Discussions regarding the level of observance or lack thereof of other Jews has brought us into mostly uncharted territory. There is an overwhelming emphasis deriving from the entire Jewish spectrum to specifically focus on “levels of observance.” Some say certain segments “pick and choose” their mitzvos, others claim that Israel has a great percentage of “symbolic observance” while the “black-hatters” choose chumros (halachic stringencies) in their observance. The secular society also put in their two cents’ worth on the observance idea as they continuously highlight its many factors. Jews observe the Sabbath, Jews eat kosher and Jews tend to dress modestly. Jews are, well, “doers.”
But why are Jews “doing” it?
In the introduction to Mesillas Yesharim, the Ramchal writes that the reason for man’s existence in this world is to arrive to kirvus Hashem. “V’ani kirvas Elokim li tov — For closeness to G-d is my good.” This world, the “corridor,” is merely designated to achieve this sublime pleasure. And how do we obtain it? By performing the great mitzvos Hashem commanded us to do. “He should endeavor to attach to Hashem, blessed be He, in this world, through the power of actions that bring about this result of making a person close to Him” (Mesillas Yesharim).
A mitzvah — or let’s use the trendy word “Orthodoxy” or “observance” (whatever that’s supposed to mean) — is not an isolated act performed by happenstance. Every single mitzvah requires a bechirah as its precursor. There needs to be a choice, a willingness to do the mitzvah for Hashem, in order for it to be rendered as one. Moreover, if one didn’t end up completing the mitzvah but chose and wanted to perform it, Hashem considers it as done (Hakdamah, Chovos Halevavos).
So, it is not about what we do, but how much heart accompanies the act. “Love Hashem your G-d with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. These words which I command you this day must be on your heart (Devarim 6:5–6).
We are not Americans, males, husbands, dads, and, yes, also at the end of the day, observant Jews. We jog through the routine checklist of requirements. Learning? Yes. Smartphone? No. Black hat? Yes. Kids in good yeshivos? So, what else is there to be Jewish? We have done it all!
“Whoever does not know his Master will not serve him in his heart. Who will serve Him? Only one who knows His power” (Chovos Halevavos, Shaar Yichud Hamaaseh , perek 4).
We are Yidden! And because we are the prized nation of the world, the cherished children of the Master of the Universe, our focal goal in life is to become close with our Father. In order to transmit our feelings of love and gratitude, we “therefore” perform the Torah commandments. It is an equation; if one part is missing there are no results.
There is a disproportionate amount of talk about technical aspects of our “Judaic Practices.” Tackling tznius, Shabbos meticulousness, lashon hara and, of course, the evil internet. But what happens to a skyscraper that has no foundation? An inevitable collapse. It is very easy to address the topics at the fringes, while completely neglecting the heart, but this formula cannot get us anywhere.
The Torah teaches us that the heart and soul are the sole components of genuine avodas Hashem. “Rather, it is a thing very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you can do” (Devarim 30:11–14). We need to do the legwork. Get the heart straight, the goal set, and the actions are guaranteed to follow. Take out a Chovos Halevavos. Establish your emunah. Study Hashem’s kindness, His wisdom and His wonders. Learn to love Him and you’ll “want” to serve Him.
It is only a fool who would exchange his gold for a pair of shoes. So will Am Yisrael never exchange the glory of kirvus Hashem with a meaningless robotic dance of technical mitzvah observance. Once we banish that, maybe they’ll call us “happy Torah Jews” instead of “observant Jews.”
Rabbi D. Waxman