in its true place. It is called exile. Exile of the soul.

The fear is not real—there is nothing to fear. Because no matter where we are, G-d is there with us. For He is everywhere. The only thing we have to fear is that we may no longer feel the pain. That we may imagine that this is our place after all. For it is that pain of knowing we are in the wrong place that lifts us higher, beyond this place. Likkutei Sichot, vol. 30, p.234.

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman


Moshiach Thoughts

The Three Weeks’ inner message

There is more to the Three Weeks than fasting and lamentation. Our sages tell us that those who mourn the destruction of Jerusalem will merit seeing it rebuilt with the coming of Moshiach. May that day come soon, and then all the mournful dates on the calendar will be transformed into days of tremendous joy and happiness.

Chabad.org


Have I Got A Story

Rebuilding the Temple with love

Talk about Jewish guilt. It is said that if we don’t witness the rebuilding of the Holy Temple in our lifetime, it’s as if we witness its destruction. If that’s not difficult enough, the key to rebuilding is simple to articulate but challenging to do: to love another Jew for no reason whatsoever (ahavat yisrael). This love repairs the “baseless hatred” (sin’at chinam) that caused the Second Temple’s destruction on Tisha B’Av, the 9th of Av, in 69 CE.

Until the Temple is rebuilt, our nation stops to grieve during the three weeks leading up to the 9th of Av (this year, July 18, 2021). During this period (known as the “Three Weeks”) there are no weddings, no haircuts and no music. During the nine days from the 1st of Av to the 9th of Av, forget about swimming, eating meat (unless it’s Shabbat) and taking a summer vacation. Then there’s Tisha B’Av itself, a 25-hour-long fast that usually feels longer because it’s so ridiculously hot outside. But what I always disliked most about this time period was how clearly I could see what was lacking in me.

When I was growing up, summer meant fun. And that’s what it continued to mean to my extended family, old friends and neighbors who didn’t know about the Three Weeks or the Nine Days or Tisha B’Av. They were happily taking vacations and making barbecues, while I was sitting home in the middle of summer with a bunch of kids and nothing to do.

I have to admit that I didn’t always view my fun-loving fellow Jews so kindly during the Three Weeks. After all, I rationalized, I’d done a lot of heavy lifting to do what G-d wants so that the Temple could be rebuilt. What about all the Jews who couldn’t care less? Which was exactly the worst possible thought I could think about other Jews, especially at this time. I knew that, too, which meant that I didn’t especially like myself at this time of year either.

But even so, I always kept an image of the Temple in my mind, remembering how it inspired me during a Shabbaton my young family attended nearly 30 years earlier. Before that weekend, I knew that the Temple had existed—I had been to Jerusalem and seen the Western Wall—but I assumed it was basically a bigger version of our giant synagogue in Pittsburgh. (What else should I have thought? Everyone referred to our synagogue as “temple.”)

When on this Shabbaton I learned that G-d performed open miracles in the Temple in Jerusalem and that, up until its destruction, people actually knew that G-d existed, I was thrilled to be able to confirm my suspicion about G-d’s existence. The Temple in Jerusalem provided enough evidence for me that the whole G-d and Torah story was true. From there, the idea chain was fairly straightforward: our mitzvahs hasten the coming of Moshiach, who will rebuild the Third Temple, which will exist for eternity. Learning about the Temple put Jewish history, indeed all of creation, into a meaningful context. My existential questions had answers right in my own religious backyard.

By the end of the Shabbaton, my husband and I signed on the spiritual dotted line, sure that we wanted to be part of the rebuilding campaign. But every year the Three Weeks would set me back, and I would fall into the trap of looking at what other Jews weren’t doing for G-d.

Only recently have I seen a change in my relationship with G-d and the world. I am able to see other Jews in a way that I couldn’t before—to accept, care about and love them no matter what they do, even during the Three Weeks. That this attitude helps rebuild the Temple is almost secondary.

It took many years for me to internalize that surrendering my will to G-d’s will would be my ticket to personal happiness, and that what He wants most from me is to love other Jews. What surprises me still is how happy I am when I do it.

