Why So Many Rules?

There are no reruns or do-overs in life, and it’s always exponentially harder to repair the damage than it was to cause it. Time, for us, moves only in a forward direction and it’s next to impossible to put the toothpaste back into the tube.

While the Buddhists say that the cause of all suffering is desire, our tradition goes deeper than this and teaches us that the cause of desire itself is narcissism. It is a universal human tendency to replace God as the center of our universe with ourselves. It’s gotten so bad that contemporary Western “enlightened” values have elevated self-empowerment/realization/fulfillment, the ultimate אבודה זרה (avoda zara), idol worship,  into the crown of all virtues.

The lesson of Adam’s and Chava’s (Eve’s) expulsion from Eden is neither a history lesson nor a myth. Rather it illustrates the first step, which each of us seem doomed to replicate, many of us frequently, in our own lives, of addiction–addiction to self. With the opportunity to contribute the final perfection to Creation by restraining his desire to coronate himself as the ultimate authority (“No one will tell me what I can and can’t eat!”), Adam was unable to follow a single, very simple rule. He couldn’t resist satisfying his ego and doing what he wanted rather than what He wanted; rather than lead the world into eternal perfection he began the process of cascading disasters which follow us to this day. He insisted on making his own will supreme, of following his desire rather his duty.

Probably the most frequent criticism of traditional (orthodox, for want of a better word) Judaism is that there are too many rules. A quick look through the contents of the first part of the Shulchan Aruch and you see that every waking moment is accompanied with rules, orders and prohibitions. At first glance (as if one can take a “first glance” at the infinite realm of Halacha) some of these seem “reasonable” and “just”, many more arbitrary and some even contradictory. What they all have in common is that we’re challenged to follow an agenda, from the moment we rise from bed until we go to sleep in the evening, other than our own.

Professional musicians find that it takes a mind-boggling number of repetitions to learn how to perform a composition. Roughly estimated at 500 times, maybe even 1,000, some performers and teachers judge the required repetitions closer to 5,000 or even 10,000 times! And when you make a mistake during practice you need to immediately correct it and repeat the proper notes and rhythm over and over again. That just seems to be the way the human brain is constructed and how “permanent pathways”, i.e. long-term memory and habits, are created.

Let’s be honest. Self-indulgence initally feels good. It rewards us with immediate “positive feedback” and it encourages us to repeatedly treat ourselves as the ultimate authority and arbiter of values, all of which, “coincidentally”, please us. But, as we perform the score of our life’s symphony, ultimately it’s discordant, out-of-synch and destroys the potential value our lives can really have.

We correct these acts of narcissism by doing the opposite, by resisting our desires and, rather, filling another’s desires. And, to really learn the music of life, the harmony of reality, we must repeat these correct actions over and over and over again. Hence, our Torah provides us sufficient reps to overcome our selfishness and to make selflessness a habit, eventually overcoming the damage caused by Adam’s first act of me-first-ism.

Although deeply embedded by that first self-indulgence into what then developed as “human nature”, narcissism is not fundamental to human nature–we can live without it. We have not only the ability, but also the technique (the Torah) to fundamentally transform ourselves, all humanity and all creation, to reach our greatest potential. These many rules, from waking to sleep, day after day after day, are our only way to truly repair ourselves, to repair the damage in the very fabric of existence. It just takes a lot of practice to transform ourselves, but with practice we can, eventually, make ourselves, our lives and our universe sing out in beauty.

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17 Responses to Why So Many Rules?

  1. haorot says:

    Shkoach….. אמת ונכון

  2. Jacques Ruda says:

    In the Tanach, whenever the narrative says someone “saw and then took” you know that someone was going to do something wrong. I believe that the lesson is self discipline. This is one of the ways we differ from animals.

  3. Peter Margolis says:

    This is perhaps the central issue of the Jewish encounter with modernity and individualism. For many, this translates into “freedom from religion” — the allure of secularity — as the self and ego-driven (and of course commercially manipulated) desires replace traditional guidelines (the “rules”). However, an equally plausible response to modernity is what Israeli sociologists Yaakov Yadgar refer to as “traditionalism”: an ongoing discourse with tradition – filtered through the lens of a dominant, secularizing modernity and personal choices that evolve through life – that rejects a religious/secular binary. While Yadgar developed his concept of traditionalism by observing Israeli Jews whose forebears immigrated from Arabic-speaking countries, it increasingly characterizes some segments of American Jewry who do not identify with any denomination, but rather privilege tradition by seeking episodic and self-chosen Jewish experiences from “orthodox” organizations such as Aish HaTorah and Chabad.

