Performing Mitzvot Naturally

  • Harav Yehuda Amital

Sicha for Shabbat from the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion



Performing Mitzvot Naturally

Summarized by Matan Glidai

Translated by Kaeren Fish

When describing the components of the mishkan, our parasha notes that the planks should be made of acacia wood, standing upright (Shemot 26:15). From here, the gemara derives an interesting rule:

"Chizkiya said in the name of R. Yirmiya, quoting Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai: A person does not properly fulfill any of the mitzvot unless he does so in the way in which they grow, as it is written, 'acacia planks, upright.'" (Sukka 45b)


The gemara is teaching us here that the lulav, etrog, etc., should be held in the way in which they grow (not upside down or sideways), but the significance of this concept extends to all of our service of God in general. The mitzvot should be performed in a natural way. Some people think that someone who is truly God-fearing should be nervous and fearful all the time, lest he neglect to fulfill some precept properly, and that natural behavior does not reflect fear of heaven. This gemara teaches us that one should fulfill the mitzvot in a natural manner; the idea is not always to seek a way to escape from the sense of naturalness and to act in an artificial way.

Rabbi Elimelekh of Lizhensk used to say that after he died, when he would ascend to heaven, if he was asked why he was not a Rambam or a Ba'al Shem Tov, he would have a good answer: he was born just himself, and lacked the conditions to become a Rambam or a Ba'al Shem Tov. But there was one question for which he would have no answer: why he was not an Elimelekh? A person must be what he is; he should not try to be someone else.

Obviously, one cannot deviate even slightly from the 613 mitzvot and from the Shulchan Arukh, but concerning anything beyond that, a person need not imitate others or force himself to do things with which he cannot identify; he should be himself. The Gemara (Berakhot 35b) teaches that many people tried to imitate Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, but were not successful. The Chassidic masters comment on this gemara that they were unsuccessful BECAUSE they imitated him, rather than being what they were.

In previous times, people used to recount stories about the Chazon Ish, the Brisker Rav and others, who were particularly stringent in certain matters. Today, any stringency that these tzaddikim took upon themselves is imitated by everyone. The gemara (Chullin 105) quotes Mar Ukva, who called himself "vinegar, the son of wine" concerning the fact that his father would not eat meat and cheese on the same day, while he himself would wait only from one meal until the next. Why was he not as strict in this regard as his father was? Because his father was his father, and he was himself, and not everything that was suitable for his father was suitable for him.

The same gemara continues and teaches that the amora Shemuel was also "vinegar, the son of wine" concerning his father's custom of checking on his fields twice every day, while he himself would go walking through the fields only once a day. Is the intention of the gemara here to teach us something about agriculture? Obviously not – it is simply demonstrating that not everything that a father does should necessarily be done by his son.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk used to teach that alien thoughts enter a person's mind during his prayers because he is trying to attain levels of prayer that are beyond him. Proof of this is the fact that when a person speaks to his friend, strange thoughts never interrupt his conversation – because his speech is natural, and therefore he is able to concentrate properly. When a person addresses his Creator and tries to reach levels that are more elevated than his own, then his speech is no longer natural and cannot be fluent, and therefore strange thoughts come and disturb him.

"And you shall eat before the Lord your God at the place which He will choose to make His name rest there, the tithes of your corn, of your wine and of your oil, and the firstborn of your cattle and sheep, that you may learn to fear the Lord your God always" (Devarim 14:23). It is not always books of mussar and philosophy that are needed in order to help one attain fear of God; the natural joy that comes from "eating before God" can also bring one to fear Him. Of course, one must strive to fulfill every mitzva in all its details, and must study Halakha seriously in order to know these details; but, in fulfilling these mitzvot, it is preferable to act out of genuine, natural joy, rather than out of perpetual fear that some or other mitzva has not been fulfilled precisely enough.

"And you shall be holy PEOPLE unto Me" (Shemot 22:30). The Kotzker Rebbe had a famous comment on this verse: God has plenty of angels; what He wants of us is not to be angels, but rather to be people. We must not lose our human senses. Some people try to ignore feelings of sorrow; even when faced, for example, with the loss of a dear one, they try to find some benefit in their loss and to say that Am Yisrael has somehow gained something, etc. Such behavior is simply not legitimate. The Torah does not require that we suppress our natural feelings, but rather that we be "holy PEOPLE."


(This sicha was delivered at seuda shelishit, Shabbat Parashat Teruma 5757 [1997].)


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