How to Win Every Time
Based on Parasha U’Pishra by Rabbi Moshe Grylak
by Braha Bender
During his studies at UCLA, then-secular Lawrence Kelemen visited a campus bookstore to purchase a copy of the Torah in the original Hebrew. A few hours later, he was back at the bookstore asking for an exchange. He figured that the copy he had purchased must have been a misprint because there were so many basic grammatical mistakes. Even the first sentence was written wrong.
Little did he know that Rashi agreed.
The future Rabbi Kelemen later learned that those grammatical mistakes were intentional. The Torah was never meant to be literally alone, but as a code book storing a far greater wealth of information than the relatively short literal text allows.
When rabbis and teachers say that nothing in the Torah is written by accident, this is what they are talking about. There is not a single superfluous letter. The Torah is meant to be read the way James Bond read Morse Code – very carefully.
That’s why, when the Torah lets slip that the two original stone tablets of the ten commandments were structured a little oddly, we don’t just let that pass us by. That small crack in the ground could be the fault line leading to a cave of diamonds.
Uncovering the Riddle
Actually, just to add a little pizzazz to your visuals here, the stone that the stone tablets were carved out of didn’t happen to be diamond. It was a translucent, royal blue, sparkling sapphire. Just thought I’d throw that out there. (Sorry, Charlton Heston. Once again, one for the home team, zero for Hollywood.)
Anyway, what was written on them was what was really eye-catching. The right-hand tablet was engraved with what our sages categorized as mitzvos bein adam l’makom, commandments between man and the Creator. These included such obviously spiritual commandments as, “Anochi Hashem Elokecha, I am Hashem, your G-d…,” “You shall not recognize the gods of others in My presence…,” and “You shall not take the name of Hashem, your G-d, in vain…” (Shmos-Exodus 20:2-7)
The left-hand tablet was engraved with mitzvos bein adam l’chavero, commandments between man and his peers, such as, “You shall not kill; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal…” (ibid 13) To put this in modern terminology, you might have called the right-hand mitzvos Jews’ esoteric religious obligations and the left-hand mitzvos their civil obligations.
But the plot thickens. Because the fifth commandment on the right-hand tablet of mitzvos between man and the Creator was, “You shall honor your father and mother...” (ibid 12) Now, I don’t know about you, but that sure sounds like a civil obligation to me. Where is the eternal, incorporeal, esoteric stuff in that picture?
Furthermore, on the left-hand, man-and-peers tablet, the tenth commandment was carved, “You shall not covet your fellow’s house. You shall not covet your fellow’s wife, his manservant, his maidservant, his ox, his donkey, nor anything that belongs to your fellow.” (ibid 14) In this commandment, the Torah told humanity not how to behave vis-à-vis other people, but how to feel in their hearts. Is how we feel in our hearts a civil duty?
The riddle teases and glimmers. On the right, all these are esoterically spiritual, and yet… And on the left, all this is practical civilian law-making, except… What are we to make of the seeming contradiction?
One of my favorite anecdotes comes from Rebbetzin Tzipora Heller. She describes a conversation overheard between an ultra-orthodox Jew in a big black hat and a secular Israeli soldier covered head-to-toe in regulation olive green IDF uniform.
The rabbi type was asking the soldier why he didn’t observe the mitzvos of the Torah. The soldier pointed to his chest and replied, “Rabbi, I’m religious in my heart.”
But in typical Israeli fashion the soldier wasn’t going to let the matter lie there. He turned to the religious man accusingly, “But you, you religious people, you don’t join the army! Lama? Why is that?”
“Ah,” replied the rabbi sagely, “Chayal, you don’t understand. I’m Golani in my heart!”
The Golani Brigade is the Israeli army’s most celebrated combat unit. The Jewish People are the Almighty’s most celebrated combat unit. The rabbi and the soldier were coming from different philosophical stances, but the premise of their conversation was a shared one. On the whole, we Jews don’t really believe in being “righteous in our hearts”.
In fact, Judaism doesn’t offer any sort of pat confessional process whereby a clergy figure symbolically waves away our wrongdoing. Torah explains that mistakes require a teshuva process, a process of returning our relationships and ourselves to the undamaged state they were in before our poor choices. This process often demands hands-on reparations. Similarly, an authentic Jewish conversion process does not take place on paper. It involves a great deal of permanent, concrete change. We’re really a very practical people.
G-d is just as practical as we are. When the Almighty commanded us to be faithful to Him, to see through the illusion of idolatry, and to treat even the utterance of His name with sanctity, He was not playing a spiritual trip. He wasn’t taking us for a ride and giving us some interesting philosophical concepts to chew on.
The fifth commandment on the tablet representing the relationship between man and G-d was to honor our fathers and mothers because when you really believe in G-d, that changes you. That changes your outlook on life. That changes your behavior. That changes your relationships.
In truth, the same spiritual limb that is flexed when we relate with sanctity to our Creator is flexed when we relate with respect to our parents. Someone who has a genuine, deeply integrated relationship with the intangible, esoteric truth of G-d’s existence cannot and will not treat his parents like garbage.
Conversely, the final commandment on the tablet representing the relationship between man and his peers related exclusively to our emotions. How can the Torah demand that we control our emotions? By demanding that we control our behavior.
Avoiding all possible implications of murder, adultery, and theft takes a great deal of attention. Ever killed someone’s self-esteem? Betrayed a friend? Stolen someone’s time or sleep? It gets a lot trickier than the sitcom-style broad strokes that these values are generally painted in.
When a person invests that kind of attention in their relationships with other people, their emotions and thought patterns change as well. Consistent sensitive behavior breeds sensitivity. Consistent caring behavior breeds a caring personality. Sensitive, caring people don’t wish they could have their neighbor’s home or wife. Instead, they care about their neighbor and want the best for him. They share in his joy and would never want it taken away. And that is what Torah considers basic good citizenship.
You see, for Torah-observant Jews, there is no real difference between so-called “religious” and “civil” obligations. Our relationship with G-d is not divorced from our civilian life. Rather, our relationship with G-d is expressed in every beautiful facet of our behavior, from the moment we wake up in the morning to the moment we hit the sack with a satisfied smile at night.
The distinction made by our sages between mitzvos bein adam l’makom and mitzvos bein adam l’chavero serves to help us refine the focus of our efforts. It doesn’t divide between these two realms, though. They are linked in a holistic, fluid cycle of mutual support, nurturance, and growth. Developing authentic strength in the one leads inevitably to greater strength in the other. The answer to the riddle is, “Yes, everything, both!” Go ahead, laugh out loud. Whatever way you slice it, you win.
Life is a road trip and mitzvos are the car. Life is a rappelling adventure and mitzvos are the rock face. Life is a luscious, watery, deep-diving thrill and mitzvos are the gorgeous, endless sea. Basically, you can’t lose. Whatever way you swing it, whatever mitzvah you decide to climb into and drive, you’ll be going somewhere amazing.
See you there.