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One of the biggest problems facing the Orthodox Jew is the belief that a Jew can keep “the 613” while living the lifestyle of “keeping up with the gentiles”. Who is setting the standard of what we want and what we don’t want in life? The way we live, the path of behavior we take, will affect our fate more than anything else. In order for us to understand how to solve this problem we need to understand where it comes from, and find the tools to defeat it.
The very first thing that Ruth told her mother-in-law, Naomi, when she was certain that she wanted to convert to Judaism was באשר תלכי אלך . Wherever you go, I will go. The Middrash Rabbah explains this. “Naomi said to Ruth: My daughter, it is not the way of a Jewish girl to go to the theatres of the goyim.” Naomi told Ruth that to become a Jewess, one cannot follow the celebrities of the goyim and associate with them. Their way is not our way.
Why was this the most important, first message Naomi gave to her daughter-in-law who was about to convert, even before mentioning the 613 Mitzvoth? And why did Naomi need to hear Ruth say, Wherever you go, I will go, that she would stop going to the theatres, before Naomi was willing to convert her?
Because the path that you are going in life, the lifestyle you follow, is the expression of your ultimate decision as to what type of Jew you will be. There is a huge difference between an Orthodox Jew and a Torah Jew. What is the difference? Orthodoxy means keeping 613. Not being ‘reform’ or ‘conservative’. As long as I do not alter even one commandment, I am still Orthodox. But, how I live my life, what car I drive, what type of wedding I make, my lifestyle – as long as it does not transgress the 613, I still fly under the radar of Orthodoxy. A Torah Jew is something else. The word Torah has a similar root to the word Morah, which means teacher, guide, someone who shows the way. A Torah Jew, then, is a Jew who lives his lifestyle in line with the spirit of Torah. He constantly asks himself, What is the Torah lifestyle that I can adopt? What is the Torah’s path? Naomi wanted to make sure that Ruth was going to be a Torah Jew. Not just an Orthodox one.
We sometimes forget how to enjoy the beauty of a Torah lifestyle and focus on the deeper truth of life. And once we forget, the glamour of the celebrity lifestyle flashes at us from every billboard, in every advertisement. It makes it so easy to lose track. There are only two tracks in life, and they are mutually exclusive. We are always going on one of these two tracks. It’s just a matter of which one we choose. Allow me to explain.
What is an angel? The word ‘anglos’ in old Greek means messenger. The angel does not have thoughts of his own, nor does he have free choice. He is but a robot. He does whatever you program him to do. The human being is the opposite. No matter how you program him/her, you can never know if they are going to follow your directions. The difference between angels, who do not have free choice, and us is that angels are always referred to as עומדים, standing still, while Humans are always referred to as הולכים, always going. This concept of going is the purpose of your life. The uniqueness of the Human. All of your life, you are going from point A to point B. You chose your point B. You can be getting closer to the life of the celebrities, the life of the gentiles, more Olam Hazeh. Or, you can be getting closer to your Neshama, your purpose in this world. The first mitzvah commanded to the first Jew was לך לך, “Go to you”. What does it mean – to go to you? G-d told Avraham to go towards himself, to advance towards his purpose, towards his Neshama. Every Jew comes down to this world with that same command: לך לך. Go toward your purpose. That is the Torah’s path.
What is the Gentile’s path? Probably one of the most crucial moments in the whole Tanach is the moment when Bitya is at the Nile River to immerse for conversion, and she sees little Moshe in a basket.וַתֵּ֤רֶד בַּת־פַּרְעֹה֙ לִרְחֹ֣ץ עַל־הַיְאֹ֔ר וְנַעֲרֹתֶ֥יהָ הֹלְכֹ֖ת עַל־יַ֣ד הַיְאֹ֑ר וַתֵּ֤רֶא אֶת־הַתֵּבָה֙ בְּת֣וֹךְ הַסּ֔וּף וַתִּשְׁלַ֥ח אֶת־אֲמָתָ֖הּ וַתִּקָּחֶֽהָ: Bitya decides to reach out to baby Moshe and save his life. The Talmud points to the words וְנַעֲרֹתֶ֥יהָ הֹלְכֹ֖ת and her maidservants were walking. Where were they going? Weren’t they supposed to be next to the princess Bitya?
R Yochanan answers the question. The word halicha, here, means death, as we see in the words of Esav, הנה אני הולך למות Behold, I am going to die. The maidservants said to Bitya, “Are you crazy? If no one else is obeying Pharaoh’s command to kill the Jewish boys, wouldn’t it make sense that at least his own daughter would listen to him?!” When the maidservants spoke with those words, the angel Gavriel came and struck them dead!! (See Sotah 12b, Torah Temimah Shemot 2; 5)
Although Esav was busy hunting food, occupying himself with idolatry and women, always “on the move”, he was moving towards death. הנה אנכי הולך למות. That was his direction. The life of a celebrity, here and now. If they do not have Olam Haba, they might as well have Olam Hazeh.
Yaakov, on the other hand, was an איש תם יושב אוהלים, a simple man sitting in the study hall. Although he was not moving physically, but he was steadily advancing in the direction of the Torah learning that would lead him to Olam HaBa. All of us have these same two options in life: to live Esav’s celebrity life, a life that ends up as a הולך למות, or to live a life of purpose, in the image of G-d. But whatever you do, you are a הולך. You, a human being, are moving in a direction.
Our Rabbis learn the words of the beginning of the Parashaאם בחוקותי תלכו… שתהיו עמלים בתורה If you follow My statutes, to mean that you shall toil in Torah, learn it in depth. All of the blessings of the Torah are reserved for one who learns Torah in depth. Why does “following in G-d’s statutes” refer to toil in learning? Maybe it just means to live an Orthodox life of 613?
When the Parasha tells us “to go in My statutes”, it doesn’t mean externally. It means internally. It means to go into your heart. It means going towards a deeper truth and making it part of your real self. Because that is the way of a Torah Jew.
BH, I have been living in Yerushalayim for 18 years. The greatest damage western culture had on me was to make me believe that “the easier the better”, and “the faster the better”. The Torah is teaching us that, No! אִם־בְּחֻקֹּתַ֖י תֵּלֵ֑כוּ I want you to toil in Torah. If someone offers you a chip to put in your brain that will give you the knowledge of a doctor, a lawyer or a psychologist, why not? Many things in modern times are instant! But it is not so regarding Torah knowledge. G-d wants us to toil to achieve it. Although an unborn baby has learnt the entire Torah, we do not stand up, in respect, for that baby. Why not? R Chaim Shmulevitz says because that child did not toil for his Torah! This is true in regard to all self-development, and in all aspects of lech lecha, going to your life’s purpose. All of the 48 ways to acquire Torah require really hard work and toil. In stark contrast to the requirements for priesthood or royalty, those requirements are presents, not things you need to work on.
The second untruth marketed by western culture is ‘the faster the better’. That is not the case regarding self refinement. The greatest enemy to change is speed.וְאֶת־מִצְוֹתַ֣י תִּשְׁמְר֔וּ: If you go in My statutes and you watch My Mitzvoth… The Torah does not say to keep the Mitzvoth, לקיים. It says to watch the Mitzvoth, to wait anxiously for an opportunity to observe them. Not to get them over with, when the time comes. But to anticipate them. To count 49 days to wait for the Torah. To count the days toward Shabbat.
Patience. Hard work. Striving for Truth. Real Truth. Living with purpose. Mastering contentment. This is a Torah lifestyle.