Judaism: Irrelevant Micromanagement

Chaya Rivkin
Essays 2020 / Finalists

Judaism: Irrelevant Micromanagement Or An Inconceivable, All-Encompassing Relationship

Human beings instinctively search for meaning. We crave purpose and fulfillment.

In an analysis done by the Pew Research Center, it was found that in the U.S. and many other countries around the world, regular participation in a religious community is clearly linked with higher levels of happiness.[1] When we act spiritual, we feel wholesome and virtuous.

However, Jewish law does not merely concern itself with the spiritual aspects of life and leave it at that. No – G-d weighs in on each minute detail of our day.

We are constantly being told “no” by the Torah – don’t do this, don’t do that. Not only can this inhibit our ability to feel and express our spirituality in the way that we identify with, we are often hard pressed to see how these endless restrictions have anything to do with our connection to G-d at all! Judaism’s micromanaging approach does not lend itself to the seeming desideratum of religion – to give us a connection to the spiritual, to G-d.

Sometimes when we get a burst of inspiration, we decide to be stricter in a certain area in Judaism – we take on a Hachlata. Oftentimes, these actions have been hard for us in the past because we don’t see why this restriction is connected with our service of G-d. How can we motivate ourselves to adhere to these Hachlatos when we simply don’t see the point?

By redefining what G-d is, we will be able to address exactly what must be done in order to connect to Him. Understanding this will clarify how it is specifically through the mundane details that we are able to connect to G-d. In addition, we will examine precisely what statement we are making when we fulfill a negative Divine Command. This will allow us to realize how Judaism’s restrictions aren’t an oppressive intrusion into our personal business, but rather a tremendous opportunity. Ultimately, tools will be provided as to how all of these ideas can help motivate us to stick with our Hachlatos.

Solution #1:

Spiritual versus Mundane

Shabbat. A day of rest, a day elevated above all others, when we are deeply in tune with our intrinsic bond with the Almighty.

If asked to describe your idea of a Most Spiritual Day, it might go something like this:

Pulling up to a deserted beach, your watch reading 5:32 a.m., you stretch out on the sand and gaze in wonderment at the streaks of rose and azure, blending to create a perfectly imperfect sunrise. Perhaps you light a small campfire, the crackling flames accompanied by a soporific instrumental piece you are playing from your phone. You meditate on the vastness of the Universe that G-d created, a concept which augments the immateriality of physicality…

In a jarring crash back to reality, let’s count the list of reasons why you CAN’T do that on Judaism’s Most Spiritual Day, Shabbat. No driving, no lighting fires, no using your phone – and besides, you are supposed to be praying in a Synagogue.

Instead, Judaism’s Most Spiritual Day is basically a list of 39 restrictions – and their sub-laws, and their sub-laws… They are cumbersome, tedious, and it’s difficult to see what not turning on a light or brushing my teeth has to do with spirituality. Muttering words in a different language, hot and itchy after a long walk in the burning sun because you weren’t allowed to drive to Synagogue, really does not fit the world’s definition of a spiritual experience.

Being Spiritual Vs. Being G-dly

Whenever there is a question, there are two approaches on how to resolve it. Sometimes it is the question that needs to be answered. Occasionally, however, the premise the question is based on is incorrect. This case falls under the latter category; the flaw is in the underlying assumption that we have made regarding who G-d is.

All of the above has been perfectly logical. We set a goal – to be spiritual – and figured out the necessary steps that will get us there, without any restrictions constraining us. It all makes sense – if we are trying to be spiritual. We, however, strive to be G-dly.

What’s the difference?

Spirituality is a creation. Therefore we, as a creation, can find some sort of path that will take us closer to it. Yes, a high spiritual level can be a 1000 and we are a measly 1 – but we can potentially take steps in the right direction. In such a situation, where we are trying to reach a higher level, we’d look at someone who has gotten to level 350 as much greater than one who has merely reached level 5.

Therein lies the mistake. We are not trying to connect to a lofty spiritual level. We are trying to connect to the Infinite – to G-d Himself. 350 is not any closer to Infinity than 5 is. Humans can climb and climb – yet, no matter how high you reach, you’ll never reach the Infinite G-d.

It’s the epitome of foolishness to assume that, as a limited creation that really knows nothing at all about the Infinite G-d, we can find a way to connect to Him on our own. It’s not enough to say that He’s on a much much higher level than us, far beyond what we’ll ever be able to reach. We will never even begin to understand how much we cannot understand Him. We are literally less than nothing, and can never ever hope to be anything in relation to Him.[2] Every day during davening, we acknowledge this point. From our perspective, we see a smart man as so much wiser than a foolish man. We view a spiritually in-tune person as so much holier than a crass one. But during Tefilla we admit it –  “All strong men are as nothing before You, men of renown as if they never were…” [3] We are not trying to say that we are like nothing in comparison to Him. We are saying that we are nothing – and therefore, everything that matters so much here, that feels so spiritual to us – it’s laughable to think that to G-d these things could matter at all, and could connect us to Him.[4]

Connection: A How To

So, how can we connect to G-d?

