“You’re beautiful, but you’re empty...One couldn’t die for you. Of course, an ordinary passerby would think my rose looked just like you. But my rose, all on her own, is more important than you hundreds of other roses; because it is she that I have watered… she that I have sheltered behind the screen…Because she is my rose.” (The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupery)
I couldn’t help thinking of this passage from the beautiful classic, The Little Prince, as I stood in my kitchen a week before Pesach, a toothpick in my hand and a bucket of one-third bleach and two-thirds cleanser at my feet.
Life is so interesting, so full of adventures waiting to happen, and here I am, aching and tired, racing towards the deadline of bedikas chametz night. Hashem, is this really what You want me to be doing? Is my destiny really meant to be about obsessing over a breadcrumb that has escaped under the vegetable bin?
Pesach opens up such vast vistas, so much spirituality, so much depth. And where am I? In the refrigerator!
And in all honesty, this issue doesn’t arise only before Pesach; it shadows every other mitzva. The philosophy sounds so wonderful, but when you try to take it home, a thousand little threads of details threaten to choke you.
What Is The Point?
Rav Shimshon Pincus, zt”l, in the life-altering introduction to his sefer, Tiferes Torah, talks about how important it is to know the purpose of any activity. If someone owns a store and enjoys setting up the window display, that’s fine. But if the owner begins to think that window dressing is the reason for the store, he’s making a critical mistake.
Similarly, being married is very useful. It is convenient to have someone to carry the groceries in and someone to do the laundry. But if you make the mistake of thinking that those benefits are what marriage is all about, you’ve missed the point. Marriage is about the union of two halves of one soul. Having someone else to drive carpool is a side benefit.
So what are Torah and mitzvos about? They are not only about earning a place in the World to Come. They are not only about having a meaningful life in this world. They are not only about being good or holy. Those are all wonderful side benefits. But Hashem tells us clearly why He took us out of Egypt and brought us to Mount Sinai:
“You have seen what I did to Egypt and that I carried you on the wings of eagles and brought you to Me. And…you will be a treasure to Me from among all the nations….” (Shemos 19:4-5) Hashem took us out because He wanted us to be close to Him. He took us out because He wanted us to enter into a loving relationship with Him.
At Sinai, we became His, and He became ours.
Which is all very uplifting – but, again, how does spearing that crumb under the vegetable bin fit in? Here are three ways to understand the connection:
I. That Exclusive Rose
The Rambam compares man’s love of G-d to the all consuming love of a lovesick man: “He thinks of her constantly; when he rests and when he gets up, when he eats and when he drinks. More than this should be the love of man for his Creator.”
The love the Rambam described is so all encompassing that what do the words “more than this” mean? How can one possibly love more than what is described?
There is an intrinsic problem with human love. Life goes on, and spending every waking moment together is not an option. The lovesick man goes to work and comes home, he pays bills and does errands. And despite the fact that he is busy with a million things, he still thinks about his beloved.
But what if all the things a person had to do – laundry and child care, business and shopping – were not in contradiction to the relationship but an expression of it? A relationship with Hashem means that every facet of life is about this relationship. The work and the play, the running and the doing – each action is an expression of this all-encompassing bond. And every detail of every law is a thread that does not choke me but binds me to Hashem in an everlasting relationship.
I once heard a wise man bemoaning the development of bug-free lettuce. “Yes,” he said, “It is wonderful to be able to eat all those healthy vegetables that were once off limits. But those hours and hours of sitting holding up the romaine lettuce leaves under the florescent bulb on erev Pesach created yiras Shamayim (awe of G-d).”
“Created” yiras Shamayim? One would think that it would be the opposite. One would think that sitting there for hours, carefully examining every little crease in the leaf, is a sign of someone who already has yiras Shamayim. But this rav was saying the opposite: It is the “obsessive” concern to fulfill Hashem’s will, the effort to find every little creature only because Hashem doesn’t want us to eat bugs that actually creates this awe. The details engage the whole me in this relationship. Like the Little Prince and the rose, it is the details of the caring that creates the relationship.
II. Room for Someone Else
Hillel, in his famous meeting with the potential convert, gave a one-line description of the essence of Judaism: “Don’t do to others what you would not want to have done to yourself. The rest is commentary. Go learn!”
While that line has been excellent public relations for Judaism all these years, how is it true? Where does kashrus fit in? What about shatnez and shemita, Shabbos and Yom Tov? And where, for that matter, does my toothpick and bucket of bleach fit into loving your neighbor as yourself?
It is true that many mitzvos in the Torah do not overtly have to do with relationships between people. But Hillel was telling the potential convert – you want to know what this vast system is all about? It’s about creating a person who knows how to love. That is because love is ultimately about making room for someone else in your life – which is all about commitment to the other. If you are not committed to someone, your “I love you” really means, “I love me, and you make me feel good.”
If G-d has a presence in my life only to give me an occasional spiritual high, or as someone to turn to when I am in trouble, I am really in relationship with myself. It is only when I can put G-d’s desires before my own that I have made room for Him in my little world. Commitment to the other and the other’s desires is what allows me to step out of the narrow prison of my self and learn to love.
