Last week film star Cameron Diaz married Benji Madden, a guitarist for the punk rock band, Good Charlotte. Although neither the bride or groom are actually Jewish they got married under a Chupah, recited the Sheva Brachot ( 7 traditional blessings), broke a glass at the end of the ceremony and spent the first minutes of their marriage secluded in a private room, mimicking the Yichud requirement performed at all traditional Jewish weddings. Some Fundamentalist Christians are also incorporating Jewish traditions into their wedding ceremonies as well.
I find this all so fascinating because of how difficult of a time I often have convincing Jews to follow their own traditions and embrace the mitzvot. But I think our reticence to accept mitzvot has to do with a misunderstanding and perhaps a failure on our part as leaders to properly explain what mitzvot are really intended to accomplish.
What is the purpose of a mitzvah and of all our Jewish traditions and rituals?
In last week Torah reading Moses is forced to flee his native Egypt after killing an Egyptian officer who was mercilessly beating a fellow Jew. He settles in Midian, gets married, starts a family and serves as a shepherd for his father in laws, Jethro’s flock. Then in one of the most important scenes in the Torah, God appears to Moses from a flame burning in the midst of a bush.
Moses notices how the bush is burning but is somehow not consumed by the fire and the Torah tells us how he’s drawn to this sight: And Moses said: let me turn so I can see this great sight, why is the bush not burning? And God saw that Moses turned to see and He said: ‘Moshe Moshe’ and he answered: ‘here I am’. And God said: ‘Do not come any closer remove your shoes from your feet because the place upon which you stand is holy ground’.”(Exodus 3:3,4)
Why does God tell Moses not to come any closer? And why does he also command Moses to take off his shoes? What is the significance of that?
Nachmanides, the great medieval sage explains that God was telling Moses not to advance closer because he had not yet attained the spiritual level of prophesy to stand so close to presence of the Almighty. It would take time, and ultimately Moses did develop this as we see later at Mt. Sinai, God later tells Moses to come closer, to approach the thick darkness where God’s presence resided. But at this point Moses wasn’t there yet and since the entire mountain was sanctified by God’s presence and shoes cannot be worn on hallowed ground, God told Moses to take off his shoes.
Another great rabbinic commentator, Rabeinu Bechaya says the removal of shoes represents Moses’ obligation to remove the physical aspects of his existence which serve as an impediment to prophesy. Leave the physical in order to enter the spiritual realm.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (German Jewish philosopher of the 19thcentury) puts God’s warning to Moses not to approach the burning bush together with His command to remove his shoes: The burning bush represents something incomprehensible and esoteric. A bush which is burning but which never gets consumed makes no sense. It defies the laws of nature. God was telling Moses, suggests Rabbi Hirsch, not to become too attracted or obsessed with what doesn’t make sense, with the esoteric. Focus instead on what you canunderstand, namely, that which is right beneath your feet.
In the words of Rabbi Hirsch: Instead of attempting to understand a phenomenon that is beyond your ken, contemplate the lofty destiny of the ground on which you already standing and devote yourself to it with all your heart.
The bush was like something from outer-space. It defied the laws of nature and I believe we’re drawn to those kinds of things. They intrigue us and we want to go there because we think that’s where we can find spirituality. That’s where we’ll find God. We think this world is too pedestrian, too mundane and filled with too filth and imperfection to be a spiritual place.
Judaism teaches just the opposite: God, we believe is to be found in the here and now and our mission as a chosen nation is not to abandon the physical to attain spiritual heights but to bring God and His spirituality into our lives, here and now, in this world.
God was telling Moses and really, all of us:
“Do not come any closer” – you don’t need to come closer to the bush, to that which is mysterious and incomprehensible, you don’t need to leave this world.
“Remove your shoes from your feet”- remove that which is separating you from the ground, from the earth, from this world.
“because the place upon which you stand is holy ground”– where you are right now, the moment or situation in which you find yourself in this world, that moment or place has within it the potential for holiness. This world is the opportunity for holiness in your life.
How? Through the mitzvot, through God’s commandments in the Torah.
By applying the mitzvot to the different parts of our regular and mundane lives we bring God’s holiness and sanctity into the world.
By following the Torah’s commands on ethics in the workplace, be it by not slandering a co-worker in order to get ahead or by making sure we don’t cheat or steal from another, or making sure to disclose all our earnings when paying taxes, That’s how we bring God and Holiness into the workplace.
By introducing the laws and traditions of the Mikvah and of Taharat Hamishpacha into our marriages, we infuse our most intimate sexual relationships with sanctity.
By checking a hashgacha, a kosher label on a food package to ensure it is kosher or by reciting a blessing before we take a bite, we imbue the otherwise mundane act of eating with spiritual significance.
Dayan Grunfeld, a British rabbinic scholar of the 20thcentury, wrote that three of the four sections of the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish law authored by Rabbi Joseph Karo) deal primarily with our physical lives and not with what most associate with religion.
The sections of the Shulchan Aruch include:
1. Choshen Mishpat: laws of property, torts and commercial dealings
2. Yorah Deah: Food, laws of Kashrut
3. Even Ha’ezer: laws of marriage and divorce
These three sections of the halacha (Jewish law) deal with the 3 basic human cravings: power, food and sex.
Only one of the four sections, entitled Ohr Hachyaim deals with ritual law, with what we mostly associate with religion, namely the laws of Prayer, Yom Kippur, Tefilin etc. The rest of the halachic system deals with the physical world as we know it.
I always say, anyone can be spiritual in a shrine, a church or a synagogue. The real question is whether we can be holy out there in the real world. Don’t get me wrong. Meditation and prayer is certainly an important way to achieve spirituality, but the goal of Judaism is not spirituality.
There is actually no such word in the Torah. The goal of Judaism is to be holy and holiness comes from infusing the physical world with meaning and purpose, by elevating the physical life we lead by approaching every facet of our physical existence in a divinely inspired way, which is why mitzvoth play such a central role.
Mitzvot are not just rules or rituals but a Divine means of bringing holiness into the regular and everyday part of our lives in this world.
That’s why there’s so little Biblical and Rabbinic literature on the Afterlife, Resurrection or the Messianic redemption because the focus is on the here and now.
The lure of Buddhism and other Eastern religions is the lure of the burning bush, the other world kind of experience which allow us to escape the realities of this world so we can find God in some other place. We often wish to transcend the finite world so we can find peace and tranquility in another realm.
Judaism certainly shares some important parts of that. We have regular times for prayer and the Kabbalists stress the importance of deep meditation and there are Chasidic masters who go out to be alone to meditate and try to break free of the physical world. We all each start our Silent Devotion/Amidah by taking 3 steps back and then forward to help us leave the physical and enter the spiritual but if that where our spirituality ends then we fail in our most basic mission: to infuse this world with the spirituality it needs and for which it was created to receive.
God may be in another world but He placed us in this one and not to spend our limited time here trying to retreat or escape to another realm. That’s why what we do here matters the most and maybe why we, the Jewish people are so determined, despite all the persecution to which we have been subject, to still try and make this world a better place. May God bless us all with a long life and with the help of mitzvoth may we merit to imbue that life with Holiness.