Confinement and Liberation

by | in Shabbat/Holidays

By Yaakov Yosef Reinman

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Many years ago, I heard a story about Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, who was famous for taking advantage of every opportunity to represent the Jewish people to the Almighty in a positive light. I don’t recall the source of the story, and I do not presume to vouch for its veracity. But whether it is factual or just a beautiful Chassidic legend is irrelevant. One of the points of the story struck a chord within me and set off a chain of thought that led me to an altogether different destination.

The story takes place on the first night of Pesach over two hundred years ago in the Ukrainian city of Berditchev. It’s late at night. The streets are dark, but candlelight glows in the windows of the Jewish homes where families sit around the Seder table.

Suddenly, Rav Levi Yitzchak runs into the street and starts shouting, “Everyone, come right away! Everyone, come right away!”

The people in the nearest homes start to come out. Rav Levi Yitzchak sends them off to call all the others and bring them right away. No one is to be missing.

Presently, a large crowd gathers in the street, confused but obedient.

“I am sorry for disturbing you during the Seder,” Rav Levi Yitzchak calls out, “but there is an emergency. I need a certain item, and a lot of it, right away.”

He proceeds to mention a certain piece of contraband, which if found in anyone’s possession would bring a severe prison sentence, if not worse. The people are shocked. They protest that they have no such contraband in their possession; it is much too dangerous, but Rav Levi Yitzchak refuses to accept their denials. He insists and insists until the people relent. Soon, a trickle of the contraband begins to appear in the street in front of Rav Levi Yitzchak, and after a while there is quite a substantial pile.

“And now,” says Rav Levi Yitzchak, “bring out all the chametz you have in your homes, even the smallest piece. Bring it right away. It is critical.”

The people are doubly shocked. Who could find a piece of chametz? There simply is none. Rav Levi Yitzchak insists with ever greater urgency, but all his efforts cannot bring forth even the smallest crumb.

Rav Levi Yitzchak lifts his hands heavenward.

“Master of the Universe,” he calls out, “look at how wonderful Your people are. The government has soldiers, police, weapons and prisons to enforce its rules, and still, if the people feel they can earn a livelihood by selling the contraband, they find ways to avoid the rules. But look. You do not send out police or threaten anyone with prison, and yet, when You forbid chametz on Pesach, there is not a crumb to be found. You should be happy with Your people and bless them.”

Did this story really happen? Who knows? But the elements of the story are undoubtedly true. If such a scene had indeed taken place, enough pressure might have uncovered contraband, but no amount of pressure could have brought forth any chametz. The statement of advocacy is also true. The Jewish people should certainly be commended for their unwavering faith and loyalty.

Hearing the story for the first time, it struck me that the Divine restrictions are much more than a boundary that separates the permitted from the forbidden. It struck me that they are more like a solid brick wall. When faithful Jews come up against the Torah’s restrictions, they do not really have to make decisions. More accurately, they encounter solid walls and cannot cross beyond them.

Taking this idea a step further, we gain new insight into the mysterious magic of Shabbos. The experience of a Shabbos in an observant home is almost always more effective in outreach than any amount of philosophy and argumentation. Why is this so?

These temple walls define sanctified places not only in time, but also in space.

I believe that the ubiquitous restrictions of Shabbos confront us with more than one wall. They surround us with an enclosure of walls and leave us to enjoy our time in the space within. These walls form a temple around us, a temple whose walls are shaped from the Almighty’s words, and as such, it is a very holy place.

These temple walls define sanctified places not only in time, but also in space. They embrace entire Jewish communities and imbue everything within them—the homes, the shuls, the streets, the gardens and the parks—with serene holiness. When we enter this temple, we stand in the illuminated shadow of the Almighty. And when we fill this temple with Torah study, prayer, joyous singing, family time, conversations, discussions, camaraderie, good food, rest and relaxation, the experience is transcendent. That is why Shabbos in an observant home is such a powerful instrument of outreach. It is because the holiness in the air is so palpable that it is difficult not to be affected by it, at least to some degree.

Unfortunately, people who are lax in their observance find themselves outside the temple walls. They may walk the same streets, they may live in the same homes, they may attend the same shuls, but the walls of the temple do not encompass them; they are cut off from the Shabbos experience. But those who are within the walls of the temple enjoy a complete spiritual, emotional and intellectual experience unlike any other.

