Rabbi Mordechai Pollock
Details, details. Judaism is full of details. Indeed Judaism is very concerned about the details of life. From waking in the morning with the Modeh Ani prayer of thanks on our lips, to reciting a blessing before going to sleep, Judaism is chock-full with details.
Details, details. Judaism is full of details. Indeed Judaism is very concerned about the details of life. From waking in the morning with the Modeh Ani prayer of thanks on our lips, to reciting a blessing before going to sleep, Judaism is chock-full with details. The vast majority of the mitzvot that we do come along with specific parameters. These parameters govern everyone equally. Everyone is guided by these detailed halachot (Jewish laws) so that everyone is performing the same basic mitzvah. When we build a sukkah, we all need to be concerned about the dimensions of the structure, size of the walls, the type of schach (materials for the roof), and the list goes on and on. And so is the case with the myriad of mitzvot.
Nevertheless, the vast majority of our time as Jews is spent doing things that are not strictly directed by these detailed halachot. The three major areas of Jewish life - Torah study, avodah (worship of G-d), and gemilut chasadim (kindness to those around us) - are all only very loosely defined. The learning of Torah is an obligation on everyone, but comes along with very loose guidelines. If one says the Shema prayer twice daily, once during the day and once during the night, he has fulfilled the minimum requirement for Torah learning. The portion of your day that is focused on Torah study is not dictated, and the same is true of avodah as well as gemilut chasadim.
The message for us is clear. The Torah wants different people to serve Hashem in different ways. Everyone's service of Hashem is not supposed to be the same. We don't want cookie-cutter Jews all doing the very same thing. "Inasmuch as the service of Hashem is not consistent for all people, this one focuses on the learning of Torah, this one focuses on the worship of Hashem, and this one focuses on acts of kindness. They are all acting for the sake of Heaven." So writes the Netziv, a great 19th century Torah scholar and leader, in his commentary to Numbers 15:41.
Indeed, the Talmud in many places tells us of different personalities that focused on varying aspects of Hashem's service, each presumably based on their personalities and personal areas of interest and expertise. In Tractate Berachot (32b), the Talmud tells us of the original righteous men who would wait one hour before they prayed and one hour after they prayed. Their waiting was to prepare for prayer and to contemplate what they had gained during prayer. These men, who spent nine hours daily in prayer, had special Divine assistance to retain what they learned in their limited time for Torah study, but their focus in life was quite clearly the worship of Hashem. Alternatively, the Talmud in Tractate Shabbat (11a) tells of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his friends who were so involved in learning Torah that they were exempt from prayer altogether! Clearly these are extreme examples, but telling nonetheless.
This week's Torah portion begins with a similar theme. The tribe of Levi is initiated into their unique role as the guardians and keepers of the Mishkan (Tabernacle). They are to be special, but more importantly, they are to be different. Each one of us is special in the eyes of Hashem when we do our best at keeping His mitzvot. What we need to remember always is that we need not be the same to be special.
Based upon "Shaarei Talmud Torah," a contemporary work on Torah study by Rabbi Leo Levy.
Rabbi Mordechai Pollock, a member of the tribe of Levi, is a graduate and teacher at the Yeshiva High School of Atlanta.
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