There is a very interesting passage in the Gemara in Kiddushin page 31a about one of our Sages, Rav Yosef, who was blind. There is a debate in the Gemara as to whether a blind person is obliged to fulfill all of the commandments. Rav Yosef says that if someone would tell him that the halacha is in accordance with the opinion that says a blind person is exempt from the commandments, he would host a celebration. Why? Because he thought he would get more reward if he fulfills the commandments voluntarily than out of obligation. But the Gemara concludes that a person who does the commandments because they are commanded to do so, not of their own volition, actually gets greater reward. When Rav Yosef heard this, he said he will celebrate the opinion that blind people are indeed obliged to fulfill all of the commandments so that he could keep the commandments out of duty, and not on a voluntary basis.
This seems to go against conventional wisdom, which maintains that a volunteer is more noble than someone who is obligated; surely one who does something because he chooses to do so voluntarily is on a higher level than someone who does it because he is required to do so by Divine command. And yet the conclusion of the Gemara is that gadol hametzuveh ve’oseh mi’she’eino metzuveh ve’oseh, “greater is the one who is commanded and does it, than one who is not commanded and still does it.”
In western philosophy the most important word is “choice”; yet in Torah philosophy the most important word is “mitzvah”. The word mitzvah is often mistranslated as a “good deed” but it actually means a commandment. A good deed and a commandment are two different concepts. While a commandment is in fact a good deed, not all good deeds are commandments and something which is a commandment is on a much higher level.
This idea is conveyed in our parsha, Shemini, which deals with the inauguration of the Mishkan, the great Tabernacle in the desert where all of the offerings to G-d were brought. Shortly after the inauguration ceremony, tragedy struck with the death of Aharon’s sons, Nadav and Avihu. The Torah tells us that they had offered up a “strange fire, which they had not been commanded”. In other words, they brought an offering which was not part of their set duties for the day, just something they decided to do spontaneously on their own. They had stepped out of the framework of the commandments of Hashem, and that was their sin.
Obviously, their sin was much more severe because it was permeated by great leaders of the Jewish people on the day of the inauguration of the Mishkan, a day which set the tone for the service of G-d for thousands of years to come. This is an extreme example, but it conveys the idea from the Gemara mentioned above, that one who is commanded is nobler and gets greater reward than one who does it in a voluntary capacity. Why is this so?
The aesthetic vs. spiritual experience
Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik explains the difference between an aesthetic experience and a religious one. For example, listening to beautiful music can move you and make you feel inspired. Doing a mitzvah can also move and inspire you, from a religious point of view. The difference between the two is that the aesthetic experience is fundamentally focused on self while the religious experience should transcend self and reach out to G-d. It’s not about self but about Hashem. There is nothing wrong with the aesthetic experience and finding joy for oneself in it – G-d placed these joys in this world for us to partake of. But in the religious experience – for example, praying to Hashem – it’s not about self but the transcendence of self. Thus, while the aesthetic experience has its place, Torah is about reaching beyond ourselves, transcending who we are and connecting to a higher power.
This is why the concept of a mitzvah is so important. When we do something because we are commanded to, we are doing it not because it makes us feel good but because it is the right thing to do. We are transcending self, growing and becoming greater people as a result of the mitzvah. Rav Soloveitchik explains the experience of Nadav and Avihu in a similar vein. He says that Nadav and Avihu wanted the experience for the sake of the experience; whereas the Torah philosophy is that the commandments are the key to accessing the experience. Obviously, the mitzvah can’t be empty, namely, simply done by rote because we are commanded to do them. There has to be a personal element to it and a joy in it. But the mitzvah is the starting point, the framework for achieving those feelings, rather than the feelings being the centre of it.
The irony is that if we focus solely on spontaneity and choice in an effort to find inspiration, inspiration actually eludes us because it all becomes dependent on our emotions. Take a simple example: prayer. If we are going to pray to Hashem only when we feel inspired to do so, then it will only work when it is spontaneous, which becomes dependent on our mood swings and that is not sustainable spirituality because it’s all dependent on how we feel at a particular moment. So instead the halacha structures it for us. There are set times to pray, there is the text of the siddur, there are guidelines as to how it must be done. The “external” framework serves to inspire us. If it’s all self-guided, apart from the fact that it’s self-absorbed, we need a sustainable way of being inspired. This doesn’t mean that the davening can just be by rote with no feeling. It has to be with emotion – in fact, the Gemara calls prayer avodah shebalev, “service of the heart.” But you can’t get to the inspiration and the heart and the feeling without some sort of a structure. We have to wake up in the morning and daven by a certain time, with the set text of the siddur, albeit with an opportunity to add personal requests in the Amidah. Otherwise real, sustainable inspiration will elude us.
The commandments create the framework for inspiration
One of the key insights of Judaism is that the way to inspiration is through the commandments. Conventional wisdom says spontaneity is the way to inspiration; but the Torah says mitzvahs are the way to inspiration. The fascinating thing is that when we are self-absorbed we don’t even help ourselves. Hashem has created the world in such a way that we actually serve our own interests best when we are not looking after them. Selfish people harm themselves, while people who have a bigger spirit, who are able to transcend the self and are prepared to give to others in all relationships – in marriage, parenting, friends, community and most importantly, with Hashem – actually get back more in the end. Those who are most selfish lose out because they are limited by themselves.
