I’ve watched many newly observant people dive into the Mitzvot with great zeal, only to find themselves overwhelmed by the details. Rebbe Nachman of Breslov rightly advised people to gradually take on a life of Torah observance. He recommended people make one mitzvah their special mitzvah that they do with great care and in their best effort, and to do the rest as best they could. In this way, they gradually assimilate their lives to the Torah without killing themselves in the process.
The rabbis understood that taking on the commandments, which even though are a great blessing, are a lifelong endeavor, a lifestyle that someone gradually takes on, and without that gradual adaptation, could be an overwhelming burden. If they gradually become part of your life, they can be a great blessing, but if they are just taken on all at one, they can make you sink like a rock in water.
This approach was designed with compassion in mind. In the times of the Czars in Russia, part of Russian anti-Semitism was to conscript Jewish boys into the army as young as eight years old. The idea was that if they could separate Jewish boys from their families and religion, when they got out of the army 25 years later, they would no longer be Jewish by culture or faith. When any of these young boys returned home after 25 years, they were ignorant of how to live as a Jew and of how to keep the mitzvot. The rabbis determined that such people were to be considered as “lost children” who had come home. They were not expected to suddenly be observant of the mitzvot, but were given the flexibility to do what they could, and learn what they could, without placing a burden on them to “catch up.” This approach didn’t set aside the Mitzvot, but out of compassion, recognized there was a lot to learn, and the Torah was not meant to be a burden, but a blessing.
When I went to seminary, I learned a lot, but it took me almost eight years afterward to fully assimilate what I learned. It takes encouragement to bring people to Torah, and too much can discourage them. This is the approach I take toward newly observant people. I’ve seen people who in their alleged zeal for the Torah, pressure people to conform to their rigid interpretation of how the Torah should be kept. They not only become stricter than need be, they look down on everyone else who doesn’t conform. The irony is, when they are behaving as such, they act more like fundamentalists than Jews in their approach. The Jewish approach to Torah observance is as I mentioned above, with compassion and patience. Being narrow and rigid just is not a very Jewish way to follow Torah. The narrow and rigid people are usually newly observant themselves. We don’t just follow it, we are supposed to have fun when we do it. Being observant is not being a puritan. We always try to help people along gently, and with kindness.
There are also times when a mitzvah is preempted. In Judaism, certain mitzvot supersede others. We are commanded to put on Tefillin every day, but Shabbat is a higher mitzvah so Tefillin are not worn on Shabbat or holidays.
In the days when the Temple stood, things not allowed on Shabbat were permitted in the Temple, like kindling a fire or the priests working. While it is not permitted to sound the shofar on Shabbat, it was permitted in the Temple, because the Temple was greater than Shabbat.
My first experience with an observance being preempted was when I took a trip to Belarus to help feed the Jewish poor. It was just before Sukkot, and as I was preparing to leave, my rabbi and teacher advised me that I was exempted from sitting in the Sukkah because I was involved in a higher mitzvah.
This past week, as we finished our first Passover Seder, I got a call from my mom. My dad was taken to the hospital. I rushed to the hospital, and spent the entire holiday there. While I was able to observe the commandment to abstain from bread, and I could get matzoh, I missed out on all the fun of the holiday, with the special foods and being with friends. My holiday observance, my favorite one was preempted by a more important mitzvah, taking care of my parents. I will have to wait until next year to do Passover again, but spending this time with my parents was priceless.
I could have made myself crazy by trying to do it all, but God didn’t give the Torah to make us crazy, but to bless us and sanctify our lives as we gradually conform our lives to His design as laid out in the commandments.