    • It’s, of course, a very complex issue, compounded by the politically powerful (in Israel) Rabbanut idealizing the 19th century eastern European galut, refusing, for the most part, to recognize the radical change represented by an approaching majority of the world’s Jews living in Eretz Yisrael under Jewish sovereignty for the first time in almost two millennia. This should be triggering a massive modal change from Galut, (spiritual) survival-based, mode to Geula, redemption-aimed mode. A culture of excessive chumrot (stringencies) and the imposition of outmoded European realities in the 21st century middle east alienate many Israeli Jews and, by extension, American Jews, leading to rejection of the entire Jewish system.
      Also, while observance needn’t be binary, perhaps a binary decision to the question “Does the world revolve around myself or not?” would be more than appropriate.
      Thank you for your very thoughtful response.

  4. E Pearlman says:

    1) There are many kinds of desire, and desire is inherent in being alive. Desire is not equivalent to ego, and ego is not equivalent to narcissism.
    2) Nobody benefits from endless repetition, including musicians. Neurological studies show that the brain is very limited in how much repetition it can handle. However, the brain has unlimited capacity to explore something if it is approached from different angles and in meaningful ways. Repetition reduces engagement. Almost learning something, then moving on to something else, then coming back to the first thing, engages more effort in recall and more efficient learning. Repetition gives immediate results followed by an average 80% loss. http://www.amazon.com/Make-It-Stick-Successful-Learning/dp/0674729013

    • I guess it depends on what one desires. Avot, popularly known as “Ethics of the Fathers”, Chapter 2, Mishna 4, reads הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, עֲשֵׂה רְצוֹנוֹ כִּרְצוֹנֶךָ, כְּדֵי שֶׁיַּעֲשֶׂה רְצוֹנְךָ כִּרְצוֹנוֹ. בַּטֵּל רְצוֹנְךָ מִפְּנֵי רְצוֹנוֹ, כְּדֵי שֶׁיְּבַטֵּל רְצוֹן אֲחֵרִים מִפְּנֵי רְצוֹנֶךָ, He (Rabban Gamliel) used to say, “Make His will like your will in order than he will make His will like your will. Negate your will before His will so that he’ll negate the will of others against you.”
      Passivity is incompatible with בחירה (bechira), free will. The question is whether our desire is for narcissistic self-gratification or to live in harmony with the greater reality.

  5. Mr. Cohen says:

    Newly Emboldened Lame Duck Out for Blood
    by Caroline B. Glick 2015 March 13

    http://www.jewishworldreview.com/0315/glick031315.php3

  6. Mr. Cohen says:

    Myths of the Middle East
    © by Joseph Farah, 2000, WorldNetDaily.com

    I’ve been quiet since Israel erupted in fighting spurred by disputes over the Temple Mount.

    Until now, I haven’t even bothered to say, “See, I told you so.” But I can’t resist any longer. I feel compelled to remind you of the column I wrote just a couple weeks before the latest uprising. Yeah, folks, I predicted it. That’s OK. Hold your applause.

    After all, I wish I had been wrong. More than 80 people have been killed since the current fighting in and around Jerusalem began. And for what?

    If you believe what you read in most news sources, Palestinians want a homeland and Muslims want control over sites they consider holy. Simple, right?

    Well, as an Arab-American journalist who has spent some time in the Middle East dodging more than my share of rocks and mortar shells, I’ve got to tell you that these are just phony excuses for the rioting, trouble-making and land-grabbing.

    Isn’t it interesting that prior to the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, there was no serious movement for a Palestinian homeland?

    “Well, Farah,” you might say, “that was before the Israelis seized the West Bank and Old Jerusalem.”

    That’s true. In the Six-Day War, Israel captured Judea, Samaria and East Jerusalem. But they didn’t capture these territories from Yasser Arafat. They captured them from Jordan’s King Hussein. I can’t help but wonder why all these Palestinians suddenly discovered their national identity after Israel won the war.