By Lieba Rudolph

Food For the Soul

Conduct unbecoming

A life sentence for jaywalking? Twenty years for chewing gum in public? Surely that’s over the top! Well, was it so different for Moses, who, in the Parsha Chukat (Numbers 19:1-22:1), is punished and denied entrance to the Promised Land for the seemingly minor infraction of hitting a rock instead of speaking to it? The people are clamoring for water in the wilderness. G-d tells Moses to speak to a certain rock (he was meant to ask nicely) and promises that, miraculously, water will flow from the rock. Commentary enlightens us as to the behind-the-scenes reasons for Moses striking the rock instead of speaking to it, but in the end the miracle happens anyway and the people’s thirst is quenched.

If your average rabbi today would make a rock produce water, even if the rock needed more than mere gentle persuasion, surely it would be hailed as the greatest miracle of the century and the rabbi would win the Nobel Prize for chemistry. But for Moses it’s a sin? Even if (as the Torah points out) it would have been a greater sanctification of the Divine had he only spoken to the rock, still, for such a minor infraction, such a severe penalty?

The answer, we are told, is that responsibility is commensurate with the individual. If a child messes up, it is entirely forgivable. For an adult who should know better, we are less likely to be as forgiving. Likewise, among adults, from a person of stature we expect more than from an ordinary fellow. A blemish on a coarse garment is not nearly as bad as it is on a piece of fine material. A stain on a pair of denims is not only acceptable, it is absolutely desirable. In fact, some people pay a premium for pre-stained jeans. Put the same stain on a silk tie and it’s simply unwearable. Moses was like the finest silk and, therefore, even the smallest, subtle hint of sin was considered a serious breach of conduct and the repercussions were severe.

Moses was the greatest prophet that ever lived. For him, the standard could be no higher. Luckily for us mere mortals, we will not be held to that exalted benchmark. But we will be held to our own standard. The standard of Jews who were called upon by G-d to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”

From an article by Rabbi Yossy Goldman


Shabbat Shalom

Ethics of The Fathers: Chapter Five

This Shabbat afternoon we read from Ethics of The Fathers, chapter five. Within the chapter is this: “There are seven things that characterize a boor, and seven that characterize a wise man. A wise man does not speak before one who is greater than him in wisdom or age. He does not interrupt his fellow’s words. He does not hasten to answer. His questions are on the subject and his answers to the point. He responds to first things first and to latter things later. Concerning what he did not hear, he says “I did not hear.” He concedes to the truth. With the boor, the reverse of all these is the case.”

Chabad.org


Mind Over Matter

The red heifer

Purity is not achieved by suppressing or waging war against desire. The Torah teaches us to look right at the passionate, forceful “red heifer”. Look at its core and understand that the red heifer is not negative, nor is it spiritually neutral. The Torah wants us to understand that the heifer can be the most powerful agent of purity in our life. The power of desire, its incredible force and energy, is not evil. For while the external expression of the desire may be negative and must be burned, the ashes of the heifer, its inner essence, is the source of purity. When the ashes are mixed into the “living waters,” when the power of desire is directed toward a positive goal, the heifer itself will be an unbridled force that will provide spiritual and emotional purity.

From an article by Rabbi Menachem Feldman


Moshiach Thoughts

The red heifer and redemption

Both the “red heifer” and the Messianic redemption effect purification. The ashes of the “red heifer” are used for removing a legal state of impurity. The redemption will purify the entire people of Israel (including those who halachically are pure) from any trace of deficiency in the bond with our Father in Heaven. One of the Messianic prophecies thus says of that time, in terms analogous to the “waters of purification” of the “red heifer”: “I shall sprinkle pure waters upon you that you be purified. I will purify you from all your impurities and from all your idols!” (Ezekiel 36:25) Maimonides cites a Mishnah with the following words: “Nine ‘red heifers’ were prepared from the time this precept was ordained until the Second Temple was destroyed: the first was prepared by Moses our Master, the second Ezra prepared, and there were seven from Ezra to the destruction of the Temple. The tenth will be prepared by King Moshiach-may he soon be revealed, amen, may thus be (G-d’s) Will!” (Hilchot Parah Adumah 3:4)

From an article by Rabbi J. Immanuel Schochet


Have I Got A Story

Don’t “pass it on”

Sitting on the plane, all I wanted to do was read or sleep, but the chatty gentleman in the aisle seat had other plans. He launched into an interminable description of the trip he was taking to visit his aged mother for her 80th birthday. He described her current nursing home in great detail and then told me the age and family circumstances of each of her children and grandchildren. I feigned polite interest as he droned on, but I must confess I only started paying real attention to his ramblings when he began describing the complex choreography that his extended family had engineered to ensure that he and his younger sister would never see each other during his visit, or even be in their mother’s house together at the same time. They aren’t talking, you see. They’ve hated each other for years. The spouses have also bought into the fight over time, and their respective children have never met. The fight erupted decades ago over something minor and escalated into full blown war.

