Question: I’ve been enjoying the philosophy articles on Aish.com. The approach to life resonates with me much more than the Western style of consumerism and media hype. Regarding the obligatory nature of mitzvot, however, I think sometimes humans have to disregard the boundary and be disobedient against the command. It might be painful, but I believe you come away with a higher appreciation that God and His commands are ultimately correct. Do you agree with this thinking?
The Aish Rabbi Replies: You have touched on a deep truth, but ultimately your principle is mistaken. The Talmud states: “In a place where a reformed sinner stands, even a righteous tzaddik does not stand.” The idea is that after having erred, you can analyze your negative acts, learn from them, and use that knowledge as a foundation to motivate you further.
While all this seems to imply that it is better to make mistakes and then correct them, rather than never have made the mistake in the first place, that is not true.
Let’s take the mundane example of the rule: “Always look both ways before crossing the street.” There are two ways to learn this lesson: 1) Listen to the advice of teachers and parents to look both ways before crossing, or 2) cross recklessly, get hit by a car, and then while lying in the hospital acknowledge a lesson well-learned.
The problem in choosing the second path is that there is always a residual effect from our mistakes. A teenager who experiments with drugs may grow up to realize the dangers, but a lot of brain cells have been killed in the meantime.
from the “Ask the Rabbi” series
(I almost didn’t post the first picture that appears in today’s “meditation” because of its provocative elements, but of all the similar images I found, this one came closest to communicating what I wanted to say.)
To be fair, many non-Jewish “Messianics” were taught for years or even decades that there was “One Law for the native-born and the alien” and that information is well ingrained into their psyche and identity. Now that “the movement” has evolved and more accurate information is available relative to how the Bible defines the roles of “Messianic” Gentiles and Jews, it is very hard for some to surrender a status or role that they’ve become quite used to.
I remember when FFOZ (First Fruits of Zion) first announced that they had been wrong in supporting the One Law position and that they were correcting their teachings and organizational stance. I felt angry and betrayed and shot off a very pointed comment or two on Facebook in response. It was like being given an important and valuable gift and becoming comfortable with it, then having it suddenly ripped away.
I suppose I could have become one of those angry “deniers” and continued to “demand my right” to “Torah obligation,” but I started to think. FFOZ had financially just shot themselves in the foot. A large number of their constituents simply abandoned them, abruptly and significantly reducing their income. Why would they do that when in any practical sense, even if privately they’d come to the conclusion that One Law was unsustainable Biblically and theologically, they should have publicly maintained their OL position in order to make sure they survived as a ministry? Their decision only made sense if moral and spiritual honesty were more important to them than an income.
I became curious and started investigating. At about the same time, I started looking at my wife’s pursuit of her Jewish identity as an individual and as a member of the Jewish community through different eyes. Long story short, I realized that I had been wrong in my One Law assumptions and shifted my perceptual and theological paradigm accordingly.
But to say that it was difficult is a gross understatement. A lot of people aren’t capable of that kind of change. I even recently wrote about how difficult it is to “share Abraham” so to speak, and accept that only certain blessings are passed down to the nations (Christians) through Israel. Exchanging self-entitlement for a more mature reality is very hard and not everyone is going to accept it.
Frankly, and not to necessarily contradict the Aish rabbi from whom I quoted above, I don’t see how some mistakes can be avoided. I mean, we all make mistakes. Some are actually part of the human developmental learning process. Take walking for example. When a small child is first learning how to stand and walk, the child falls a lot. Falling isn’t a mistake at this stage of development, it’s a requirement and it’s perfectly normal and expected. No small child has ever (to the best of my knowledge) spontaneously stood and walked with absolute precision on the very first try, and never fell back to the floor. Everybody falls the first time, or the first dozen times, or the first few hundred times.