    The truth is that Palestine is no more real than Never-Never Land. The first time the name was used was in 70 A.D. when the Romans committed genocide against the Jews, smashed the Temple and declared the land of Israel would be no more. From then on, the Romans promised, it would be known as Palestine. The name was derived from the Philistines, a Goliathian people conquered by the Jews centuries earlier. It was a way
    for the Romans to add insult to injury. They also tried to change the name of Jerusalem to Aelia Capitolina, but that had even less staying power.

    Palestine has never existed — before or since – as an autonomous entity. It was ruled alternately by Rome, by Islamic and Christian crusaders, by the Ottoman Empire and, briefly, by the British after World War I. The British agreed to restore at least part of the land to the Jewish people as their homeland.

    There is no language known as Palestinian. There is no distinct Palestinian culture. There has never been a land known as Palestine governed by Palestinians. Palestinians are Arabs, indistinguishable from Jordanians (another recent invention), Syrians, Lebanese, Iraqis, etc. Keep in mind that the Arabs control 99.9 percent of the Middle East lands. Israel represents one-tenth of 1 percent of the landmass.

    But that’s too much for the Arabs. They want it all. And that is ultimately what the fighting in Israel is about today. Greed. Pride. Envy. Covetousness. No matter how many land concessions the Israelis make, it will never be enough.

    What about Islam’s holy sites? There are none in Jerusalem.

    Shocked? You should be. I don’t expect you will ever hear this brutal truth from anyone else in the international media. It’s just not politically correct.

    I know what you’re going to say: “Farah, the Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem represent Islam’s third most holy sites.”

    Not true. In fact, the Koran says nothing about Jerusalem. It mentions Mecca hundreds of times. It mentions Medina countless times. It never mentions Jerusalem. With good reason. There is no historical evidence to suggest Mohammed ever visited Jerusalem.

    So how did Jerusalem become the third holiest site of Islam? Muslims today cite a vague passage in the Koran, the seventeenth Sura, entitled “The Night Journey.” It relates that in a dream or a vision Mohammed was carried by night “from the sacred temple to the temple that is most remote, whose precinct we have blessed, that we might show him our signs…” In the seventh century, some Muslims identified the two temples mentioned in this verse as being in Mecca and Jerusalem. And that’s as close as Islam’s connection with Jerusalem gets — myth, fantasy, wishful thinking. Meanwhile, Jews can trace their roots in Jerusalem back to the days of Abraham.

    The latest round of violence in Israel erupted when Likud Party leader Ariel Sharon tried to visit the Temple Mount, the foundation of the Temple built by Solomon. It is the holiest site for Jews. Sharon and his entourage were met with stones and threats. I know
    what it’s like. I’ve been there. Can you imagine what it is like for Jews to be threatened, stoned and physically kept out of the holiest site in Judaism?

    So what’s the solution to the Middle East mayhem? Well, frankly, I don’t think there is a man-made solution to the violence. But, if there is one, it needs to begin with truth. Pretending will only lead to more chaos. Treating a 5,000-year-old birthright backed by overwhelming historical and archaeological evidence equally with illegitimate claims, wishes and wants gives diplomacy and peacekeeping a bad name.

    A daily radio broadcast adaptation of Joseph Farah’s commentaries can be heard on TalkNetDaily.

  7. Mr. Cohen says:

    Rabbi, what does this remind you of:

    Julia [Roberts] told reporters that not only did her separations from Lyle not hurt the marriage, they actually helped it by keeping her and Lyle in an ongoing state of bliss.

    “It’s like we’re on a perpetual honeymoon,” she said a few months after the wedding, “especially when we spend 5 or 7 days apart. Because then it starts all over again.

    He opens the door and I go gasp, ‘Oh my G_d!’

    How many wives are lucky enough to say that every time their husband opens the door, their heart skips a beat?”

    SOURCE: Julia: Her Life (chapter 25, page 204) by James Spada, year 2004 CE, St. Martin’s Press, http://www.stmartins.com, New York, ISBN 0-312-28565-5.

  8. It heartening to see that some of the values the US was founded on, often based on our אור לגוים, remain.

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