What a tragedy for the family, I thought to myself. An old mother forced to sit through two separate parties, probably never having the satisfaction of seeing all her descendants at peace. But as he wound his way through the byways of his family history, I began to realize that his mother and siblings were far from blameless. It seemed from the way he told the story that they had inadvertently fanned the fires of resentment by faithfully reporting each nasty gibe or comment back to its target. In his words; “I can trust my brothers to tell me everything that that (expletive deleted) is saying about me.”

I wondered at the time why anyone would feel duty bound to pass on information that they know is just going to inflame an already unhappy situation. Why would you repeat every piece of malicious gossip you hear? If you know you’re not helping the situation, surely you are always better off saying nothing than saying too much.

We parted ways at the airport, with me still stuck pondering his family dilemmas. I was still wondering why so many families fall out of love and degenerate into petty infighting, when, the very next day, I came across a fascinating story about the first Chabad rebbe, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi and his famed contemporary, Rabbi Boruch of Mezhibuzh.

Rabbi Boruch was not a man to compromise or back down on what he believed to be the truth, and consequently, he was frequently embroiled in conflict. [He] once complained to Rabbi Shneur Zalman that a number of false allegations against him (Rabbi Boruch) had recently been circulated by his enemies, and although Rabbi Shneur Zalman had been aware of these slurs, he had failed to inform him. Rabbi Shneur Zalman admitted that he had indeed heard the aspersions, but rather than apologize for not having passed on the details, he defended his right to silence.

Rabbi Shneur Zalman reminded Rabbi Boruch about the incident of the snakes, found in this week’s parshah. The Israelites complained about G-d and Moses, and in consequence G-d sent a plague of snakes to attack them (Chukat 21:6). Unlike other occasions where G-d discusses the proposed punishment with Moshe in advance, this time Moshe was unaware of the reason they were being attacked until the Israelites themselves approached him; We have sinned, for we spoke against G-d and you. Pray to G-d to remove the snakes! (21:7).Of course Moshe, as the kind and ever-forgiving leader, prayed for them and the plague was averted, yet we have to wonder why did G-d hide the cause of the plague from him in the first place?

Obviously, concluded Rabbi Shneur Zalman, not only is there no mitzvah to let people know the harsh things that others are saying about them, but we learn that you really shouldn’t repeat that type of gossip.

I’ve personally seen too many instances where well-meaning people have caused small arguments to develop into huge fights by playing the role of so-called honest broker. More often than not people would have worked out their own issues if left alone long enough to cool off. It’s the people who “feel it their duty” to pass on tattle, who are often the cause of the never-ending disputes. How about resolving not to contribute to the mess? If you’re unfortunate enough to hear some juicy gossip, sit on it and don’t pass it on; it won’t help and will probably hurt.

From an article by Rabbi Elisha Greenbaum

Food For the Soul

Korath’s philosophy misses the boat

In the Parsha Korach (Numbers 16:1 – 18:32) we read how Korach, a member of the Levitic tribe, incites a mutiny challenging Moses’ leadership and the granting of the priesthood to Aaron. The Torah teaches that Korach and his followers were punished for their insubordination when the earth “opened up its mouth” and swallowed them up.

Make no mistake. Korach did not start out as a jealous, power-hungry rebel. In fact, the Kabbalists explain, Korach had a deep philosophical dispute with Aaron’s approach to spirituality. Aaron was all about inspiring people to ignite spiritual light in their lives through the study of Torah and the observance of mitzvahs, to spend time and energy on spiritual pursuits, and to illuminate their souls with a love for G-d. Korach viewed light with disdain. In his view, darkness was what encompassed the absolute truth of the Infinite Creator. According to Korach’s plan, the people would live a materialistic life, without the burden of seeking spiritual inspiration. Eventually, more and more people would come to appreciate what Korach understood. They would understand that they could be satisfied with materialism as a testament to the fact that G-d cannot be expressed in a limited measure of light.

