To Fill the Vessel and Love God
There are many commandments. 613 commandments. This is a lot. But don’t worry, many of them are simply prohibitive in nature. For example, do not murder, and who really desires to murder? Only few. It can be said that as we sit here with each other and don’t murder, we fulfill one of the commandments. Another example is do not steal. If I do no wrong, then I don’t steal. These are prohibitive commandments, called “shalt nots.”
How many of these are there? There are 365 ‘shalt nots’, commandments that are meant to prevent me from becoming corrupt. They are also parallel to the 365 tendons in the human body that are parallel to 365 spiritual tendons in our higher souls (neshama). When I avoid corrupting myself in this way, I safeguard the spiritual health of 1 of 365 parts of my higher soul.
In addition, there are positive, or affirmative commandments. There are 248 of these and they are parallel to the 248 organs in our bodies. Not only in our bodies but also in our souls. What are these affirmative commandments? They tell me what I should do, what is the positive action that I am obligated to undertake. Just as I can fill a vessel when it is sealed with no holes or leaks, so too, the affirmative commandments, have the power to fill our souls.
So it can be said that these two categories of commandments represent two pathways in man’s soul, one fear or awe, and the other love. I fear becoming corrupt, these are the ‘shalt nots’; and I desire to fulfill, these are the ‘shalts’. The desire to fulfill is about love, I love the Creator and I want to do his will and in doing so, to bring my soul to completion.
How many affirmative commandments are there that can be practically fulfilled today? We are in a situation where we are unable to fulfill commandments relating to the Holy Temple, and those relating to the Sanhedrin (the high court), and to the prophets and priestly class and the monarch. We are currently, unfortunately, unable to fulfill any of these commandments but, with God’s help, they will be renewed.
Until then, we can fulfill a total of 60 commandments out of the 613. The truth is this is also easy. At the end of the day, fulfilling the commandments is not a terrible burden; they are even enjoyable. Some of them are very easy, and even if sometimes it is difficult, so what? There are lots of difficult things in life. If there was not even a little struggle, life could wind up being boring and not enjoyable. When you are willing to make an effort in order to keep God’s commandments you also feel satisfaction, joy and love for God.
Are the Commandments Rational?
The commandments are not always understandable although some are obvious and easy to understand. The Torah says do not murder. The reason is clear, if there were to be unrestrained murder, human society could not continue to function. Same goes for theft, adultery and other affirmative commandments such as respecting one’s parents. Civilized society could not function without respect for authority figures, especially those who give one life, or the sages, or the monarch or judges. There must also be respect and appreciation. These are clear to us.
So, there are commandments whose reason is clear and understood. Our Rabbis called these ‘rational commandments.’ These are appreciated by human intellect and I would say also by natural morality. We agree with them naturally. Our intellect, and moral intuition agrees with them.
However, there are also commandments that are called ‘commandments of obedience’. These are done out of discipline, out of loyalty to the Commander even though they are not fully understood. For example, the prohibition of mixing dairy and meat products. The Torah allows eating meat, and it allows eating dairy. So why should they be prohibited when mixed together? Another example is that of ‘Sha’atnez,’ of wearing garments made of wool and linen woven together. Wool is allowed, and so is linen. So why not together?
So we see, there are commandments whose reasons are not obvious to us. Not that they have no reason, only that they require investigation and inquiry and only then can we comprehend the reason for these commandments. A reason can be found for all the commandments. But some of them are at first, not immediately intelligible, but
rather only after examination.
The question must be asked, which of these categories are more agreeable to human nature and which are more challenging? Our sages disagreed over this issue.
Maimonides was partial to the rational commandments as they inspire immediate identification on the part of man and satisfy our intellectual and moral needs. The commandments of obedience, on the other hand, pose more difficulty as long as their rationales have not yet been comprehended.
Another great sage of the medieval period, who resided in Spain, Rabbi Judah Halevi, explained that, on the contrary, the commandments of obedience are greater. This is because God chose to rest his divine presence precisely through this type of commandment. And so, the fact that their rationales are not initially clear is actually a
superior quality as they allow man to demonstrate his love for God by man’s willingness to fulfill them in any case, despite their initial unintelligibility. After these come the rational commandments.
