This meeting typifies the period of ikvevse deMeshichah. Fired by holiness, a pioneering group have had the boldness to cross the lines and enter the homes of people whom they were sure bore them animosity, but who instead turn out to be their friends. They, in turn, are as surprised by our visits in order to learn Torah with them, as we are by the warm and open reception which they extend to us.
We must be aware of the fundamental difference between Judaism and lehavdil, all other religions. Judaism is a religion of action. This was the message received by the king of the Khazars in his dream and it was the reason for his rejecting the other religions, after investigating them. Whereas they offered him ideas and philosophies, he knew that what he lacked was practical observance.
`And Yisro heard...' Chazal ask, `What did he hear about that made him come?' Yisro was a very learned man, who was familiar with all of the world's religions — he was able to testify, `Now I know that Hashem is greater than the other gods.' He was a scholarly sage, whom, decades earlier, sat on Pharaoh's panel of advisors when they advised the Egyptian king to `throw every male to be born into the river.' Yisro was not afraid of going against public opinion — `they excluded him from society,' (Rashi Shemos 2:16). Yet despite his wisdom and his experiences, he didn't come to bnei Yisroel earlier. He must have heard a great deal from Moshe Rabbenu about faith in Hashem, yet he remained as he was. Only `Now do I know' — Now that he had decided to move from passive listening to active observance. That was when he packed his bags and came.
It takes strength to listen. But to speak, to convey a message, needs wisdom. One has to know how to do it. `These are the words which Moshe spoke to bnei Yisroel,' (Devorim 1:1). Only these?! Moshe Rabbenu said the entire Torah!
The Chasam Sofer explains that there was a fixed order for teaching the laws of all the mitzvos, (First Moshe taught Aharon, Eruvin 54.) However, the reproof which Moshe delivered before he died was special. The speaker's identity is very important. Words of reproof cannot be delivered through an emissary. They must emanate from the mouth of the person with whom they originate. One has to know how to speak, what to say and when to say it. This is hinted at in Rashi at the beginning of sefer Devorim.
With a novice, who will not derive much benefit from listening to Shenayim Ochazin, one can learn parshas Lech Lecha — this parsha in particular. He should know who the first person to ascend to Eretz Yisroel was. He should learn about Avraham Ovinu. `Learning is of great importance for it leads a person to practical deeds.'
The Right Moment
At present we are discussing how to thread the needle which will form the stitch that aligns practice with awareness, and unites them. At this stage there are two important things to bear in mind. First, `do not awaken and arouse the love until there is a desire,' (Shir Hashirim 2:7). In other words, `Just as it is a mitzva to say something which will be heeded, it is also a mitzva to refrain from saying something which will not be heeded.' There is a certain balance. If a fruit is picked before it has ripened, it's taste will set the teeth on edge and it will go to waste. Equally though, if we let opportunities pass, the fruit becomes overripe and falls off the tree to the ground, becoming spoiled. These hairsbreadth opportunities are universal. The process is as delicate as a newborn babe.
One should keep a watchful eye upon the entire family. What progress has the husband made? The wife? The children? Learn to see the overall picture. Begin with those mitzvos and practices which they will be able to do. A baby is first fed milk, then pureed foods. He is not given solids until he has teeth. However, if we wait until he is capable of eating the same foods as adults, we will be unable to train him successfully. He must begin by eating baby food.
Rav Chaim Volozhiner writes with regard to fulfilling mitzvos, that all that is really within a person's power is to want to do the mitzva. In simple terms this means that whether or not one is successful in carrying out one's wishes depends upon Hakodosh Boruch Hu. If a person desires to do a mitzva, that desire creates a heavenly force with which Hashem bestows upon him the assistance necessary for him to perform the mitzva. This leads him to receive the ability to perform another, greater and more elevated mitzva. There are two parts to every mitzva: the desire to perform it and actual deed itself. Chazal learn from this that, `If circumstances prevented him from doing a mitzva, the Torah [still] considers him as having done a mitzva.'
Where is the Beginning of a Circle?
Let us take a look at the things which hold people back from keeping mitzvos. There are those who are interested in hearing and who listen but who actually fulfill zero. The Alter of Kelm wrote that a generation that is lax in its observance believes that the mitzvos have been given in order to embitter their lives in this world. He was not speaking about intentional heretics but about ordinary people who are lax in fulfilling the mitzvos. Torah and mitzvos in reality bring joy to the heart but they do impose a responsibility. The first thing that a person needs is to want to do the mitzva. He has to know that it is for his own benefit. To begin observing mitzvos is difficult, especially from the social angle. If he knows that this is good for him, he will stand up to the pressures, as he would for anything else that was important to him. And how is he to get the initial burst of strength to get him started? Only by starting to keep something.
