The Laws of Reason
It will be that if you hearken to my commandments that I command you today, to love the Lord your God and to serve Him with all your heart and all your soul, then I shall provide rain for your land in its proper time ... Beware for yourselves, lest your heart be seduced and you turn astray and serve the gods of others and prostrate yourselves to them. Then the wrath of God will blaze against you. He will restrain the heavens so there will be no rain ... (Deut. 11:13-21)
This paragraph is the second paragraph of the Shema that we are commanded to recite twice daily. The first paragraph is known as accepting the "yoke of the kingdom of heaven," and this paragraph is known as accepting the "yoke of the commandments." (Talmud, Brochot, 14b)
In saying it we accept upon ourselves the belief that the success of our worldly affairs will depend on the level of our dedication to Divine service. Diligence, hard work and good husbandry will not bring about worldly success in the absence of dedication to serving God. On the other hand, total dedication to God will assure prosperity. The converse is also true. No matter how hard we work or how wisely we plan, if we turn away from God and allow ourselves to be seduced by other ideologies, we insure for ourselves the failure of our efforts and bring financial rule and exile upon ourselves.
Thus all our efforts involving our material welfare are regarded as hishtadlut, meaning "striving" or "effort." It was Adam's curse that he should procure his food by the sweat of his brow; we were also included in that curse, and therefore we must toil. But our toil is not the factor that produces results; any positive benefit that results is Divinely ordained and has no cause and effect relationship with the effort invested. This is the yoke of the commandments contained in the second paragraph of the Shema.
At first glance this yoke seems to be empty of all content. It does not absolve the observant from the requirements of good husbandry. As we know, the rule in Judaism is that we do not wait for miracles. Thus the Jewish farmer referred to in the paragraph has to plow and weed and prune and harvest just like any other farmer. What is more, if he does not, he will not have a good crop no matter on what level his state of observance might be, as there are no miracles. He must make a proper hishtadlut.
Nor does this paragraph impose the obligation of observing the commandments faithfully. We already assumed that on Mount Sinai; indeed that is really the subject of the first paragraph of the Shema, the acceptance of the yoke of the kingdom of heaven. As presumably all obligations have consequences, even without this new yoke of the commandments, there would be reward and punishment -- reward for good deeds, which could just as well come in the form of good crops, and punishment for transgressions, which could just as well appear in the lack of rainfall.
As all obligations have consequences, reward and punishment is assumed for all commandments.
Exactly what is this yoke of the commandments?
To appreciate the revolutionary view of the world it establishes, let us look at the commandment to fear God, one of the six commandments that are obligatory at all times and which is incidentally a dominant theme of this week's Torah portion.
Now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you? Only to fear the Lord your God, to go in all His ways and to love Him ...(Deut. 10:12)
The early commentators asked a famous question that goes something like this: How can there be a commandment to fear God? To address such a commandment to a person who believes in God is unnecessary. To believe in God is automatically to fear Him. On the other hand, to address such a commandment to one who does not believe in God is futile. He does not accept the fact of God's existence at all, and thus can hardly be instructed to fear Him.
The answer: It is one thing to believe in God but quite another to live with the belief in God.
Let us illustrate the difference with the help of a simple illustration.
A devout believer's son contracts a serious disease. He immediately begins to pray and do acts of charity for he is a devout believer and he knows with certainty that he needs God's help to get his son better. However, as we are not allowed to wait for miracles and have an obligation to make a hishtadlut, he begins to look in to doctors. His research leads him to the conclusion that the best doctor to consult for this particular type of problem is Dr. X, who works at Hadassah Hospital. There is another man Dr. Y, who works at Cedars Hospital who is also a good man, but he doesn't have the same degree of experience or the magic touch that Dr. X seems to have.
He calls Dr. X's office to make an appointment, only to discover that he is booked solid for the next two months. Dr. Y is available. That night he meets a friend in the synagogue who tells him that if you slip a couple of hundred dollars to Dr. X's nurse, he will put you at the top of the list and you can probably get an appointment with him the very next day. Our devout believer, knowing that we are not supposed to wait for miracles decides that God would want him to spend the extra money. He duly pays the nurse and takes his son to Dr. X. He is the best doctor and seeing him is the best hishtadlut.
This devout believer is not living with his belief in God. He is transgressing against his commandment to fear God and he is profaning God's name. He should have gone to Dr. Y.
Let us analyze the situation once again. A believer knows that it is not the doctor who heals, it is God. He goes to the doctor only because one is not allowed to wait for miracles; God wants him to make a hishtadlut. But does it make sense to think that God wants him to push some other Jew out of the way who is waiting to see Dr. X in order to make his hishtadlut?
A believer knows that it is not the doctor who heals, it is God.
First of all why should his blood be more precious than any other Jew's, but more importantly, since the entire exercise is only a hishtadlut done to avoid relying on obvious miracles, it doesn't make any real difference anyway which doctor he goes to anyway. You only have to go to the best one because that would be the course suggested by good husbandry and, therefore, constitutes the best hishtadlut, but you do not have to push other people out of the way.
What is more, he is profaning God's Holy Name. The doctor's staff say to themselves, look at how unethically this observant Jew behaves. Is this the type of behavior he learned by studying his sacred Torah? But how could a devout believer fall into such trap? How could he end up doing exactly the opposite of what belief in God demands?
The answer to this question is the content of the yoke of the commandments. The burden of this yoke is to always assume that as the world was created by God and is managed by Him, it must always make sense.
