I first became acquainted with this phenomenon some years ago when I received a call, shortly before Passover, from a woman I did not know. She was calling to ask me whether a certain product contained any hametz in it. Not familiar with the item, I asked her to begin by reading the list of ingredients. She had hardly begun when I interrupted her and said, “Sorry to tell you this, but that product is not kosher.” “I know,” she replied, “I don’t keep kosher; I just wanted to be sure that there was no hametz in it!”
Over the years, numerous other twisted, “mixed-metaphor,” contradictions-in-kind situations came my way. Such as the man who asked for permission for his wife to use our synagogue’s mikva. An acceptable, even praiseworthy request – until he told me that his wife wasn’t Jewish.
Such incidents can be laughable; but the mindset they present is of a more serious nature these days. We have become all too familiar with those who are convinced that they must scrupulously follow normative Jewish law, despite endangering their own lives and the lives of others. It might be by congregating at minyanim whose numbers exceed the Health Ministry’s limits, or surreptitiously holding Torah classes in secret locales. Their justification is that Hashem protects those who observe His laws.
But is this truly what God wants from us?
A word about Halacha is in order. In its most basic understanding, as the name implies, “Halacha” is the way a Jew of faith walks through this world. It is the pathway upon which we travel on our spiritual journey, as we seek to come closer to the Almighty. Because, alas, we no longer have true prophets to transmit Divine messages to us, no “Bat Kol” voices emanating from the heavens or anyone living today with authentic ruach ha-kodesh – unadulterated knowledge of God’s mind – all that remains for us to follow, in the Talmud’s words, are the “arba amot” of Halacha.”
This Halacha governs our everyday existence, from birth to death, from the moment we wake up to the moment we go to sleep, and everything in between. The way we dress, what we eat, how we conduct ourselves vis a vis our family, friends and neighbors, our obligations and privileges; these are all informed by Halacha. The Torah, its mitzvot, the rabbinic commentary and decisions (”psak”) on thousands of issues are the guidebooks that help us navigate Jewishly and stay on the path.
Yet having said that, we should not – we must not – abdicate our God-given ability to think on our own. We must continually be prepared to answer the prophet Micah’s penetrating question, “What does the Lord your God require of you?”
Rote acts of obedience are not always the proper reaction to God’s will; sometimes the bigger picture reveals a different message. And so Samuel the prophet admonished the people who were bringing hordes of animals for offerings: “Does Hashem truly desire your sheep and your goats, your empty sin-offerings?” he preaches. “Or does God rather desire your devotion, your love and awe that far surpasses your mechanical motions of bringing sacrifices?” The letter of the law – as important and necessary as it surely is – becomes an empty vessel when it lacks the spirit that energizes it.
The story is told of the great rabbi Shraga Feivel Mendelevitz, who once came for Shabbat dinner to a couple’s home and brought the host an embroidered hallah cover as a gift. As he walked into the house from the synagogue with his host, the husband began to berate his wife, who, exhausted, had fallen asleep on the couch. “Why is the Shabbat table not set?!” he yelled at her. “See, our honored guest has brought us a hallah cover, and you have not even put the hallah on the table yet!”
The rabbi was shocked by the man’s behavior, but calmly said, “Why does the hallah need a cover at all?” The host explained – as if the rabbi did not know – that normally our meals begin with hamotzi, the blessing on bread. But on Shabbat and holidays we start with kiddush, the blessing on wine. And so, in order not to “embarrass” the bread – which usually has priority – we cover it with a cloth so that it does not “see” the wine being blessed first.
“I see,” said Rav Feivel; “So it’s not proper to embarrass the inanimate bread. But your wife you can humiliate?!”
The Talmud tells of a tragic incident that once took place in the Beit Hamikdash. Two kohanim were racing up the ramp to the altar, each trying to be the one who administered the offering. In his passion to win the race, one of the kohanim took the sacrificial knife and stabbed the other. The supervising kohen came rushing to the scene, horrified at what had happened. At that moment, the first kohen pulled the knife out of the dying man’s chest, and said to his superior, “See, the knife has not become tamei (impure); I removed it before he died!”
Yes, there is a bigger picture out there that we must perceive, an all-important forest that must not be obscured by the halachic trees within it. We have to guard our lives – as well as protect the welfare of everyone else around us – because that is precisely what God wants; no – what He demands of us. He needs us to stay alive and stay well today – so that we can observe His commandments and pursue a Jewish lifestyle for many, many tomorrows. Perhaps He has thrown a giant, global challenge our way in order to test how faithful we are; not to the myriad single acts of piety and prayer, but to Life itself.
For at the end of the day, as last week’s Torah portion proclaims, Hashem holds most dear the principle in which he packages His halachot and mitzvot: “And you shall live by them.”