Korach was right that darkness has a higher source than light. He was right that the material has a higher source than the spiritual. And yet, his philosophy was completely wrong. He was wrong because in order to understand the truth of darkness, a person needs light. The only way a person can crack the shell of the material and connect to its source is by subjugating the material to the spiritual. Only when we allow Torah to illuminate life with spiritual light, with a yearning for holiness, will we be able to appreciate that the material is an expression of the essence of G-d. Only a soul inspired by Aaron can reveal and connect to the superior essence of the body. Only light can reconnect the darkness to its lofty source.

A soul illuminated with spiritual light can find G-d wherever it looks. Not only in the light, but also in the darkness; not only in the holy, but also in the mundane; not only in heaven, but also on earth.

Adapted from an article by Rabbi Menachem Feldman


Shabbat Shalom

Ethics of Our Fathers: Chapter 4

This Shabbat afternoon we read from Chapter 4 of Ethics of Our Fathers. In it, there are two warnings not to use Torah to satisfy your own ego or personal gain. Rabbi Tzaddok would say: “Do not make the Torah a crown to magnify yourself with, or a spade with which to dig”. So would Hillel say: “one who make personal use of the crown of Torah shall perish. Hence, one who benefits himself from the words of Torah, removes his life from the world.”


Mind Over Matter

Do you live near Korach?

Korach’s co-conspirators lived near to this wealthy, rabble-rousing, ambitious man. So it is not surprising that they were influenced by him or that Rashi said: “Woe to the evil man; woe to his neighbor.”

We are all influenced by society. One who lives in a place with a low moral standard will eventually start believing that this is what morality is all about. Which is why it’s important to choose our neighborhoods wisely. Do they reflect our values; how we want our children to grow up? If, however, we must live in a place where the popular definition of right and wrong is not compatible with Jewish morals, we should take these words from the Rebbe to heart: “You will either affect your environment, or the environment will affect you. There is no middle ground.” We must try to raise our communities to a higher plane; to teach, inspire, be a role model, be proud of who we are and what we stand for.

Inspired by an article by Rabbi Levi Avtzon


Moshiach Thoughts

Korach’s bad timing

In the prophecies of Ezekiel dealing with the Messianic era there is a puzzling expression: “Hakohanim-Haleviyim-the Priests-Levites” (Ezekiel 43:19 and 44:15), mixing, as it were, these two separate concepts into a single one. Rabbi Isaac Luria explains this expression by stating that in the Messianic era the Levites will be elevated to the higher status of kohanim (priests). Korach wanted to benefit from this already, in his own time, and he sought, prematurely, to achieve that status. This desire is essentially commendable. Korach erred, though, by assembling his followers to rise and rebel against Moses. He thought that by doing so he could force the realization of the redemption before its time. He did not realize that it could not happen until the refinement of the world would be completed.

From an article by Rabbi J. Immanuel Schochet


Have I Got A Story

Be proud of Jewish distinctiveness

Despite all the drama of a world in turmoil, I sometimes get the feeling that we live in a boring world. Everyone is so politically correct. G-d forbid, we should say what we really think! Recently, I attended a dinner for a local organization and the entertainer was a comedian. He got up and told the audience that the rabbi had called him and made him promise he wouldn’t use any risqué material. Then, another committee member reminded him not to be racist or anti-religious or gender discriminatory. A third made him promise not to offend any minority groups. Having been duly stripped of every opportunity for satire, the comedian just said, “Ladies and gentlemen, good night,” and walked off the stage.

The argument of Korach, the mutineer in this week’s Torah reading, smacks of such inane political correctness. Korach accuses Moses and Aaron of nepotism, of grabbing positions of power for themselves. In doing so, he insists that “The entire community is holy. Why do you exalt yourselves over the congregation of G-d?” In fact, the very same argument could be used against Jews in general. “Who do you think you are? Chosen People! Aren’t all men created equal?” The fact is that Jews are different. Ask any anti-Semite and he’ll confirm it. The blatant hypocrisy in constantly holding Israel to a higher standard of morality than its Arab neighbors only reaffirms that Jews generally do adhere to a value system that is distinctive and unique.

Indeed, we do. The Chosen People concept means greater responsibility, not privilege. Rather than making them pompous and condescending about it, it has molded Jews into the most sensitive, humane nation on earth. And that is precisely why if we do occasionally veer from those principles, it is such an aberration that it is considered front page news.