I think trying to understand God and trying to understand who we are in God is like learning how to stand and walk. We get a lot of things wrong at first, but that’s to be expected. Just conceptualizing the existence of God is tremendously difficult, and integrating faith, trust, hope, and spirituality into a daily lifestyle can escape even some of the best of us. I would hardly expect anyone to become “good at it” right off the bat. In fact, most of us never get really “good at it.” We continue to struggle, to learn, and we periodically fall flat on our faces.
That’s how I’d characterize my own spiritual development, anyway. I suspect that if we were all honest with ourselves and everyone else, every person of faith would admit to the same thing. Only pride keeps us from doing so. We’re afraid of looking foolish. We’re afraid of what other people will say. We’re afraid of just letting go of all that and, like a little child, accepting what God has given us from His abundant store of gifts.
For seven days of Sukkot, Jews walk around in circles, carrying an assortment of green and yellow flora. Then, on Simchat Torah, they dance in circles carrying Hebrew scrolls, working up to a frenzy.
Did I say dance? Well, it’s more like marching, your hands over the next guy’s shoulders, singing and stomping as you march to . . . the same place you started from. Repeat until you plotz. (Yiddish: collapse)
Now for my confession…
When I was first invited, cajoled and nudniked to join the circular festivities, I was more than hesitant. I attempted to explain that I didn’t see the point of walking in such a way that you don’t get any further than where you started. Needless to say, the argument was ignored, and I was swept into the circle whether I liked it or not.
And I felt stupid. For about the first 40,000 circuits. After that, I forgot about myself and how I felt and what I was doing and why I was doing it and whether I was stupid and that I was there at all. And that’s when the circle became good. Very good.
It was good exactly due to that which I had subliminally feared. Because as I stand here, I am I. In the circle, that I dissolves into we. And in that very act of transcendence, that loss of self, there is unbounded joy.
-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Why Jews Dance in Circles”
Commentary on Sukkot and Simchat Torah
While being embarrassed and feeling foolish (and avoiding joy) aren’t exactly mistakes, these are experiences that, if we allow them to, will prevent us from correcting mistakes and lead us into a lifestyle based on error and fear. In fact, many people try so hard to avoid embarrassment, foolishness, and the tremendous effort that change requires once it’s discovered, that they live in self-denial, never even permitting themselves to realize that what they are living is a mistake. That is why so many people (and I know atheists must think this about religious people) can “stand their ground” and “stand up for their rights” with total conviction of purpose, and still be dead wrong.
But remember, even in the lesson we learned from the Aish Rabbi, it’s only a mitzvah if we realize we made a mistake and corrected it. And, remember as well that it would have been better to never have made the mistake in the first place.
We can’t avoid making a mistake. We fall so that we can learn to pick ourselves up. Although mistakes are regrettable, they are also part and parcel of the human experience. Falling down is an obvious mistake when our intention was to walk. Many human mistakes are far more subtle and even when we want to be honest, it can be difficult to see past our own assumptions, prejudices, and pride.
To conquer even our unintentional and unconscious errors, we must learn to question everything about ourselves. Why do I believe in such-and-thus? Is it because I grew up believing this? Did someone teach me this belief when I was cognitively or spiritually immature? Examining the same information now that I am more educated, more mature, and more stable, will I reach the same conclusions that I did before?
These are all very dangerous questions and they can make us feel extremely insecure in areas that are absolutely the foundation of our existence. You don’t have to question your faith in God, but you do have to question what that faith means and how it is to be expressed. While people can change, most people don’t once they arrive at a certain comfortable plateau. The trick is never to completely rest on that plateau. It’s not your destination. Keep climbing, even if you feel uncomfortable, even if you feel nervous or foolish. The truth is always one level higher than you’ve ascended so far.
Or like Rabbi Freeman, after dancing in pointless circles the first 40,000 times or so, eventually, you’ll see that pursuing the joy of God is more important than how you feel or what you look like to others. Fixing mistakes and repairing your life is a mitzvah. So is longing for God. The two go hand in hand.