Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Inspired vs the Committed!

I often listen to Israeli radio and in particular Kol Chai...I noticed this week, even later in the week, the parsha talk was more focused on last week's reading of Yitro rather than on this weeks reading of Mishpatim. It seems hard to let go of the readings of the past few weeks. And why should I be surprised. Last week we read the inspiring story of the revelation at Sinai, the wedding between Israel and Hashem in the wilderness. This week we read in detail of civil laws and laws of tort, hardly that which engenders excitement.

Yet each day I go to a daf hayomi at 5:00AM along with other men and we study now Bava Kama dealing with those very laws of torts found in the parsha of Mishpatim. And we are but a few of the tens of thousands around the world who each day, without fail and often at great personal expense, sit and study the seemingly endless and ,what feels, at times, tedious pages of detailed discussion of the 'ox', the 'pit', and the 'fire'. The world of learning is in fact built on the study of the relatively unexciting. In the Yeshivot and kollelim they do not typically spend much time on medrash and story instead focusing on the laws and their application.

The dichotomy here begs reflection. What is the core of our religious experience...Is it the peak encounters reflected in the story of the giving of the Torah or perhaps the crossing of the Yam Suf? Is our Judaism founded on the weekly d'var Tora on the portion, an inspiring thought with a wonderful moral teaching and perhaps an added Hassidic story for color?

Or is the Jewish experience rooted in the daily grind of learning daf after daf?... not the peak experiences that make us say wow..but the centered steady resolve and commitment to a discipline that provide its gift only in increments and only over time?

What is the core Yitro or Mishpatim.... Is our religious experience supposed to be founded on inspiration or commitment?

While it would be easy and true to say that both are vital my sense is that commitment trumps inspiration. It has often been pointed out that their was a marked difference between the reactions of the Jews of Spain and the Jews of Germany and France to their respective persecutions in the middle ages. The Jews of Spain often did not find it within themselves to die al kiddush hasmem. Rather they chose to publicly embrace Christianity while keeping their faith in private.

In contrast the Jews of Germany and France in the face of the Crusades, on the whole, made the ultimate sacrifice for their faith without any hesitation, at times even killing their own children rather than allowing them to be taken and converted.

Many have suggested that the reason the Jews of Germany and France were more able to make the ultimate sacrifice in accord with our tradition's imperative was because their expression of Judaism had always been based more on discipline than on inspiration. Spain was the land of Jewish song and poetry.It had its great Jewish philosophers and artisans. Germany was the land of text study and devotion. Spanish Jewry lived its experience with more spontaneity and emotional expression. It flowed with the creativity of inspiration. German Jews lived their Jewish experience in the midst of poverty and social isolation. Their focus was more on survival than on creativity.

If the German Jewry of the period was more boring than there brothers and sisters in Spain it was also more committed. And that commitment was what was necessary to face the ultimate challenge each society confronted in its time.

The Holy Temple was built on Mt Moriah not Mt Sinai. Mt Sinai represents inspiration, a peak experience of intimacy with the Divine. Har Hamoria represents sacrifice and commitment, the place Avraham took Yitzchak for an offering to Hashem. Its the latter that is deemed more significant and hence Har Hamoria, not Har Sinai is the site of the Beit Hamikdash.

Mishpatim or Yitro, it seems that Mishpatim is the necessary and Yitro the complimentary. The essence of the Jew is to be an ovaid Hashem, a servant of the Divine...and that service is rooted in the day to day observance of mitzvot and the study of Torah.

There is no room here for the One Minute Jew...as the author some years ago wrote of the One Minute Mother, One Minute Manager, etc...No matter how profound and how authentic my inspired moment it cannot replace the dedicated, if plodding, service of a lifetime...
So here is to you my fellow daf learners.. Even if it does not make for good radio...it is Mishpatim and Bava Kama that sustain us....Now if only I had a dvar Torah for this Shabbat....

Shabbat Shalom


  1. Thanks very much for this blog. It inspired me to examine my commitment. Seriously.

    But I was also wondering why it has to be one or the other. Your analysis of the past seems reasonable, but for the present,

    I’m strongly convinced that we have to have both, operating equally strongly. In fogged up, confusing times like we live in, we need inspiration, a lot of it, to make sure we don’t get to the point where a choice, like in the past, is necessary. Unfortunately, it seems that all too often one or the other is operational today, with very little opportunity for a good mix.

    Either there are the “inspirational” types, who are called by all kinds of names; or the “committed” types who have consigned the Torah, all too often, to the left side of the brain.

    There is a story, apocryphal or whatever the correct word is, but I heard it’s also true, about a bochur in yeshiva who stood up one day in the beis medrash and said, “Where’s Hashem in all this?!!”

    The Rosh Yeshiva said, “Sit down! This isn’t a baal tshuva yeshiva!”

    It is said that they have people working with that guy now, hoping to get him back.

    To one side, we can say, “Where is the commitment?”

    To another side, we can say, “Where is the inspiration?”

    With all the Torah learning going on, i.e. daf yomi, the opportunities for learning are probably unparalled in history.

    And the opportunities for inspiration, in these mamash pre-Mashiach times, are also unparalled. I heard, for instance, a few years ago, that big people say there are sha’arim of tefila opened at this point in history that have never been opened before.

    But each side, including each side of ourselves, within our individual selves, is scared of the other.

    Let’s do what we can to bring them together, to makes ourselves, b’klal u b’prat, whole and coherent.

    Thanks for the blog,

  2. I posted a comment just now, and since my wife has a google account, which was required for posting, I used hers. But it was me, Yaakov, who wrote it, even though it says "Varda wrote."

  3. Yaakov...thanks for your thoughtful comments...and insights..And all that you say feels true to me as well..Yisrael

  4. What Yaakov writes is true. the combination is important, and sometimes one can't subsists without the other. However, nowadays, there are too many people who look for insperation without the commitment, too many 'Neviey Sheker', liers who draw to them masses of physically and spiritually weak people, promising them endless insperation. So, as I understood from what Yisrael wrote, in crucial times, like this, we should always remember the commitment, and go back to the ordinary "boring" rules in order to keep away from the lies and the illusions.