Our belief in and respect of the inherent worth of every human being does not contradict our conviction that Judaism is unique. Does not every single religion maintain that its path is the correct one? Almost all, besides Judaism, actively evangelize to graciously save the lost souls of other faiths. We Jews do not seek converts because we believe that “the righteous of all nations have a share in the world to come” and they don’t need to become Jews to get a slice of paradise.

Some years ago the University of Cape Town was considering building a student religious facility which would unite all three major faiths in one house of worship. It was to service Muslims, Christians and Jews in a combined Mosque-Church-Synagogue to be known as a “MosChuraGogue.” I was asked by a local newspaper what I thought of the idea. My answer was that the mistaken presumption in the founders’ thinking was that three separate faiths could not possibly get along. There was therefore a need to combine them into one composite. The fact is that we are each distinct with our own set of beliefs and practices but there is no good reason why each specific faith should not respect the other. Why must we suppress individuality to achieve harmony?

Distinctions are a necessary reality of life. While we don’t look to create divisions between people, not everybody is a doctor. Imagine if every fellow who felt like playing physician would hang up a sign outside his house and start dispensing medicine! We’d have a very sick society.

The Rebbe was a great humanitarian. He was concerned about every nation and every single individual — Jew or Gentile — and tried to make a difference to the broader society, as evidenced by his efforts for a sacred “moment of silence” in American public schools and his emphasis on education for all. Simultaneously, he was adamant that Israel needs to be uncompromising in its territorial strategy to safeguard the security of its citizens.

Humanitarianism need not mean blurring all the lines. Imagine, John Lennon’s peace song where there are no more religions, is not only impractical and anarchic, it is a denial of truth. We don’t all have to be the same to get along.

Within our own people, some are “Kohanim,” others “Levites” while most of us belong to the rest of the tribes of Israel. There are doctors and lawyers, priests and prophets. The challenge of those who hold legitimate, genuine high office is to keep the distinctions from disintegrating into divisiveness.

From an article by Rabbi Yossy Goldman

Food For the Soul

The majority is not always right

In the Parsha Shelach (Numbers 13:1 – 15:41) twelve spies are sent by Moses to the Promised Land. Only two of the dozen, Joshua and Caleb, remained faithful to their leader, to the purpose of their mission and to G-d’s assurance that it was a good land. The other ten spies went awry.

The spies were sent to determine how best to approach the coming conquest of the land of Canaan. Instead of doing what they were sent to do—to suggest the best way forward—ten of the twelve spies brought back a negative report that was designed to intimidate the people and discourage them from entering a ferocious “land that devours its inhabitants,” and which signed off with the categorical conclusion that “we cannot ascend.”

The people responded accordingly. They cried out to Moses, lamenting their very departure from Egypt. So G-d decreed that this generation was not worthy of His Precious Promised Land. G-d decrees that Israel’s entry into the land shall be delayed forty years, during which time that entire generation will die out in the desert.

Now, the question I’d like to pose here is: why did the people not follow the two good spies, Joshua and Caleb, instead of the others? The obvious answer: they were outvoted and outnumbered. Ten vs. two—no contest. Majority rules. Tragically, though, they backed the losers. And the result was an extended vacation in the wilderness for them, and a tragedy for all of us to this day.

So, although we may be staunch believers in the democratic process, clearly, there will be times when the minority is right. All too often it is the world that is stark raving meshuga, veering drunkenly out of control. It takes substantial strength of character to resist the pull of the drunken majority. May G-d aid us to be men and women of stature, of spirit. May we be inspired with the courage to stand up and be counted, even if it means being that lone voice in the wilderness. Otherwise, we may never get to our destination.

Adapted from an article by Rabbi Yossy Goldman


Shabbat Shalom

Egyptians Sue Jews

On this day in history (4th Century BCE) Egyptian representatives appeared in the court of Alexander the Great, demanding that the Jews pay restitution for all the Egyptian gold and silver they took along with them during the Exodus. Geviha the son of Pesisa, a simple but wise Jew, requested the sages’ permission to present a defense on behalf of the Jews. Geviha asked the Egyptians for evidence that the Jews absconded with their wealth. “The crime is clearly recorded in your Torah,” the Egyptians gleefully responded. “In that case,” Geviha said, “the Torah also says that 600,000 Jews were unjustly enslaved by the Egyptians for many, many years. So first let us calculate how much you owe us…”

The court granted the Egyptians three days in which to prepare a response. When they were unable to do so they fled on the following day and never returned. In Talmudic times, the day when the Egyptian delegation fled was celebrated as a mini-holiday. (According to some traditions, this event took place on Nissan 24.)

