From Where I Stand
By Rabbi Yossy Goldman
Why do certain people find satisfaction in Judaism while others are bored stiff? Why is faith exciting for some and irrelevant for others; a joy for one guy and an absolute burden for the next? One fellow cannot imagine going to work without first putting on his tefillin, and the other hasn’t seen his tefillin since his bar mitzvah 40 years ago. This woman can’t wait to get to shul, and the other can’t wait to get out.
This week we read about the ultimate mitzvah of faith, the Red Heifer. It is a statutory commandment whose reason still remains a mystery. I must admit, to take the ashes of a red heifer and sprinkle them on a person so he may attain spiritual purification is, indeed, rather mind-boggling.
According to the Midrash, the Al‑mighty promised Moshe that to him He would reveal the secret meaning of this mitzvah, but only after Moshe would initially accept it as a Divine decree. If he would first take it on faith, thereafter more rational understanding would follow.
The truth is that there are answers to virtually every question people may have about Judaism. Intelligent skeptics I meet are often amazed that what they had long written off as empty ritual is actually philosophically profound with rich symbolic meaning. But the skeptic has to be ready to listen. You can hear the most eloquent, intellectual explanation, but if you are not mentally prepared to accept that this may in fact be a worthwhile exercise, chances are you won’t be impressed. Once we stop resisting and accept that there is inherent validity, suddenly Judaism makes all the sense in the world.
It is a psychological fact that we can grasp that which we sincerely desire to understand, but if there is a subject which we have no interest in, we will walk into mental blockades regularly.
The previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, said that this can explain why some very astute businessmen may sit at a Talmud class and find themselves struggling to grasp basic principles of rabbinic reasoning. Why is it that the same person who can concoct the most brilliant schemes in the boardroom fails to follow straightforward logic in the Talmud class? The answer, he says, is that this businessman is really not that interested in the subject. But if it were half as important to him as making money, he might well become a rosh yeshiva!
So, in the same way that G‑d told Moshe that he could come to comprehend the meaning of the red heifer but only after he accepted it, similarly today, those who genuinely wish to understand Judaism will succeed, but only if they buy into the product on some level first.
When I was studying in yeshiva, I would always try to attend the annual “Encounter with Chabad” weekends for university students. These were organized to expose Jewish students to Judaism over a Shabbat, and there were lectures by leading rabbis and religious academics. Once a young man shouted back at the lecturer, “How can you expect me to put on tefillin if I don’t believe in G‑d?!” Very calmly, the speaker replied, “First put on tefillin and I promise you will see that you really do believe in G‑d.”
We all have a G‑dly faith inside us. It just needs to be revealed. As illogical as it may sound, if we start by observing a mitzvah, we find that our faith will follow through and begin to blossom. It has been shown to be true again and again. If we are genuinely searching for truth and we are objective, there are ample answers. If we are not interested, no answer will be good enough. As they say in the classics, Try it, you’ll like it. v
Rabbi Yossy Goldman was born in Brooklyn and was sent in 1976 by the Lubavitcher Rebbe as an emissary to serve the Jewish community of Johannesburg, South Africa. He is Senior Rabbi of the Sydenham Shul and president of the South African Rabbinical Association. His sefer “From Where I Stand: Life Messages from the Weekly Torah Reading” was published by Ktav and is available at Jewish book shops or online at www.ktav.com.