This is why all holiness, all kedusha is about the capacity to transcend ourselves and see the bigger picture and see Hashem and see those around us; and care for Hashem and care for those around us. This is done through the structure of mitzvahs. Mitzvahs liberate us from ourselves and when we are liberated from our self-interests we are able to see the world from a better perspective, be more inspired and better connected with those around us. When we can reach out to others with kindness and charity, we lead a life which is much more fulfilled. Paradoxically, the more a person chases their self-interests, the less they get for themselves.
This approach affects every part of our lives. It’s not just about how we do mitzvahs but about seeing the whole world and appreciating it for what it is. Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz, one of our great rabbinic thinkers of the 20th century said, the greatest enemy of inspiration is habit. Judaism – specifically through the framework of the mitzvot and halacha – teaches us how to appreciate life and not take it for granted. This connects to what was said earlier, how when a person is self-centred then there is no sense of appreciation, no sense of gratitude or humility. Only when we are prepared to acknowledge G-d’s commandment structure and subordinate ourselves to a higher power outside of ourselves, only when we recognise that we must not take anything in life for granted, can we actually be inspired and enjoy life.
Elevating ourselves to partake of this world
When we wash our hands before we eat bread we say the blessing of al netilat yadayim. We also say this blessing when we wash hands in the morning after waking. Where does this blessing come from? Why does it use the term netilat yadayim which means the “taking of the hands” instead of rechitzat yadayim, which means “washing of the hands”?
Some commentaries say the word netilat comes from the word for the washing cup, which is natla. But there is another explanation, from Rav Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenberg, one of the great Chumash commentators of the 19th-century Germany, who says that the words netilat yadayim come from the word “to lift up,” to elevate the hands – in other words, to sanctify them. Whenever we have the concept of washing hands, it’s linked to the concept of sanctity. For example, when the priests would enter the Temple they would wash their hands and feet. In the language of the Gemara this is called kiddush yadayim veraglayim, “the sanctification of the hands and feet.” In our parsha, in fact, in chapter 11 verse 44 it says vehitkadishtem vehiyitem kedoshim, “you will sanctify yourselves and then you shall be holy,” which the Gemara links to the concept of washing hands before eating bread. Why are these two concepts linked? Rav Mecklenberg explains that everything in this world is holy, even food. He quotes from the Gemara which says that before we say a blessing, the food belongs to Hashem and by saying the blessing we make it ours. The entire world is holy property, like Temple property. It’s sanctified property which belongs to Hashem. We acquire the rights to use it when we sanctify ourselves and recite the blessings before eating food. When we wash our hands before eating bread, we are sanctifying our hands before partaking of the goods of this world, and saying that everything belongs to Hashem. Thus the term netilat yadayim is used, referring to the elevation and sanctification of our hands before enjoying anything from this world.
A similar concept applies when we wash our hands in the morning. Rav Mecklenberg quotes from the Rashba who says that when we wake up in the morning we are new creatures. We have been given life again. The neshama, the soul, has been put back into our bodies and we are renewed beings. All the blessings we say when we wake up in the morning – poke’ach ivrim, thanking G-d for opening the eyes of the blind, zokef kefufim, thanking G-d for enabling us to stand up straight – are all things we often take for granted. There are many people who suffer, who are unable to partake of these blessings. We need to step back and appreciate the very fact that we can enjoy all of these things from the world. The Gemara even says we must give thanks to Hashem for every breath of air we take. And so we say al netilat yadayim, sanctifying our hands and declaring that the whole world – not just food, but every part of this world – belongs to Hashem. And in order to partake of these gifts we have to lift up our hands and sanctify ourselves.
Now we can understand Nadav and Avihu’s sin from a deeper perspective. According to the oral tradition, when they walked into the Temple they hadn’t washed their hands. Their not washing their hands showed that they wanted the spiritual experience but were not willing to take their guidance from Hashem; they were not willing to step outside of themselves.
Judaism teaches that we need to see the world not as something that belongs to us and which is there for our personal gratification – not even the “spiritual experiences” – but rather that everything belongs to Hashem. He commands us and we find inspiration through His commandments and through recognising that the world belongs to Him. The more self-centred we are, the more entitled we feel to everything in this world, the less we enjoy it. Only when we are prepared to step back and humbly acknowledge that it belongs to Hashem will we be able to adhere to His instructions and find inspiration and gratitude for everything we receive from Him. It’s not just that it’s the right thing to do; it’s the only way to enjoy life – to appreciate the fact that we can open our eyes and stand up in the morning, and that we can breathe. The halacha and the mitzvot help us to appreciate things and not take them for granted, whether it’s the laws of niddah in marriage or the laws of prayer or learning Torah. All of these things are there to enable us to see the world in its right perspective and then ultimately to live a life which is elevated, holy and truly enjoyable, because we do not take anything for granted.