Dear Hebrew Academy Community:
One of the charges often leveled against normative Halakhic Judaism, particularly by young people who are seeking to define their own religious identities, is that Judaism substitutes legalistic conformity for personal religious experience, that it leaves no room for individual religious expression. Of course, Halakha does require that each of us, with minor variations, observe the same Mitzvot in more or less the same way and does not encourage the innovation of new forms of religious life. Where, therefore, is there room for individuality and personal expression within a life of complete adherence to the Halakhic system?
This week’s Parasha introduces the Covenant of Nitzavim with: “You are all standing today before the Lord your God: Your leaders, your tribes, your elders and your officials, Kol Ish Yisrael—Every individual Jew.” Rav Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, the Netziv, explains that while the Covenant was made with and in the presence of all of Israel, the seemingly superfluous enumeration of the various groups of which the nation is composed, and particularly the concluding phrase, “Kol Ish Yisrael—Every individual Jew" demonstrates that the Covenant contains specific clauses, specific expectations from each of us as individuals.
If our system allows for, even encourages, religious individualism based on one’s role, temperament, or ability, how is this to be accomplished? Rambam’s interpretation of the well known last Mishna in Makkot supplies one excellent answer. Rav Chanina ben Akashya said, “In His desire to give Israel many opportunities to earn merits Hashem gave them many, many Mitzvot to observe.” Rambam’s strikingly original commentary is that while it is optimal to perform every Mitzvah with love and without ulterior motive, we are rarely able to do this. Too often we observe begrudgingly, or routinely without authentic understanding or appreciation, or only with hope of divine reward. God, therefore, graciously gave us not only many Mitzvot, but also a broad range of Mitzvot with the expectation that each of us will be able to personalize and enhance our religious life by finding a set of Mitzvot which correspond to our own emotional, intellectual, spiritual needs and, without neglecting the required commitment to all 613 Mitzvot, to fulfill our chosen Mitzvot “Al Matkonotan U’Shlaimutan—completely and properly,” as they were intended to be observed.
As we stand before Hashem this Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur may we all have the privilege of not only affirming our commitment to all of Torah and Mitzvot but also to resolve to find that special set of Mitzvot which we can observe with relish and love and help us become better people and Jews.
Shabbat Shalom and K’tivah Va’Chatimah Tovah,
Dr. Kalman Stein
Interim Head of School