The Essence of G-d – He Who is completely beyond any descriptions at all – is the King of Paradoxes. Because He, the most unlimited Being that can exist, designed the world in such a way that He can only be accessed within the confined limitations of the mundane details of this world.

In Parshas Kedoshim, G-d tells us, “Atem Tihiyu Am Kadosh” [5] – You should be a holy nation –  and then goes on to list a litany of laws as a method to do so. What about those laws, which govern our everyday activities, makes us holy?

We previously explained that, in reality, we should not be able to connect to G-d at all. The term Infinite does not do justice to what He is, and we are His extremely limited creations.

Unbelievably, though, He did give us a way to reach Him. One channel, one pathway – and if we follow that, we can reach Infinity.

A mitzvah.

Mitzvah comes from the word Tzavsa, to connect.[6] It’s the only way that we are given to connect to the Infinite, to Hashem. The Alter Rebbe quotes the Zohar, which states that “No thought can grasp Him at all,”[7] and then adds, “nor His Will and Wisdom – except for when they are clothed in the laws He set before us.”[8]

The Lubavitcher Rebbe brings a parable to explain this idea. An extraordinarily wise man and an extremely simple man have nothing in common at all. The simple man is completely humbled and totally nullified before the wise man, and the wise man sees no point of connection between him and the simple man. However, if the wise man asks the simple man for a favor and the simple man fulfills it – suddenly he’s had an impact on the wise man’s life. This relationship that has now developed between the two is something that the simple man could never have achieved on his own. Only once he was granted this opportunity by the wise man’s request did this possibility open up for him.[9] And, obviously, it makes no difference as to whether the command is a large or small concern.[10] The outcome – that this simple man is now able to enter a relationship previously unthinkable to him – is the same.

So too in our situation. G-d is All-Powerful and lacking nothing. He doesn’t need anything from us, and nothing that we do can ever affect Him. However, He has a desire that is above any understanding. It is completely unfathomable to us, but yes – He wants US to make a home for Him down here.[11]

This desire of His – it’s not something that we can make a game plan for. It’s not something that we can begin to understand how to accomplish – unless He tells us how.

So, our mission is not to be spiritual. If He was looking for spirituality, there are many worlds that He created that are so much higher than ours, where they recognize G-d in a way that we never will. The highest world in Seder Hishtalshelus, Atzilus, would have sufficed.[12] There would be no need for Him to create our lowly world, where He is hidden and we cannot reach Him, if He wanted us to bring ourselves up to Heaven. What does He want from us? He wants us to bring Heaven down to Earth. He wants us to do our regular, mundane activities, but with a purpose in mind: to create a home for G-d.

There is a story told of a man who very strongly desired to meet Eliyahu Hanavi. His Rebbe told him to go visit a certain family before Rosh Hashana. He traveled there and found them destitute, without anything for the holidays. After asking them if he could spend the holiday with them, he brought out the sacks of food he’d brought for himself and shared it all around. He stayed with them for the remainder of the holidays. The family was overjoyed by the food he’d brought, but he was dejected – he did not meet Eliyahu Hanavi. Returning to the Rebbe, he told him that he hadn’t met the angel as he’d desired. The Rebbe once more instructed him to return to the family. Knowing the family’s impoverished situation, he brought lots of food with him. Nearing the house, he heard one of the children asking, “What will we do? We have no food to eat!” “Don’t worry,” the mother replied. “Eliyahu Hanavi will return, just as he came on Rosh Hashana.”[13]

What this man’s Rebbe was trying to teach him, and what we can all learn, is that our purpose is not to scale spiritual heights. It is to bring G-dliness even to the darkest corners. G-d’s Essence is not accessed on top of a mountain, in the meditations on a fast day, or in any spiritual activity that we can devise. Where is He really expressed? Down on this earth, when we infuse our mundane actions with G-dliness.

Main Point: those very details which seem to hinder your ability to connect to G-d, are actually the things that give you the ability to connect to His Essence.

Solution #2:

Give Me A Break

G-d is great. He is our creator, and we are indebted to Him. It’s an honor to be chosen to fulfill His desire. But, after all, everyone needs a vacation from work once in a while. He’s given us a rulebook miles long, detailing exactly what we cannot do in our personal lives. We’ll do His mission and build His home – Why does He care so much about what we do “on the side”?

Relationship Defined

You take a vacation from work, not from a relationship.

To explain: A man comes home one day to his wife and tells her, “Honey, I love you. I am so, so glad that we’re married; we have a real connection, and I love spending time with you. I plan on being in this relationship with you for pretty much every day of the rest of my life. I just need a small break. I’m sure you’ll understand. I’m only going off for a few days to have a relationship with someone else – and let’s be honest, what’s a few days in comparison to the entire lifetime that I want to spend with you? Don’t worry, I’ll be back in no time.”