The minutia of each and every mitzva creates a process by which I am being constantly engaged in relationship. Never am I a rock. Never am I an island. A Jew, by involving Hashem in every detail of his life – from the way he puts his shoes on in the morning to how he goes to sleep at night and to how he relates to breadcrumbs in his refrigerator – is perpetually in a relationship.
III. Like Likes Like
A marriage between a Harvard graduate and a gas station attendant will probably not work. All good intentions notwithstanding, we cannot love someone who is not in the ball park. An element of similarity, despite all the differences, creates the possibility of connection.
So how can we – lowly, petty human beings – possibly forge a relationship with the Source of All Good?
The Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim tells us that the many details of the mitzvos are there only to refine us. The details take us through a process that makes us worthy of coming close to Hashem.
In a fascinating book called Israel Among the Nations, quoted by Dennis Prager in one of his books, was a nineteenth century non-Jewish French scholar, Anatole Beaulieu. He claimed that it was the structure and minutiae of the law that molded the Jews into the ethical People they are. In his opinion, the fact that a Jewish woman never went into her backyard and wrung the neck of her pet chicken but instead brought the chicken to a shochet (who sharpened his knife to make the act as painless as possible and made a blessing thanking G-d for sanctifying us with his commandments) and then kashered the chicken to remove every trace of blood is part of what created a nation that abhors bloodshed.
Feelings and ideas tend to dissipate; it is the attention to detail that harnesses the ephemeral concept to reality. More, it is the details that harness us to the ideal. Every little action shaves away at our base nature and clarifies the soul hiding underneath. Slowly, but surely, the details cast us in the mold of a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”
Does it Work?
Many years ago, a relative of mine was in the airport, when a non-Jewish man asked him why Jews wear that “beanie” on their heads. My relative explained that wearing something on one’s head creates awareness that there is Someone above us and that that awareness, in turn, influences our actions. The man chewed this over for a minute or two, then asked, “Does it work?”
Does it? Does this framework of details really engage us in a close, passionate relationship with Hashem? Or does it make us resentful and irritated?
Judith Viorst, the famous children’s writer, is quoted as saying that marriage is a useful institution, because “When you fall out of love…[marriage] keeps you together until maybe you fall in love again.”
Hashem is asking us to move into a relationship with Him. He doesn’t want us only on Sundays. He doesn’t want us only a few hours a day. He wants us all day, every day.
The reality, though, is that as dynamic human beings our feelings of connection fluctuate. There are moments when we are overflowing with love and gratitude and other times when we feel empty and miserly and any type of demand makes us tighten our emotional purse strings.
Like the commitment of marriage, the commitment to halacha keeps us connected even when, with the ebb and flow of life, we feel more distant from each other. With that commitment, there is always what to go back to.
Resentment is the result of emptying the gas tank and never taking the time to refill it. If the outflow is greater than the inflow, we begin to feel drained and annoyed. To return to an expansive state, where our giving flows freely, it’s crucial to plug ourselves in spiritually by whatever makes us feel closer to Hashem. Learning Torah, taking the time to daven properly, experiencing the beauty of nature, being around inspiring people – and sometimes just taking a nap – can often create the mind expansion where love and giving flow freely. In the meantime, it is the unrelenting totality of the Torah framework that never lets us stray too far.
Mar Ukva used to say that he was only “vinegar” though he was the son of “wine.” While his father used to wait a full day between meat and milk, he himself only waited from one meal to another. (Chulin 105:a)
Why didn’t Mar Ukva just wait 12 hours like his father, and then he too could have been called wine? Perhaps because, while waiting 12 hours may not have been too difficult for a man of his stature, Mar Ukva knew that, until he was on the level of closeness to Hashem that motivated his father, he couldn’t do it.
Some aspects of a relationship are nonnegotiable. Others are more flexible. As a parent, I need to provide my child with food, but that doesn’t mean I have to cook a gourmet meal three times a day. While it is true that external actions influence us internally, and sometimes when we push ourselves to do more we expand ourselves, we would do well to keep a careful finger on the pulse of our relationships. There are times to go the extra mile, and there are other times when we need to put the emphasis on filling up our gas tank.
So, the answer to the man in the airport is, yes, it does work. True, there are ups and downs, but in the final analysis, the details – including the toothpick and bucket of bleach – take us out of our narrow selves, keep us within the parameters of the relationship, and set in place a process that helps us to become a person who can build a relationship with our Creator.
Miriam Kosman is an international lecturer for Nefesh Yehudi, and teaches Jewish thought to hundreds of Israeli university students on a weekly basis. She is the author of the newly released book Circle, Arrow, Spiral, Exploring Gender in Judaism, an intriguing, source-based presentation which sees the male/female dynamic and women’s struggle for equality as a cosmic parable. Her book is available on Amazon. To read an excerpt and learn more about her book, visit miriamkosman.com.