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The Joy of Obligation

Jul 4, 2012 at 02:14:02 AM

Today is the Bar Mitzvah of my son Yaakov. This past Shabbat he read beautifully from the Torah and the prophets, followed by the requisite Bar Mitzvah speech. He asked the question: 

If a Bar Mitzvah marks the obligation to observe the Torah's precepts, why is that cause for such a celebration? After all, isn't it greater to do things – such as keeping Shabbat, giving charity and praying – voluntarily, out of an inner emotional drive? Isn't it greater to do from the heart than from an imposed obligation?

Good question!

He proceeded to describe how in two respects, there's a big advantage to giving out of obligation.

First, let's imagine a kid needing to wake up for school in the morning. If he would get up only when motivated, most kids would probably miss many days of school. So the obligation to go to school actually works to his advantage: Since he knows (or at least, his parents know) that going to school is what's best for him, the obligation creates a built-in motivation to ensure that he fulfills this important activity.

The lesson of all this? "Doing" is more important than "feeling." This is a great lesson for today's world which celebrates feelings. More than "How do you feel about it?", the Jewish question is: "What are you doing about it?" This is a core principle of the Torah's mitzvot: They guide and direct us in ways which refine our character through repetition and practice.

That's advantage number one to being obligated in good deeds. Here's number two:

Imagine a person who doesn't require that external motivation, for example a child so perfect (does one exist?) that he'd voluntarily go to school every morning. Judaism says that even for that person, acting out of obligation is regarded as a greater level. The point is subtle but deeply true:

Whenever we have an obligation, it increases the difficulty in getting the job done. That's because there's a natural resistance to "doing what we're told." That factor alone adds an additional challenge to doing the deed; hence an additional degree of achievement, satisfaction and reward.

My son expressed these ideas in his Bar Mitzvah speech, adding the relevant citations from the Talmud and commentaries. It was a great event and we're extremely proud of him.

Addendum: My son Yaakov was named after the great scholar, Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg, who was the older brother and the spiritual mentor of Rabbi Noah Weinberg, the founder of Aish HaTorah. Our son was born a few days prior to Rav Yaakov Weinberg's passing, but the bris was a few days after. Our son thus became the very first of many children subsequently named after this great rabbi.

May our Yaakov merit to achieve such heights as his namesake.

July 4, 2012

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Visitor Comments: 1

(1) Joyce, July 5, 2012 12:53 PM


Mazal Tov to you and the family. Blessings to Yaakov.

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