OH, THE PLACES YOU'LL GO
"I can't do that; it's not me."
"I can't do that; it's not me."
"That's for those kinda people; you know, the holy rollers."
"Sometimes I'll pray, like if I'm in synagogue."
Perhaps these sentiments sound familiar. Unfortunately, they display a foundationally deficient understanding of G-d's expectation of each Jew. The Torah states, "My sabbaths you shall observe and My sanctuary you shall revere" (Leviticus 26:2). According to Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, a prominent Torah figure of the previous generation, the Torah referring to Shabbat before the sanctuary is significant.
Oftentimes, we think that the main arena of Jewish living is the synagogue. That is the place to pray; that is where you act religious. The sequence of this verse addresses such a misconception. We stand before G-d 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Sabbath observance, the epitome of Torah commitment, is not confined to the few hours we are at synagogue. Every home needs to hear a Friday night kiddush. Every home needs to be illuminated by the splendor of Shabbat candles. Every home needs to be the fountain from which our Torah living flows forth. Certainly, we must recognize and contribute to the vital role the synagogue plays in providing a mechanism for communal service to Hashem. However, our behavior in the privacy of our homes represents the core of who we are. How we behave when we are not in the public eye bespeaks the genuineness of our commitment to G-d. Thus, this verse tells us that a synagogue without Torah adherents is like skin without bones. However, the Jew who has Torah can survive even if all he has are the four corners of his home.
There is a halachah (Jewish law) that if a community only has enough funds to build a synagogue or a mikvah (ritual bath), the mikvah takes precedence. The importance of family purity is obvious. The home sets the tone for the kind of G-dliness in which the children will be reared, and from which all outside activities will be influenced. Similarly, if there is only enough money for a school, the education of a child comes first (see Shulchan Aruch 249:16). Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the leader of Germany Jewry in the mid-19th century, in embarking on building the community commented, "There is no hurry to build a synagogue. First we need a school to bring up a new generation of faithful Jews who will embrace Torah and make it their primary mission in life. Only afterwards should a synagogue be built, for what good would there be in having a magnificent house of prayer if there are no young people to pray in it?" Shabbat observance, family purity, Torah education all of these take priority.
While the previously mentioned verse addresses the issue of limiting Torah living to the synagogue, another verse deals with the issue of hierarchical limitations. "He shall not distinguish between good and bad, and he shall not substitute for it" (ibid. 27:33). This refers to the precept of sanctifying a tenth of one's livestock to Hashem. The animals pass by one-by-one, with every tenth being set aside. One may not "pick and choose" as to which animal will be donated. The tenth must be offered.
Rabbi Feinstein explains that the fact that one is not permitted to select the best animal, but rather must take what comes, connotes the lesson that every individual is special in G-d's eyes. One may feel that there are many other "more qualified" Jews who should learn Torah and participate in communal activity. This reasoning is incorrect. It is incumbent upon everyone to serve G-d to the best of his abilities. To G-d, each and every one of us is the "tenth," and we cannot shirk this sanctity, hoping to relegate it to the domain of rabbis and scholars. We must do our best to study Torah at whatever level we are capable. The Talmud (Tractate Berachot 7a) indicates the value of the grassroots Jew: "Do not take the blessing of a 'simple' person lightly." We all can be great, and will be judged on our efforts in light of our circumstances.
These two verses teach a fundamental concept. Torah living is not limited by place nor by person. It is not to be assigned to the annals of the synagogue. It is not in the exclusive province of the sage. It is for each of us to attain, wherever and whomever we may be.
Daniel Lasar, an alumnus of Emory Law School in Atlanta, is an attorney in Washington, D.C.
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