Anyone who has experienced Yiddishkeit in its truest form knows that it is the totality of our religion, more so than its individual components, that makes it so special. Sure, there might be some particular components that serve as its hallmarks, such as shemirat Shabbat, kashrut, etc. However, we also know that Judaism presents its adherents with a complete religious experience, one that needs to be fully lived in order to be appreciated.
Judaism comprises 613 core mitzvot, 248 of which are positive, and the remaining 365 are negative. Chazal tell us that these mitzvot parallel the human body, which comprises 248 organs and 365 blood vessels, respectively. Just as the human body is considered deficient without each of these components, so too is Judaism considered incomplete without each and every one of its mitzvot.
Those who have never experienced the totality of Judaism, with all of its dictates, probably will have a hard time understanding this point. Trying to explain the beauty of our religion to one who has never had the privilege to experience it is akin to describing the beauty of sunset to a blind man or relating the magnificence of a symphony orchestra to a deaf person. They simply will be unable to comprehend the depth of the experience.
One may ask why this is so. Why cannot one find true meaning in Judaism without embracing all of its precepts? Before we attempt an answer to this question, let us take a look at the following apparently paradoxical passage that is found in this week’s parsha.
And now, O Israel, hearken to the statutes (chukim) and to the ordinances (mishpatim) that I teach you, to do them... You shall not add to the word that I command you, neither shall you diminish from it… Observe therefore and do them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the eyes of the peoples, that when they hear all these statutes, shall say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.” For what great nation is there that has God so near to it, as the Lord our God is at all times that we call upon Him? And which great nation is it that has just statutes and ordinances, as this entire Torah, which I set before you this day? (Devarim 4:1-2, 6-8)
What is fascinating about these pesukim is the ironic association between the observation of chukim in particular and the idea that such observance will bring other peoples to appreciate “your wisdom and your understanding.”
We know that chukim are identified as those mitzvot for which no satisfactory reason or rationale is known. We are instructed to fulfill them despite the absence of such knowledge and the potential mockery that we will be subjected to at the hands of the gentile nations, simply because Hashem has instructed us to do so.
This is the statute (chok) of the Torah that the Lord commanded, saying, Speak to the children of Israel and have them take for you a perfectly red unblemished cow, upon which no yoke was laid. (Bamidbar 19:2) Because Satan and the nations of the world taunt Israel, saying, “What is this commandment, and what purpose does it have?” Therefore, the Torah uses the term “statute” (to insinuate that) I have decreed it and you have no right to challenge it. (Rashi, ibid, quoting Yoma 67b)
Yet, somehow these same chukim, the mitzvot for which the nations will mock us, will somehow lead the nations to proclaim that we are a “wise and understanding people”! When does each concept apply and how is it possible that the very same actions could result in such different outcomes?
The answer is that Judaism and the Torah that it represents is more than a series of laws and values established to regulate human conduct. It is an experience, a way of life, an expression of Hashem’s essence. By fulfilling its dictates in their totality, we do much more than simply adhere to Hashem’s will. We connect directly to Him. What greater sense of satisfaction could there be?
Nothing underscores this idea more than chukim. When we fulfill every aspect of the Torah, regardless of our ability to fully understand their rationale and motive, then the chukim become the quintessential indicators that we are motivated simply out of a true desire to fulfill Hashem’s will. When the nations see our complete devotion, they come to esteem us despite their inability to state what it is about us that is truly deserving of respect.
However, when we are selective in our adherence to Hashem’s will, based on our own ability to comprehend, then we are isolating the actions from their divine source. No longer are we deserving of that special respect given to His emissaries; instead we are subject to external mockery, as individuals who choose to behave irrationally and mindlessly.
The importance of selfless adherence is underscored with one of most famous and central mitzvot in the entire Torah, one that is found in this week’s parsha: “And you shall love Hashem your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” (Devarim 6:5)
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch points out that to truly love Hashem is to focus all of our goals and energies toward serving Him to our maximal capabilities. He notes that the Hebrew word for “love,” ahava, comes from “hav,” a word that means either to give or to bring (compare with “havu,” which means ascribe or give credit). Rav Hirsch understands this pasuk to mean that a person should be prepared to give everything that he has, his heart, his soul and his material property, to Hashem. Such devotion will help a person reach the level of ahavat Hashem that is expected of us.
One practical application of the mitzvah of ahavat Hashem is when we express love and concern for each other. Rav Moshe Chaim Luzzato (Mesillat Yesharim 19) tells us that “to the extent that one’s love for Israel grows, to that extent does the love of Hashem grow for him.” Through the love that we show for one another, we indirectly display our love for Hashem Himself.
At this time, we recall the destruction of the two Batei Mikdash, particularly the second one, whose destruction led to our present exile. Chazal tell us (Yoma 9b) that it was destroyed primarily because of sinat chinam, causeless hate for each other, a problem that unfortunately persists to this very day. It is our obligation to reverse the trend of sinat chinam into ahavat chinam, unrestricted love for each other. Through this we will hopefully be zoche to not only properly fulfill the mitzvah of ahavat Hashem, but also witness both the coming of Mashiach and the rebuilding of the third and final Beit Hamikdash speedily in our days.
Naphtali Hoff, PsyD, is an executive coach who helps busy leaders be more productive so they can scale profits with less stress and get home at a decent hour. Register for his free productivity webinar at naphtalihoff.com/webinar.