Judaism seems to be filled with things that we not supposed to do. A quick glance through Jewish law reveals, among numerous other restrictions: Avoid saying a blessing on food while your hands are dirty. Don't eat before the morning prayers. Don't turn off the light during Shabbat. Don't, don't, don't!
Judaism seems to be filled with things that we not supposed to do. A quick glance through Jewish law reveals, among numerous other restrictions: Avoid saying a blessing on food while your hands are dirty. Don't eat before the morning prayers. Don't turn off the light during Shabbat. Don't, don't, don't! Left and right, the laws seem to limit our options and proscribe our activities. Are the laws really as negative as they seem?
In this week's Torah portion, Hashem tells Moses to command the people: "Get yourselves up from all around the dwelling places of Korach, Datan, and Aviram" (Numbers 16:24). This dictate sounds plain and simple. But when Moses relays this message to the Jewish people, he seems to embellish the command. The Torah records him as saying, "Remove yourselves from the tents of these evil people. . ." (ibid. 16:26).
The Ohr HaChaim, a classic 18th century commentary on the Torah, points out the wisdom of Moses' addition. He could have relayed the command exactly as stated, and the Jews probably still would have obeyed and kept their distance from Korach. However, by labeling Korach as "evil," Moses inspired the Children of Israel to think about why they were running away. Were they scared for their lives? Most certainly. But if that was the only thing going through their minds as they scampered away from the fault line, they were missing the point. Korach was receiving a severe punishment because of his extreme corruption. Running away from Korach symbolized an escape from what Korach represented. By labeling Korach as a "rasha," an evil person, Moses gave a command which allowed the Jews to run away not merely from Korach's earthquake, but from something which was evil and contrary to Hashem's will.
On a simple level, fleeing from Korach saved their lives; on another level, it became a source of great merit to them; and on an even deeper level, it enabled them to internalize a repulsion for evil so that in the future they would recognize and turn away from it on their own. Moses' "embellishment" was not really extra. It was just an outright statement of what Hashem had intended from the outset.
In our everyday lives, it is easy to get caught up in what not to do and lose sight of why we don't do it. For example, we should not look dirty and disheveled when we recite a blessing because the blessing is addressed to Hashem. No one in his right mind would approach an important person to thank him if his hands were greasy and dirty - how much more so Hashem! Furthermore, by waiting for breakfast until after prayers, we ensure that the focus of our day and the first thing we do is acknowledge Hashem's presence and importance in our lives. And on Shabbat, by not flipping on the light switch, we testify to Hashem's creation of the world and His resting on the seventh day. Granted, if we do some of these things when we're not supposed to, we may be punished; however, avoiding punishment is not the point. The laws are designed to sensitize us to certain Torah concepts; the punishments merely ensure that we have the opportunity to become sensitized.
The challenge, my friends, is to stay sensitized. Today, as we walk through our daily routine, we should pay attention to the things we have trained ourselves not to do. Focus on the opportunity around which the "don't" has been molded. What might we be accomplishing by avoiding that situation? In what way have we changed as a result of our self-control? We can all learn to treat prohibitions like the prickly outside of a pineapple: If you take a moment to cut through the surface you can enjoy the sweet fruit contained within.
Yosef Rodbell, a native Atlantan, is studying at the Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Baltimore.
Mazal Tov to Yosef and the rest of the Rodbell family
on his marriage to Leah Vogel this coming Tuesday.