Sometimes I observe religious Jewish communities and it amazes me how they’ve managed to create all of the comforts and conveniences imaginable, carefully crafted to fit around the structure of halacha. Pesach cleaning got difficult and we ran out of gluten free recipes, so we invented luxurious Pesach retreats that would supply us with a 5-star Pesach vacation, including three meals a day of foods that taste so authentic, it’s hard to believe that they’re chametz free. We got jealous of Hershey bars and Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, so we created our own top quality dairy products. As Jewish life developed, we created kosher clothing lines, kosher restaurants, kosher cruises, kosher gyms, leading up to the most modern invention of the kosher light switch. If the Shobbos lamps weren’t enough, one clever engineer decided our lives were much too inconvenient with the restriction on flipping the light switch. He managed to invent a contraption that would technically not transgress the prohibition of lighting a fire on Shobbos, based on numerous loopholes in the law (which have arguable legitimacy).
All of these contribute to creating a Jewish cultural experience that is entirely unrelated to Judaism itself. Shobbos becomes about silk white tablecloths, the freshly dry cleaned shul dresses and the latest kugel recipes. Pesach is about the family reunions, the luxurious resorts and the magically non-gebrucks macaroni. The High Holidays become about the leather machzors, the honey dishes and the discussions about the quality of the chazanus in shul. It’s not that these things aren’t important. However, I wonder if we’ve gotten lost in polishing the skeleton of Jewish life, and forgotten its soul.
Contrast this with the Jew who makes the choice to spend his holiday in some far away country, away from his family and the convenience of a Jewish community. He chooses to spend his holiday barely putting together a festive meal, let alone taking part in an inspiring prayer service with a minyan. He can hardly point to an inspiring moment in his holiday at all, since he spent much of his days wandering the city in search of a Jew who might need to hear the shofar that day. You might ask, ‘What kind of a Rosh Hashana is that?,’ but I believe it is this Jew who has touched the core of what the holiday is about.
Some people can get roped into adopting a Jewish lifestyle based on the skeleton. They show up at a traditional Shobbos meal and the table is decked in expensive china, a variety of gourmet food dishes, and a neat row of the fresh, smiling faces of perfectly behaved children. This scene alone can be enough to convince someone to turn their life around. But often, there can be more subtle motivations for our Judaism. Sometimes it’s the ambiance of the Shobbos table, sometimes it’s the security of a close-knit community, sometimes it’s the spiritual fulfillment we feel by building a relationship with our Creator and sometimes it’s the satisfied feeling that I am being a good Jew. Regardless, these motivations come from the common mistake of worshipping that which is merely incidental to a Jew’s relationship with G-d, making even the most spiritual incentive into a form of idolatry.
When a Jew recognizes that the core of Judaism is not the cultural comforts, the intellectual stimulation or the emotional appeal, but the simple surrender to who G-d is on His terms, regardless of his own experience, there is a shift in focus. Suddenly, the only thing that gives him energy, excitement and meaning is the fact that he is fulfilling a higher purpose that transcends him. This Jew’s life does not necessarily look different than that of the Jew who is motivated by the external factors, but their mindsets are worlds apart.
When Mind Becomes Matter
These various ulterior motives for serving G-d are depicted by a vivid analogy. A king graciously invites his honored ministers and important servants to sit at his table and take part in a royal feast. But they are not the only beneficiaries of this feast. The slaves in the kitchen, who would never dream of sitting at the king’s table, get the chance to indulge in the ample supply of leftovers from the lavish meal. Even the dogs that sit outside the palace walls are overjoyed by the heap of bones that have been thrown their way since the party. The ministers, the servants, the slaves and the dogs all receive benefit from the king’s lavishness, but each has a distinct relationship with the king.
In the discourse entitled “Beyom Ashtei Asar,” the dog is compared to the person who is entirely driven by selfish desires, to the point that he does not serve his Creator at all. His only relationship to his Creator is the fact that he receives life from Him, but he has no interest in reciprocating that relationship. There are others who at least commit themselves to fulfilling mitzvos, but their motivation is fear. It can be a fear of retribution in the next life, fear of the judgment of others or even fear of their own disappointment in themselves. Like a slave, this person has no personal desire to serve, but merely feels forced by external factors. This individual is not even invited to the “king’s table”, since his actions do not indicate any interest in serving G-d. The servant, on the other hand, is one who willingly and passionately commits himself to serving G-d, even though he has no appreciation of the depth and sophistication of spirituality. Finally, the maamar defines the level of the ministers. However, the analogy of the minister is not translated as a certain type of person’s relationship to G-d, the way the other three characters were interpreted. Instead, the maamar continues to describe how these ministers represent lofty levels of spirituality, like angels and sefiros. Why is it not consistent with the rest of the analogue, interpreting the ministers as referring to the type of person who chooses to connect to G-d through these levels of spirituality?
Apparently, our intentions do not just define the nature of our relationship with G-d, but they also define who we are. The one who focuses on levels of spiritual enlightenment becomes a part of that spiritual entity, while one who focuses on material pleasures becomes a part of that materialism. Our mindsets are not incidental to our religious practice. They shift us into a different place in reality and redefine the meaning of our actions. Ultimately, they affect our willingness to forgo the fulfillment inherent in self-motivated service, making this subtle form of idolatry more detrimental than we think.
All Is Not Lost
There are numerous areas of Jewish law in which a human being’s state of mind can affect the status of a given object. The primary example of this that is discussed in the second chapter of Bava Metzia relates to the laws of returning lost objects. There is an obligation in the Torah to proactively pick up a lost object and return it to its owner. However, if the owner of the object has given up hope of finding his object, he has mentally relinquished his possession and can no longer claim exclusive ownership. If someone else seizes the object after the original owner has already given up, the finder is allowed to keep it. The question is how we know when the original owner has given up hope and thus relinquished possession of the object. The Talmud discusses various cases in which we could assume based on the circumstances that most people would despair. The owner does not need to make a statement declaring his despair. He simply needs to sense a feeling of grief over his loss and that state of mind automatically releases the object from his possession, making it susceptible to being seized by someone else.
There is a disagreement between Abaya and Rava regarding what would happen if the owner of the lost object did not yet realize that he lost his object, when we can assume that if he would know that it was lost, he would despair of ever finding it. The final halacha follows Abaya who believes that this state of mind would not be considered a state of despair that is worthy of making the object vulnerable to being lawfully seized by another owner. However, Rava maintains that even if the person is not yet conscious of his loss, the fact that he will despair at some point in the future renders him in a current state of despair. Although Rava’s opinion does not determine the final halacha, the fact that his opinion is cited in the Talmud indicates that it represents a true perspective in Torah. Based on Rava’s reasoning, it seems that a reality that will eventually affect your state of mind can affect your relationship with your possessions even if you are not yet conscious of that reality.
This ability for a subtle shift in perspective to impact the relationship that exists between an owner and his property can be applied to our relationship with spiritual entities as well. The subtle shift between looking for a G-d beyond our experience and looking for an experience of G-d has drastic ramifications in how our service of G-d is defined and the behaviors we become susceptible to. However, in the end of days, when all the distractions will be cleared away, every Jew will recognize that his deepest desire is for G-d alone. The fact that this core desire will eventually be revealed in every Jew indicates that even if at this point in time he is still motivated by external factors, the mitzvos he does now can be defined by the altruism that he may not yet be conscious of, but will eventually discover.
Originally written Batsheva Academy's Summer Retreat Journal