At the end of his letter the Alter writes, `It is difficult for me to explain the pleasantness of a mitzva in this world.' The Torah is built up from both Na'aseh and Nishma. Practical observance which lacks the commitment to learn and progress spiritually is melumada, fulfillment by rote. In the eyes of the mashgiach, Rav Yechezkel Levenstein zt'l, this was the most shameful term that could be applied to someone. No difference can be perceived in a person's outward actions but his heart is very distant from Hashem.
At the other extreme, Nishma without Na'aseh misses the entire purpose of Judaism: servitude. `They are My servants' — this means practical observance. The Sefas Emes writes that in carrying out a mitzva, the aspect of simply hearkening to Hashem's command is of greater significance than whatever the reason is for that particular mitzva. Practical fulfillment is what distinguishes Jewish ideology from Jewish living. Our service of Hashem has to have this cyclical aspect to it. Inspiration and practice go hand in hand, each fueling the other and pushing it further. Up to the point where a person realizes that his purpose in this world is practical observance. Then the inner struggle begins. There are clear obligations and it is difficult. This is where the battle starts.
Fulfilling mitzvos has to begin gradually. Some of each mitzva's inner light must be uncovered, that will provide the inspiration to progress to the next mitzva. `Learning is of great importance for it leads a person to practical deeds.' Begin by learning something that doesn't impose definite obligations, something non- threatening, such as Shenayim Ochazin or Lech Lecha. He will then be worthy of reward for his mitzva, without which he will never receive the divine assistance he needs to overcome the yetzer hora. He needs siyata deShmaya, and he will get this by learning. This will give him the power to move forward.
In Pirkei Avos we learn that if a person's wisdom precedes his fear of sin, it will not have permanence whereas if his fear of sin precedes his wisdom, then the latter will have permanence. Rabbenu Yonah asks how deeds can ever precede wisdom, since one cannot fulfill what one has not yet learned. He answers that if a person undertakes to fulfill whatever the chachomim tell him, he immediately receives reward as though he had already fulfilled everything. At some stage, he must reach an inner turning point whereby he is ready to `Accept My Rule!'.
Treading the Fine Line
Begin with easy mitzvos, kashrus for example. A majority of the population in Israel want to observe kashrus. People usually imagine that they are already keeping kosher. A first step might be to ask those moving closer to observance to pay attention to the hechsher on what they buy. Offer to kasher their utensils. Then go on to another mitzva.
Remember that people have different sensitivities. Take the mitzva of tefillin for example. A man will remember that he has a set of tefillin at home from his bar mitzva. He wants to start laying tefillin. He should be told, `You don't have to go to beit haknesses and stand there wearing tefillin for a whole hour. You can do the mitzva at home. It doesn't have to be in the morning. It can be during the afternoon just as well.'
In a number of places in his commentary to Mishlei, the Gaon writes that one of the yetzer hora's ploys is to persuade a person to leap to high spiritual levels in a short space of time, telling him, `In two or three weeks, you can become a prophet!' The yetzer is aware that the person will be unable to maintain himself on that level that he will fall and his resolve will be broken. `Turn away from evil,' must be immediate but it must be taken slowly. It takes nine months before a child is ready to be born. A seed that has been planted remains in darkness inside the earth for a long time before it sprouts and pushes its way outside.
The battle against the yetzer hora must be conducted with cunning. Even wearing a kippah can be risky. If you tell him to go out in the street on the first day with a kippah, you'll lose him. It is easier to keep Shabbos and kashrus than it is to go outside with a kippah. If a woman wants to begin covering her hair, she should start off by doing so at home. Only when they have built up enough boldness and pride should they go outside like that.
The process of moving from Nishma to Na'aseh must be by way of `Taste and see that Hashem is good,' (Tehillim 34:9) and `For they are life to those who find them' (Mishlei 4:22). Allow his awareness to rise to the level of understanding what he is doing, as well as to the level of the true realization that one mitzva draws with it another. Don't pressure. It is a very fine line to tread but this is the sum of all of a person's avoda. We must invest this holy work with much tefillah, asking Hashem to prevent us from stumbling and helping us ensure that our efforts are not in vain.