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For the Lord will again delight in your well-being, as He did in that of your fathers, since you will be heeding the Lord your God and keeping his commandments and laws that are recorded in this book of the Teaching—once you return to the Lord your God with all your heart and soul.
Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, ‘Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it. (Deuteronomy, 9-14)
For many of us, G-d, the Mishkan, and the Torah are obscure and inaccessible. Many observant Jews have learned from a young age that precisely observing the mitzvot is the path to holiness, the means to being a good Jew and to living an honorable life. They are also taught the symbols of Judaism and what they represent. Life is filled with holy observances, praying to G-d, and following the customs and laws.
For Jews who are at the other end of the practice spectrum, who may have only a secular identity as a Jew (for a multitude of reasons), Judaism only provides an ethnicity, sometimes an appreciation of the Ten Commandments, and perhaps a mix of practices to observe the holidays, whether they attend a Seder or go to synagogue once a year at Yom Kippur. And of course, there are many Jews within and in between these extremes who determine on their own the degree and depth to which they will live as Jews.
As different as the two extremes of observance seem to be, they have one thing in common. Few people ask one simple question: why. Why do we offer certain prayers? Why do we follow certain practices? Why do we have designated holidays? Why do we have any of the accouterments of the Jewish religion?
For example, why are there show-breads in the Mishkan? We have a commandment to provide them but seemingly no explanation. Similarly, why are we supposed to offer sacrifices? Or the ark that was built to protect the tablets of the Ten Commandments—why was the ark built as it was, and why are we instructed to put the tablets inside the ark, and not somewhere else?
We might be tempted to pull back from pursuing the “why” question for a myriad of reasons, including our assumption that we are not able to discover answers, or deserving of those answers. But, It is not in the heavens, that you should say, ‘Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ Isn’t that question part of the mystery of G-d? Is it appropriate to want to know the mind of G-d? Aren’t these the kinds of questions we are supposed to accept on faith?
But Moshe assures us that the “why” question is significant: (1) G-d wants us to explore these questions; (2) G-d has written the Torah so that it is not beyond our understanding; (3) An understanding of Torah is available to everyone. He says, “No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.” The words that reflect our grasp of Torah rest on our lips, ready to be articulated, and in our hearts, to be experienced. As long as we draw breath and have access to the text, the words are always available to us and can become part of our very being.
Ultimately in the book that we are writing, we will talk about the meaning of the symbols of the Mishkan, why G-d wanted us to build the Mishkan, the place where He would reside among us. But before we take that journey, let’s explore the “why” of the Mishkan and Torah and why it is so valuable.
Jewish Commandments: How Specificity of Practice Differs from “Why” We are Commanded
The Mishkan and everything it includes provides us with the opportunity to understand what G-d wants us to know, as well as how we can most fervently experience our lives, our relationship with others and our connection with G-d. Certainly, the symbolism of practices provides that connection to some degree. And the symbolism of some of these commandments is much more apparent to the casual reader than are others. For example, the Menorah, when lit, illuminates the world around it; it allows us to see the world more clearly, and reminds us that we are to be a light to the world.
But the question “why” asks us to take that understanding even further: why are we called to light the Menorah in particular? G-d provided light through Creation, and we know that He wants us to continue his creativity. So how do we use light to be creative, and what does it mean to bring light to, or enlighten, the world? Perhaps it means that we are to be instrumental in offering wisdom in a time of global depravity: we can offer hope to those who are suffering; we can teach others alternatives to evil action; we can model how to be in relationships, how to treat others, how to handle life’s difficulties, how to demonstrate resiliency. When we offer these kinds of wisdom and teachings, we are indeed shining a light within the world. We also, through our actions, remind ourselves that we are to live our own lives in these same ways.
We want to emphasize that when you ask “why,” your own answers might be entirely different than ours. Or you may identify a modest answer at first, if you are new to this process, and build on it, or refine it, over time. The key here is not to come up with the “right” or “perfect” answer: it is the process, rather than the product, that builds a relationship with G-d! Rather, we want to suggest that it is a spiritual journey in taking your practice to a deeper level. Asking “why” takes you on a path of curiosity, exploration, and learning. It enlivens your practice, allowing your observance to expand and be enriched, and will strengthen your relationship with others and with G-d. You will be fulfilling G-d’s call to be creative and to be intimate with Him, to understand your place in the world, and to pursue your life with delight and love.
The “why” question can be applied to any aspect of Judaism; remember, G-d delights in our love of learning. And since G-d argued and discussed concerns with our forefathers, G-d certainly is not surprised if we argue with him, especially if we do it in the spirit of growth. We only need to remind ourselves that we are encouraged to ask questions, not to take things, ideas or teachings for granted, but to embody them as we learn them. That kind of dedication requires us to be open, curious and willing to be surprised; we never know what we will discover! But G-d is waiting for us to show up, to be inquisitive and not be afraid. As Jews, He calls us to be present, open and available in our relationships and in our lives.
This post was co-authored by @iwe and me.