Nitzavim: It's Great to Be a Jew!

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |

One often hears the lament that it is difficult to be a Jew. There are seemingly endless demands from morning to evening, 365 days a year, year in and year out. While being a good Jew requires constant effort—as does everything worthwhile—in reality, it is challenging, rather than difficult. The Torah constantly challenges us to be better human beings, to expand our intellectual horizons, and to increase our empathy for others and our awareness of G-d. Unfortunately, many are not up to the challenge. 

People often think that observing the Torah means giving up personal freedom. At first glance—and in our superficial world, many people do not get beyond that first glance—that appears to be correct. The rabbis, however, saw things somewhat differently. In an astonishing statement (Avot 6:2), they remark that only a person engaged in the study and observance of Torah is truly free. Torah, with all its "limitations and restrictions", is the mark of a free man! 

Without limitations, we have anarchy. It is only by embracing certain restrictions on our freedom that we can be truly free. Rav Soloveitchik explains that it appears that the rabbis had a further insight into the human condition. Everybody has problems in life. For some it is financial pressures, for others it is family issues, and for all of us, it is the stress of the daily grind. We often feel, continually confronted by problems, that we really are not free. The more serious the problem, the greater the pressure brought to bear on us. But really serious troubles have a way of making minor annoyances appear trivial. When one is confronted with open-heart surgery, the loss of a few thousand dollars in the stock market does not seem as important. To a person for whom Torah is the focus of life, many of life's pressures seem insignificant by comparison. By living according to a Divine code, we are freed from the constraints placed on us by human beings. 

Making Torah the central focus of our life is not so difficult. The Torah tells us in this week's parsha that "this commandment that I am prescribing to you today is not too mysterious or remote from you. It is not in heaven so that you should say, who shall go up to heaven to bring it to us? It is not over the sea, so that you should say, who will cross the sea, that we will be able to hear it and keep it? It is something that is very close to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so that you can keep it" (Devarim 30:11-14).

Every moment is another opportunity to implement the teachings of the Torah. By saying good morning, or by smiling at a passerby, we bring joy to others, fulfilling numerous mitzvoth. Even by refraining from any negative behaviour, we fulfill mitzvoth. We can create a Kiddush Hashem, sanctification of G-d's name, in the office, on the street and in our home.

The Midrash tells us that G-d first looked into the Torah, and only then did He create the world. Rather than chronicling the sequence of events, the Midrash is teaching us that keeping the Torah is the foundation of this world. It is what enables us to be better human beings. If the Torah tells us that we are not allowed to gossip, it means that we have the ability to control our speech. If Torah law requires that we pay all taxes that are due, it means that our riches are a gift from G-d. If we are limited in what we may eat, it is because we are to be more than just animals, and if Judaism places restrictions on human sexuality, it is because we can control our urges. By not giving in to our base instincts, we become truly free; it is those who cannot control themselves who are slaves to their desires.

The Torah is not in heaven. It is not even on the other side of the ocean (as many immigrants to North America believed). It is right here on earth, dealing with issues that confront us daily. As long as human nature does not change (and it never has), the need for Torah will be constant. It is our job to make sure that "it is very close to you" so that it will be "in your mouth and in your heart so that you can keep it."