It would seem that the rational commandments would not really need to be commanded by the Torah at all. Indeed, they can be understood in their basic sense without the Torah. But here, God has done us a favor. He added the commandments of basic morality to the set of divine commandments of obedience, in order to grant us the merit of fulfilling a commandment of God, a merit that goes even beyond the virtue of natural morality.
Circumcision and How to Reach True Moral Perfection
Circumcision is a slightly odd thing to do. It seems to be an assault on the completeness of man’s body. There is an ancient criticism against Judaism for this practice found among the ancient Greeks. They saw the perfection of man’s body as a supreme value and so the idea of circumcision seemed abhorrent to them. It is one of the factors that prevented many non-Jews from joining the nation of Israel since antiquity. Not surprisingly, we found more female converts than males.
This is also one of the factors that allowed for the expansion of Christianity. People were drawn to Judaism but were deterred by the requirement of circumcision. And so along came Paul and offered them a cheap version of Judaism without circumcision.
This was the beginning of Christianity and from the perspective of the early Christians this was a relief from something that they were very put off by. But we cannot ignore the fact that the Torah spoke of circumcision, so what is the meaning of this act?
Maimonides explains in his book A Guide to the Perplexed that when man remains uncircumcised he is overly drawn to nature. His sexuality comes to overwhelm him and this stifles his ability to reach true moral perfection. Therefore, instead of calling for abstinence and absolute detachment from this world, Judaism opens a window of optimism. It is possible, through a minimizing, a certain weakening of the sexual desire, to live a morally harmonious life. It could even be said that the foreskin represents the illegitimate take-over of the divine image of man at the hands of nature.
When man removes the foreskin he can reconnect to his higher soul. This is also, apparently, the reason why the Torah connects between the covenant of circumcision and the covenant regarding the land of Israel. This is because the land of Israel requires the Jewish people to enter a very earthly realm, to enter politics, economics, and all the other needs of this world. So when we are preparing to come into our land we must be sure that we will safeguard our holiness. The covenant of circumcision, safeguarded the Jewish people from total deterioration despite all its
difficult experiences throughout its history.
The circumcision is also a symbol of the connection between the Creator and his Creations and is performed precisely on the part of the body that produces life, the part that leads to birth. This is to tell us that it is God’s will that gives us life. Not that there is, God forbid, anything obscene about giving birth, quite the opposite, there is
holiness in birth. This is one of the reasons for the covenant of circumcision. It should be understood, though, that all this is but a drop in the ocean of what can be learned on this topic and I invite you, my readers, to think for yourselves about the meaning of this incredibly important commandment.
To Transform Time into a Meeting with Hashem
Everything is bound by to time. We cannot image what a world without time would be like. We live within time. The philosopher, Henri Bergson, spoke of the concept of ‘Duration,’ ‘La durée,’ as the way in which one lives one’s life in the world. This leads us to feel suspended between the past which has become more distant, and the future that we are being pulled toward. This image of a line suspended between the beginning and the end, as it were, is the context within which we live our lives in the world.
In contrast, God is above time and is not incumbent to any particular moment in it. To illustrate, we could say that God is within eternity. But the Torah revealed to us that there are times of interface, of meeting. An interface between eternity and time. These meeting times are called in Hebrew ‘Moed.’ The word, ‘Moed,’ shares a root with the word gathering, or get-together. There are times when eternity meets the transient. These meetings are unique times in history when a transformation occurs that advances man toward his ultimate and positive goal.
Indeed, during these times, events of historical significance occurred. Such as the Exodus from Egypt, the giving of the Torah, the building of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, the victory over the evildoers in Persia in the times of Haman the Agagite, the victory over the Greeks in the times of the Maccabees, and in our days with the founding of the State of Israel. All of these occasions were extraordinary times where eternity appeared within time.
Here is a unique quality. The Talmud tells us “Israel sanctifies the times.” We have the ability to transform this simple and trivial line of time into a vessel that can contain the meeting with divinity. This is why we have special occasions throughout the year such as the Sabbath, and the holidays during which we are aware of a distinct and intensified presence of the divine in the world. These are the sanctified times. And so it is no coincidence that, formally, Jewish law makes the setting of the calendar, (and therefore the holidays), dependent on the decisions made by the sages of Israel. In this way, eternity is made to await for the people of the transient world to tell it when to appear. This is the concept of “Israel sanctifies the times.”