Religious Obligations, Mandatory Or Voluntary?


Candlelighting: 5:17 p.m.
Torah: Exodus 25:1-27:19
Haftorah: I Kings 5:26-6:13
Havdalah: 6:18 p.m.

U.S. News & World Report once published an article, “50 Ways to Fix Your Life,” or at least improve it. “Learning to Meditate” was near the top of the list, the article demonstrating how meditation leads not only to spiritual enlightenment but better health.

What a great way to market Jewish prayer (tefillah) and get more people to services. Tefillah, after all, is a form of meditation so it wouldn’t be like I was making something up. But then I thought: here I go again, promoting a Jewish observance based on its “benefits.” Pray because it’s healthy, because it relieves stress. Is that really why we should pray or perform any mitzvah? Because we found some benefit? What then becomes of all the Jewish traditions that don’t seem to profit us? Do we take them less seriously? What does that say about our relationship with God? If we only perform mitzvot that benefit us, then who are we really serving, God or ourselves?

This question is raised in Tetzaveh, which continues with the construction of the Tabernacle (Mishkan). In last week’s reading, God told the Jewish people to donate the materials for the Tabernacle on a voluntary basis: “You shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him” [Exodus 25:2]. The people were asked for donations based on their “heart,” their feelings. However, in Tetzaveh (“command”), we are told that one part of the Mishkan was funded by a mandatory tax: the silver ground-sockets, into which the planks of the Mishkan were fastened, were financed by the half-shekel tax levied upon each individual among the Israelites.

Rabbi David Silverberg, a contemporary scholar, suggests that this dichotomy between voluntary and mandatory contributions reflects a similar balance in our observance of mitzvot. On the one hand, we perform God’s commandments out of a sense of obligation, recognizing Hashem as the ultimate authority and His commands as binding. At the same time, our desire to connect with our Creator brings us beyond the feeling of obligation, something we have to do, to something we want to do.

That donations to the Mishkan were voluntary teaches us that we need to cultivate an emotional connection. However, while the Torah undoubtedly encourages religious volunteerism, the “sockets” (the foundation and cornerstone of Torah life) were financed from a sense of obligation, a tax to which all Jews were required to contribute, whether they felt like it or not.

So if we are committed to performing any of the mitzvot, be it Shabbat or Kashrut, studying Torah or praying, and on a given day we’re just not feeling inspired, how do we proceed? Do we put off the mitzvah because we’re not feeling it, or do we nonetheless observe the command out of a sense of commitment? At a recent ski retreat of the Manhattan Jewish Experience, all of us, participants and staff alike, felt very inspired by the Shabbat experience. But the next week, when no longer in a cozy lodge surrounded by great company, singing and food, when we don’t experience that same Shabbat high, what then?

The same question arises in tzedakah: if we contribute to those who are less fortunate only when we feel like it, what happens when we’re not feeling like it? Are the poor to be dependent on the way we feel? This is why the Torah’s term for providing for the poor, or supporting communal needs, is “tzedakah,” which doesn’t mean “charity.” Charity implies benevolence or goodwill, but tzedakah means justice, an obligation irrespective of our feelings.

Relationships require more than love and feelings to last. Whether in friendship or marriage, relationships need to have a balance of love and commitment or they simply won’t make it. Commitment to the relationship keeps husbands and wives giving to each other, even when they’re not feeling it, and the same is true in our relationship with God. The terumah, the spirit of volunteerism and the feelings we have in our heart, are critical, but as in the sequence of the parshiot themselves, it must be followed by tetzaveh, “the command,” that sense of commitment to the overall system of Torah and mitzvot.

So the next time you don’t feel like praying or performing some other mitzvah and you do it anyway, that doesn’t mean you’ve become a robot or you’re brainwashed. It means you possess not only love for Hashem and His ways, but also a commitment.

Rabbi Mark Wildes is founder and director of the Manhattan Jewish Experience.