Mishpatim: Say What You Mean

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |

Modern man loves his freedom. No one is going to tell him how to act. This is why giving criticism, even when constructive, is so hard and usually ineffective. It is no coincidence that the obligation to rebuke a person committing a wrong is juxtaposed with the prohibition “Do not hate your brother in your heart” (Vayikra 19: 17). While constructive criticism is a sign of love, it often generates friction between people. We like to do what we want, when we want.

Judaism places all kinds of demands upon us, telling us to do all kinds of things even if they may be inconvenient. It should come as no surprise that Jewish thought teaches that “greater is the one who is commanded and does than the one who volunteers and does” (Kiddushin 31a). With our natural tendency to resist orders and to feel good about ourselves when we volunteer, it is the following of G-d’s orders that marks the truly devoted person. Whereas volunteers can take a day or a week off and still be considered giving, no break is allowed for “employees”. The discipline required in the daily performance of mitzvot demands observance even when one is not in the mood to do so.

While mitzvot are meant to bring us joy and impart meaning to our lives, we must perform them even when they do not have the desired effect. Whether something feels spiritually uplifting or not, does not impact upon its obligatory status. Mitzvot are the objective standards by which we are judged.

“If you lend money to my people, to the poor man amongst you, do not press him for repayment” (Shemot 22:24). Judaism demands that those capable lend money to those in need. Rashi explains that the Hebrew word im should be translated as “when”, not “if”. If so, one may ask, why doesn’t the Torah just write ka’asher, when? Why not say what you mean?

A volunteer brings enthusiasm, excitement and tremendous caring to the task at hand. No task is too menial and no challenge is too great. They are deeply committed to their organizations—if not, why volunteer? We all know what happens, however, when one is forced to do something against one’s will. There is no real concern for what one is doing; rather, one just does the minimum needed to fulfill one’s obligations. One will often settle for an acceptable job as opposed to the best job possible.

Jews are obligated to give tzedakah. One can give because one has to, or one can give because one wants to. (Sadly, some do not give at all—but the Torah is not addressing sinners.) While it is true that a million dollars is a million dollars whether given willingly or not, attitude does count. Maimonides rules that it is better to give less but to do so graciously than to give the proper amount grudgingly.

Mitzvot should be done not from a sense of duty,[1] but with excitement and joy, with eagerness to do what is right. We should perform our obligations voluntarily. Im is more powerful than ka’asher. How beautiful when one loves doing what one must do.

Our generation has unfortunately seen a marked drop in volunteerism, the lifeblood of any organization. Whether due to less time, increased pressures or just the focus on me, myself and I, this is a trend that must be reversed. We must learn to say yes when asked to help so that our increased involvement is a matter of “when” and not “if”.

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[1] The Rambam (Introduction to Avot, chapter 6) notes that this is not true regarding chukim, mitzvot for which the rationale is not at all obvious. One may, even should, have a desire to eat non-kosher food, refraining from doing so only because of G-d’s command. It is not only natural, but praiseworthy to have the desire to eat non-kosher food, and refrain from doing so only because G-d so commanded.