This is another of the series of Mussar workshops I assist with. It’s especially timely as we look forward to Shavuot. Frankly, without the belief that the Torah is, literally, infinitely more than a tribal history and set of rules, I find no reason to value it. With this belief instead, that the Torah is, literally, the garment that enclothes God, and, as such, the way we can grasp Him (you embrace the king by embracing his robes), it is a vigorous, sometimes challenging, but effective path to join our limited selves to the Infinite Universe. Thus we celebrate receiving it.
Mussar Midot and Mitzvot
אמונה Emunah (Faith/Belief)
(אָנֹכִי יְהוָֹה אֱלֹהֶיךָ…… (שמות כ:ב
I am HaShem, your God…. (Shemot 20:2)
וַהֲלַכְתֶּם עִמִּי קֶרִי…….וְהָלַכְתִּי אַף־אֲנִי עִמָּכֶם בְּקֶרִי
And if you deal capriciously with me… I will deal capriciously with you (Vayikra 26:23-24)
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I suspect that most atheists have fewer problems with the idea of a Creator/First-Cause than they do with the idea of a Being actively involved with our daily lives and the ongoing maintenance of our universe. The retired, absent or deceased “clockmaker” doesn’t necessarily violate anyone’s sense of total independence with “arbitrary” ethics and rules. The concept of an engaged being, higher on the totem pole, as it were, than Man, however, mandates a revised view of ourselves. It’s hard to give up the conceit of ourselves being the ultimate authority. Mitzvot are directed to help us reach our own greatest potential, and it seems paradoxical that being commanded to face our own limitations actually maximizes our potential for freedom and potential!
The first of the Ten Commandment, when read superficially, seems to contain absolutely no commandment at all. It’s merely a declaration that Anochi is God without beginning to define the nature of God other than having the ability and track record of taking us out of the slavery of Egypt. Nonetheless, while most classical commentators even emphasize the apparent lack of mandate here, they all agree that it does mandate that we יאמין וידע, ya’amin v’yeda, that we “believe and know” that there is a God who, at the very least, brought all that exists into existence. Both the Rambam, our pre-eminent rationalist, and the Ramchal, our pre-eminent modern kabbalist, begin their most popular books giving us the obligation to “believe and know”.
אמונה, Emunah, belief, is related to the words אומן, Uman, craftsman and אומנות, Omanut, craft. Whatever we mean by faith/belief, we acknowledge that it requires a lifetime of crafting, that it is always a work-in-progress. Judaism totally reject the idea of “blind faith”. Without quite defining what we mean by belief, both of these sages connect this with ידיעה, Yediya, the knowledge of interaction and relationship. In other words, this mitzva requires us to struggle to develop an ever-growing awareness that there is a Being who exceeds us in, at the very least, the ability to create something from nothing.
The second mitzva is a subset of the commandment to observe, in general, both commandments which seem logical (מצות–mitzvot) and those that appear utterly arbitrary (חוקים–chokim). Rabbi Shloime Twerski zt”l, explained that the word בְּקֶרִי, b’keri, “capriciously” is related to and implies the word במקרה, b’mikra, which means arbitrarily, without any sense of causation or consequence. If we act as if all of life is random, God will make it appear just that way to us. In other words, if we reject our mandate to craft an awareness of God, not just as an absent clockmaker but as an active participant who guides the world with order and direction and purpose, it will increasingly seem that way to us and the journey back from isolation and alienation will grow increasingly far and difficult. We might start off thinking that we’re the supreme masters, in complete control, but as we persist we’ll experience “the wheels falling off” and the terror of total powerlessness. Only randomness will reign supreme.
Thus, following the chokim, those commandments without explanation, as well as the mitzvot, those which seem logical (although there is an important principle that for every reason given for a particular mitzvah, ten are concealed), we free ourselves from our ego-driven artificial sense of control, allowing ourselves to approach the Infinite and joining ourselves to Him, transcend our own boundaries.