Chabad.org


Mind Over Matter

Think POSSIBLE!

Instead of working out the best way to approach the Holy Land, the [Twelve] Spies declared that the job could not be achieved. The message they brought back was “mission impossible…” Instead of saying “we will have to face this or that problem” they said: “Give up on the whole project!” This was their error. But it does not have to be ours. Our investigation into the ins and outs and the possibilities of the task ahead of us, based on all the advice of Jewish teaching, does not mean we should end up saying “mission impossible” and withdraw. If we look in a positive way at our task, knowing that G-d is helping us, we will see the optimum way forward.

From an article by Dr. Tali Loewenthal


Moshiach Thoughts

Learning freedom

Moses first fought the oppressor and only then taught his people to be free. Today, the oppressor hides behind a smile, a luxury, a social norm. Quite often, your worst oppressor is you yourself. That is why today we first need to teach people to be free so that they can recognize their oppression.

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman


Have I Got A Story

My first Halachic question

I’d been on the job for just a few weeks when one of our members hesitantly approached me after services: “Rabbi,” he began, “may I ask you a question in halachah?”

Yes! I was ready! This was what I’d entered the rabbinate for. This was why I’d spent years attending international yeshivahs and studying for my semichah ordination. Ask me your halachic question, please.

“Rabbi,” he continued, “you know where I live, and you know how I get to shul on Shabbat. For the last few months, whenever I’ve come to shul, I have started to wear tzitzit under my shirt. Wearing them makes me feel good inside. However, this morning, as I was driving to shul, I started to wonder whether I wasn’t acting hypocritically. Should a Shabbat-breaker like me really be wearing such a holy garment as tzitzit? Rabbi, what do you think—should I stop wearing them?”

I’ve got to admit, at first I was a tiny bit disappointed. This was the halachic question I was waiting for? So much for my rosy vision of engaging in an in-depth analysis of some weighty issue of Jewish law. The answer seemed so obvious: of course he shouldn’t take his tzitzit off. Every mitzvah is an independent path to G-dliness, and the neglect of one commandment should not preclude the fulfillment of another.

However, one of the most useful pieces of advice I ever received in life was a favorite saying of my father’s: “Before you answer a question, ask yourself, ‘Why is this person asking you this question at this time?’” Thankfully, before I could blithely shoot off a response, I checked my initial impulse and gave his question the attention and respect it deserved. On reflection, I realized that he wasn’t really asking me “a halachic question”; he could have worked out the halachah easily enough for himself. He was really looking for an opportunity to explore his feelings of unease at his current unstructured approach to Judaism, and looking for reassurance that it was all right to take his own time and follow his own path to observance.

My new congregant and I spent a fair bit of time chatting with each other and trying to understand each other better. I learned far more about his past relationship with Judaism, as well as his current needs and desires, than I would have if I had just answered his question without giving him the time he needed to unburden.

One insight that seemed to give him some comfort was that the reason we wear tzitzit is so that “when you see them, you will remember all the commandments of the L-rd, to perform them” (Numbers 15:39). Wearing tzitzit is supposed to remind us of the other mitzvahs. You can even say they’re supposed to make us feel guilty. They’re doing their job!

Mitzvahs are addictive; if you do some, you’ll be tempted to do more. Obviously, it’s unwise and unhelpful to do too much too fast, but the natural temptation is to do more. What my friend was mistaking for unease at hypocrisy was really his conscience urging him to take the next step on his journey to Judaism, and stop driving to shul. You don’t stop wearing tzitzit because they’re doing what they’re supposed to; rather, you ready yourself to take the next step that you’re supposed to.

There is no shame in doing a mitzvah, and no reason to desist just because you’re not yet fully ready to take on another. Life is a marathon, not a sprint. Every step is just another stage towards “performing all the commandments of the L-rd” and readying oneself to listen to G-d’s message when He calls.

Rabbi Elisha Greenbaum

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