Pre-empted Mitzvot

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.

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13 thoughts on “Pre-empted Mitzvot

  1. “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.”

    Beautiful wisdom. Thanks for sharing this.

  2. Wonderful that you bring up this issue. It can hang quite heavily upon some of us in certain situations.

    I have a good friend, who does everything he can to be meticulously observant, as promulgated by Chabad. He does it to the extent that others feel uncomfortable in his presence. On top of that, he expects us all to know and observe his halacha. For example, at dinner on Erev Shabbat he encourages handwashing before we eat the challah, and he expects NO ONE to talk after washing their hands, until the bread is sliced, salted and a bite taken (“breaking challah is an insult to the challah”).

    I think this whole effort serves only to minimize the spirit of Shabbat, and badly distorts the mitzvot presented in Torah. When we’re with him, we scrupulously avoid running contrary to his wishes, as our attempt to be observant of Shabbat. Nonetheless, it’s constant tension.

    AND HE ISN’T EVEN A JEW!

    My experience has been that Jews are the least judgemental people I know. A typical Jew has his own halacha, and he will never try to impose that halacha on others. Rather, he will usually try to conduct himself in the presence of others in such a fashion that halacha doesn’t even get to be an issue.

    Dave

    • “Rather, he will usually try to conduct himself in the presence of others in such a fashion that halacha doesn’t even get to be an issue.”

      The best way to lead is by example, especially when it comes to reaching out to Jews who didn’t grow up observant but are trying to grow into it. I have never seen anyone being pressured or scolded into observance at any shul I attended or visited. It’s perfectly normal for most shuls today to have people of varying levels of observance.

      However, I can see how it can be a problem (especially for the sake of others) if devout members of a traditional community start to willfully, wantonly and publicly breaking Shabbat, kashrut or other serious commandments and community regulations, and thus be in need of correction or community discipline.

      • Gene, not sure I agree with your last paragraph. If a devout member begins to break Shabbat, Kashrut, etc., then how is he still devout? I”ve never seen community discipline in a Jewish congregation either. Correction, if needed, normally comes from a discreet, one-on-one conversation with the Rabbi, or possibly with a member of the governing body (Board).

        Community discipline would much more likely be found in a Messianic congregation, because no matter how hard we try, there are so many who come in from the Church, that sometimes Church customs come along for the ride.

        Even though I am a Messianic Jew, for reasons not pertinent to this discussion, I find myself affiliated with a Reform congregation. There is plenty of breaking of “serious commandments,” especially Kashrut, that goes on there, but I have never been aware of any public correction being done. For example, I have seen even members of the leadership eat shrimp, and even pork, and not a word was uttered about it.

        Dave

      • “If a devout member begins to break Shabbat, Kashrut, etc., then how is he still devout?”

        Community discipline is not for people who never observed community rules – it’s only for those who have in the past lived by them and later, for some reason, chose to flaunt them. The example of a devout person turning to sin is no different than a statement about a righteous person doing the same in Ezekiel 18:24:

        “But if a righteous person turns from their righteousness and commits sin and does the same detestable things the wicked person does, will they live?”

  3. “I find myself affiliated with a Reform congregation. There is plenty of breaking of “serious commandments,” especially Kashrut, that goes on there, but I have never been aware of any public correction being done.”

    The obvious reason is because in their understanding they are not breaking any “commandments”, as neither Torah and halacha are viewed as binding in the Reform movement. No need to correct something that is not viewed as inherently wrong.

  4. ” I”ve never seen community discipline in a Jewish congregation either. Correction, if needed, normally comes from a discreet, one-on-one conversation with the Rabbi, or possibly with a member of the governing body (Board).”

    David, I think we are not talking about the same thing. I am not talking about a PUBLIC humiliation.

    • Neither was I. I was addressing YOUR words, “…community discipline.”

      I’ll drop this here, Gene, because I think we may be going in circles. You are right, of course, about Reform congregations. I, however, continue to put my trust in Yeshua, and to observe Torah as best I can. They don’t seem to mind.

      Dave

  5. Excellent advice. And isn’t there a strong parallel here between R’Nachman’s advice, and the ruling of the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15? Rather than burden non-Jewish believers with more than they could handle (vv.19-20), the council gave 4 basic mitzvot, under the assumption that they would learn the rest of the mitzvot while attending Synagogue with the Jewish people (v.21)?

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