Knowing When to Defy Reality

Deep in our hearts is a constant yearning for spiritual growth. Often all it takes is a reminder, a powerful lecture, even an overheard inspiring comment, and this yearning comes bubbling to the surface.

We often conclude that as much as we would like to, we really can’t do it. Our schedules and other responsibilities just don’t allow for additional time for learning or acts of chessed.

This week we lein the second parashah of Krias Shema: “And you shall set these words of Mine upon your heart and upon your soul, and bind them for a sign upon your hand, and they shall be for totafos between your eyes.”

Rashi connects this passuk with the previous one, which says that if they fail to heed the mitzvos, Am Yisrael will be banished from Eretz Yisrael.

“Even after you have been exiled, make yourselves distinctive with My commandments; put on tefillin and make mezuzos, so that these will not be new to you when you return.”

Many have wondered about these words of Rashi. Unlike Shemittah and terumos, the mitzvos of tefillin and mezuzah are equally obligatory inside and outside Eretz Yisrael.

In Gur Aryeh, the Maharal explains:

Mezuzah becomes an obligation when one has a house or a room of his own. During our torment-filled wandering in galus, living with gentiles in houses that belong to them, we would be exempt from the mitzvah of mezuzah. Similarly, we are forbidden to be distracted while wearing tefillin. In exile our hearts are filled with worries and troubles, so technically we would be exempt from donning tefillin as well.

However, in order that it should not be “new” for us when we return from galus, we are instructed to obtain housing of our own so we can place mezuzos on our doorposts.

Similarly, we are instructed to expel the worries from our minds and hearts so that we can put on tefillin without distraction.

From these words of the Maharal it is evident that even in the most difficult circumstances, even when it may seem that one would be exempt from certain spiritual undertakings, we find that it is necessary to rise above our challenges and reach levels that we thought impossible.

But there are also times when we must recognize limitations, when the nisyonos facing us call for a reality check and the realization that under the circumstances we will not be able to learn as much Torah as we would want to or spend as much time doing chessed.

How can we know when to defy what seem to be the realities of life and push ourselves harder, and when we need to bow to the inevitable?

Perhaps the answer lies toward the end of our parashah: “Love Hashem, your G-d, to go in all His ways, and to cleave to Him.”

How it is possible, Rashi asks, to “cleave” to Hashem? Is it not said of Him, “He is a consuming fire”? Rashi answers by quoting a Sifri explaining that the passuk means to tell us to “cleave to students [of Torah] and the chachamim, and I will consider it on your behalf as if you cleaved to Him.”

The Gemara (Kesubos 111b) asks the same question: “Is it possible to cling to the Shechinah?”

The Gemara gives a similar response. “Rather, whoever marries his daughter to a talmid chacham, or who engages in business on behalf of talmidei chachamim, or who benefits talmidei chachamim with his possessions, the Torah reckons it as if he were clinging to the Shechinah.”

Sefarim ask why, instead of instructing us to cleave to the talmidim and chachamim who learn Torah, Chazal did not suggest that the passuk means that one should learn Torah himself.

One explanation is given by Harav Tzadok, the Rebbe of Lublin, zy”a. He teaches us that while it is certain that through learning Torah with the proper intentions one can reach levels of deveikus, still, one achieves only his own level of clinging to Hashem. By clinging to chachamim who have already reached very high levels of deveikus, it becomes possible to connect with their far loftier levels of closeness to Hashem.

Whether we choose a Rosh Yeshivah or a Chassidic Rebbe, a Rav, a Rosh Kollel, or any other talmid chacham, attending to, observing, and learning from someone greater than us is a crucial component of avodas Hashem.

It also means that we have a spiritual mentor we can consult and receive guidance from about our particular circumstances in avodas Hashem.