Assume you are an immigrant Jew who arrives in America as over two million of them did between 1800 and the 1930's. You are a Shabbat observer and it is anathema to you to work on the Shabbat. But everyone tells you that unless you work on Shabbat your family will starve. You don't jump to accept this statement. You find a job and simply don't show up on Shabbat. The boss comes over to you on Monday and asks you where you were. Being accustomed to tell the truth, you tell him that you are an observant Jew and your religion forbids you to work on the Shabbat. He tells you that he has enormous respect for you for being so strong in your beliefs, but he isn't in business for charity and he will have to let you go.
After this happens to you a couple of times, you tell God, "Look, I tried to keep Shabbat, but You Yourself wrote in Your Torah, that human life takes precedence over Shabbat observance." You surrender and go to work on Shabbat. Why is this wrong?
God told you to keep Shabbat. It does not make sense that He wants you to violate one of His own commandments?
The answer is that going to work is only hishtadlut, livelihood comes from God, not work. God created the world and runs it and told you to keep Shabbat. Does it make sense to think that He wants you to make a hishtadlut that violates one of His own commandments?
This is how many Jewish immigrants lost their religion. Had they been correct, if working on Shabbat would have been permitted because it preserved life, they would not have lost their faith. You do not lose your faith by doing God's will, even if it demands you to temporarily abandon the commandments. Their downfall was their lack of acceptance of the yoke of the commandments.
But let us look at a more prosaic situation. Look at the observant Jewish entrepreneur who is working at his business 12 to 14 hours a day. He has no time to attend the synagogue regularly on weekdays, he has no time for structured Torah learning, he is never free to spend quality time with his children. Why is he doing all this? Because he must provide for his family. If he spent any less time on his business, he knows that it would fail. Is he correct?
Not according to the Shema and the yoke of the commandments. If he would really have to do all this to make a living, that means God sent him to the world He manages, told him to pray, to learn, to educate his children, told him that these are the only meaningful activities in his life, and yet put him into a type of life where he cannot do any of this because he has no time. Does such a world make sense? Of course not. If so, can working 12 hours a day be a proper hishtadlut for an observant Jew? If he accepts the yoke of the commandments he will leave such a life fully knowing that it could not possibly hurt his level of income. The income comes from God, all he is doing is hishtadlut, and he is obviously doing the wrong hishtadlut.
But bearing the yoke of the commandments has even deeper implications. Every Jew has the benefit of hashgacha pratit, or Divine Providence. As Nachmanides states (Exodus 13:16):
The object of the mighty, well publicized miracles of the Exodus is that they induce one to acknowledge the hidden miracles are the foundation of Torah, because no one has a portion in the Torah of Moses our teacher unless he accepts that whatever he has and whatever happens to him is miraculous and bears no relation to any natural cause, whether it is a matter that affects the public, or whether it is in the province of the individual Jew.
But hashgacha Pratit is only a possible policy toward someone who accepts the yoke of the commandments. Let us imagine that a Jew invests money that he has earned carrying out the Torah's commandments to the best of his abilities in the stock market. Let us further assume that it was a sound investment fully in line with the demands of good husbandry. The stock falls and he loses the money. If he does not accept the yoke of the commandments he will say to himself, "Well, things like that happen. Sometimes the market falls. Maybe I should change my broker." But if he accepts the yoke of the commandments, he will ask himself, "Why is God sending me this message? What is he trying to tell me? Maybe I am putting too much time into thinking about stocks?"
Now let's look at the situation from God's point of view. God wants to send a person a message in order to fine tune the person's life. God cannot send a message to a person who does not accept the yoke of the commandments. When the market falls he thinks the economy is bad. When he gets sick, he thinks it is because he is overweight and not getting enough exercise. When he loses his job, he thinks his boss did him in. There is no communicating with such a person. And if that is the way he is bound to read anything that happens, there is no reason for natural law not to apply to him. That is what he thinks is happening to him anyway, so it may as well just be allowed to happen as he sees it.
THE YOKE OF AN OBSERVANT JEW
But for someone who accepts the yoke of the commandments, the situation is entirely different. Every Jew is commanded to give 10% of his income to charity. Someone asked Rabbi Chaim of Voloz'hin if he can deduct from this sum the money he spent to support the grown up members of his household towards whom he bears no legal obligation of support. Rabbi Chaim answered him that he had the same question after his teacher, the Gaon of Vilna, passed away. As he did not know who to go to for a ruling he decided for himself that such moneys were deductible.
Immediately thereafter Rabbi Chaim noticed that all his business ventures started to fail.
Immediately thereafter he noticed that all his business ventures started to fail. So he sat down and figured out how much money he owed charity on the assumption that he was incorrect and should not have deducted the money, and he began to pay that money back to charity. His business immediately began to recover and was fully recovered when he finished paying the money back.
The same goes for prayer. People pray to God and complain that their prayers are not answered. But that is impossible. God hears and responds to every prayer. If the situation nevertheless doesn't change that is a response. God answered in the negative. The next step is for the person to interpret this message. He should say to himself, "if I was God who wanted to do only good and desired nothing more than to be able to grant every request why would I refuse this one?" Anyone who adopts this approach will be fascinated to see how it totally transforms his entire existence.
It is not a coincidence that the rabbis derive the obligation to pray from this paragraph of the Shema which contains the yoke of the commandments.
It will be that if you hearken to My commandments that I command you today, to love the Lord your God, and to serve Him with all your heart and all your soul. What is the service of the heart? Prayer! (Mechilta 23,25)(Maimonedes, Laws of Prayer, 1,1)
The universe was designed by God as a sensitive communications device that can transmit messages between man and God instantaneously. Man prays, God responds, man responds to God's response, God responds to man's response to His response, and so on. But like any other device, it only works if you plug it in and turn it on. Accepting the yoke of the commandments is the switch.