There is an even deeper dimension to this concept. Before we explore it, let us consider a famous Mishnaic statement. “One moment of satisfaction in the next world,” we are told (Avos 4:17), “is better than all of life in this world.” Why is this so? What is so much better about life in the next world than life in this world? The immediate response that comes to mind is that the next world is illuminated by the Divine Presence, that it is a marvelous world of pure spirit that is wonderful and edifying beyond all human imagination. That is what we would be inclined to say, and that is precisely what Rabbeinu Yonah does indeed say in his explanation of the mishnah.

Rashi, however, has an altogether different explanation. Rashi states, in very succinct terms, that in this world we are consistently beset by worries and problems. In essence, life is an endless struggle; if it’s not one thing, it’s another. We may struggle financially, whether it is to put food on the table, to purchase a spacious and comfortable home, to pay tuition and send our children to camp or even to successfully put together all the elements of a multi-million-dollar business venture. We may struggle with health issues in our families. We may struggle with the challenges of raising well-adjusted children. We may struggle with emotional issues such as depression, alienation and low self-esteem. We may struggle with complicated relationships. We struggle, and we worry. That is the universal human experience. And even if we are blessed with extraordinary good fortune, in the final analysis, Rashi concludes, we are all worried about the inevitability of death.

This last point that Rashi makes, in my opinion, touches on the most important element of the human psyche. The awareness of our own mortality destabilizes us. It makes us feel insecure—with very good reason—and neurotic. It gives us complexes, and it leads us to behave in seemingly irrational ways.

Why do people seek honor? What do they gain from it? Why do people work exceedingly hard to accumulate mountains of money that could not possibly be spent even by their great-grandchildren? “One who loves money,” says King Solomon (Koheles 5:9), “will never have enough money.” He makes no such statement about physical pleasures. There can come a time when a person is so sated with a pleasure that it actually becomes repulsive. But the relentless pursuit of money for its own sake has no limit. Why is this so? What motivates people to pursue money just to have it? Some will say they want power, but this is not necessarily so. Plenty of people who want no power over other people still put tremendous efforts into making money they and their descendants will never need. And if we are to speak about power, the same questions arise. Why in the world should someone want power over others for no other purpose than to control them?

I believe it is the awareness of mortality that drives these people. They are keenly aware that they appear on this earth for a fleeting time and then they are gone, and they feel like wisps of smoke that dissipate into nothingness. So they seek honor, power and ridiculous amounts of useless wealth. If people stand up for them when they walk into the room, it gives them the illusion of substantiality. If they control other people’s lives, it makes them feel more solid. If they own ten office buildings in Manhattan, they feel less vulnerable to the winds of time. But it’s all an illusion, a coping strategy that helps them deal with the terrifying prospect of mortality and self-negation.

Woody Allen famously said, “I want to achieve immortality by not dying.” Now that is a rational ambition. Unfortunately, no one has figured out how to achieve it.

So this is why, according to Rashi, the next world is more satisfying than this world. In the next world, unlike in this world, we are free of worries and struggles, and we do not have to contend with the thought of our impending mortality. Other than that, Rashi seems to be saying, we can experience the satisfaction of the next world in this world as well, if only we could focus on our spiritual pursuits without the distractions of life’s struggles. If we could learn Torah, perform mitzvos, do chesed for others and commune with the Almighty without having to worry about paying the bills or anything else at all, we would discover a profound joy and spiritual satisfaction that no human being has ever enjoyed. We would know how it feels to be in the next world, because after all, what is the next world but the sum total of all the Torah and mitzvos we accumulate in this world?

This brings us back to the observance of Shabbos. The Talmud tells us (Berachos 57b) that Shabbos is me’ein Olam Haba, it provides us with a “taste of the next world.” We are all familiar with this phrase from the zemiros. We should take these words quite literally.

When we enter among the walls of the temple that the Almighty created for us through His commandments of Shabbos observance, we find ourselves in a place removed from the struggles of daily life. The temple walls restrict us from contending with our problems in any way, either rational or irrational, and so our anxieties fade somewhat from our consciousness and we achieve a measure of peace and serenity. Even thoughts of mortality do not filter so easily through the sturdy temple walls. And when we fill this hallowed time and space with Torah study, prayer, mitzvos, spirituality, love and friendship, when we savor these gifts far removed from the nagging demands of this world, we experience a genuine taste of the next world, and we realize that our confinement is really our liberation.

Rabbi Yaakov Yosef Reinman is the author of Shufra Dishtara, Abir Yosef al Hatorah and many other works, including the controversial One People, Two Worlds (New York, 2002). His most recent work is Rav Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev (Brooklyn, New York, 2011).

Excerpted from the larger article “Shabbos: Judaism’s Priceless Treasure.”

This article was featured in Jewish Action Spring 2012.

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