What is a Negative Commandment

We laugh at him, but isn’t that exactly what we are saying to G-d? We just want to “take a break” for a few minutes, to do something He told us He is disgusted by? As the Alter Rebbe explains in Tanya – if you truly love someone, you love what they love and you hate what they hate.[14]

We can view marriage as The Ceremony In Which I Am Cutting Myself Off From The Possibility Of A Relationship With Almost Everyone, or The Ceremony In Which I Am Committing Myself To My Spouse And Opening Myself Up To The Deepest Relationship Possible.

The same applies to our relationship with G-d. When the Jews were at Matan Torah, they were told all of the commandments – positive and negative. There is an opinion that they responded “yes” to the positive, and “yes” to the negative. What does this mean? They understood that every single command is a unique opportunity to choose G-d – either by acting in a way He desires, or not acting in a way He doesn’t desire. [15]

Main Point: everything we do in life is a choice. A Negative Command is G-d asking us, “Choose Me.”

Practically Applying this Mindset

Dan Goleman PhD, developer of the Theory of Emotional Intelligence, shared something he was once told about motivation. “The way nature gets us to do what it wants is by making it a pleasure.” [16]

Our thoughts are not simply insubstantial brain waves – they are the force that pushes us towards action or inertia. Catching our thought processes before they spiral out of control, and redirecting it with a more positive connotation, can create a powerful motivation within us.

Regarding following through with Hachlatos, we must constantly remotivate ourselves to keep it up.

Beverly D. Flaxington, author of 7 books on personal and professional development, suggests a few practical tips to keep us motivated.[17] Here they have been adapted to be utilized in Avodas Hashem.

  1. Write it down

Identify what you want and put it in writing. Remind yourself why you would like to keep that Hachlata – record that burst of inspiration that originally pushed you to take it on, so that you can look back on it when you lack motivation. Most of all, when you are tempted to break the Hachlata and give in to your desires, contemplate the ideas that we have discussed.

  • Through this action, and only this action, you have a unique opportunity to connect with G-d, which is your innate desire as a Jew.
  • When G-d gives you a prohibition, it is as if you are sitting in His Embrace, basking in His light. Simply resting there, enjoying each other’s company. He points at something, far in the distance, and tells you, “I’m not found there. Don’t go over there. Stay here with me.” You are not saying “no” to your desire, you are saying “yes” to your relationship with G-d.

Explore and express through writing how important it is to you to have G-d in your life, and realize that through this act you are choosing Him.

  1. Be aware of the potential pitfalls

Be practical in regards to which obstacles you might encounter while trying to keep this Hachlata. For example, if you made a Hachlata not to wear any clothing which reveals a part of your body you were instructed to cover, consider what may make it difficult for you to keep it and don’t place yourself in tempting situations. Perhaps this would entail removing any articles of clothing from your closet which may tempt you to compromise your new standards. If you keep in mind the reason that you are doing this – that your innate desire is to have this relationship with G-d, and to reveal Him in this world – it will make it easier to remain goal-oriented even as challenges arise.

  1. Embrace positivity

Remember, G-d wants a relationship with you. That’s an astounding, priceless treasure. Engage in activities that will help you to continue to discover the beauty and opportunity in every detail in Judaism. This could be outreach; oftentimes, explaining the beauty of a mitzvah to someone else can aid you in realizing it in your own life. Another advantageous exercise is learning about the area in which you would like to improve. See what the Torah has to say about how much your little action really means to G-d.

Judaism: An Inconceivable, All-Encompassing Relationship

In conclusion: When we fulfill G-d’s Will in whichever way it is expressed to us, we are performing a dual feat. It is an act which binds us to the Infinite Who we would never reach on our own, and a statement in which we say, “I choose G-d.” This is such a unique and special opportunity offered to us – can there be greater motivation than that?

[1] Pew Research Center, https://www.pewforum.org/2019/01/31/religions-relationship-to-happiness-civic-engagement-and-health-around-the-world/

[2] Shmos Rabbah 12:3

[3] Tefillah of Ribon Kol Ha’olamim in Karbanos

[4] Derech Mitzvosecha, Din Eved Ivri

[5] Vayikra 19-20

[6] Talmud, Bava Metzia 28a

[7] Pasach Eliyahu in the Introduction to the Tikkunei Zohar, p. 17a

[8] Tanya, Lekutei Amarim, ch. 5

[9] Hayom Yom, 8 Cheshvan

[10] Hatamim Vol. 1, pg. 25

[11] Tanya Ch.36

[12] Basi Legani Tof Shin Yud Aleph, Os Daled

[13] https://staff.ncsy.org/education/education/material/hDpPWX1YVP/where-is-eliyahu-hanavi/

[14] Tanya Lekutei Amarim Ch. 10

[15] Lekutei Sichos vol. 6 P’ Yisro

[16] https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-brain-and-emotional-intelligence/201112/motivation-what-moves-us

[17] https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/understand-other-people/201603/5-foolproof-ways-stay-motivated