from the heart of jerusalem

Yitro: Accepting what we know


At the recent wedding of the daughter of very old friends, I was enjoying the palpable joy at the tisch when the father of the bride asked me to lead Maariv. 

I had a moment of angst as I did not have a siddur on me, nor did anyone else. But I did not want to hold things up, and so elected to lead the prayers from memory.

Thinking about it later it was interesting that the prospect of davening from memory caused me angst; after all, I say these prayers every day and almost always do it from memory. Had I not been asked to lead the service would have done so again, so why the stress?  

In sports they have a name for this phenomenon, which describes a seasoned player who can’t perform a simple task because he gets too nervous: choking.

This is different from panic. Panic is when a person cannot think. Choking is the opposite: it’s what happens when a person thinks too much. I knew all the words and have said them a thousand times, but with everyone watching and listening, it became easy to question myself, to think too much about what I was doing. The solution was to stop thinking about it and rely on the routine that was already there.

It reminded me of the intense fear I felt the first time I had to throw a live grenade in training. I had already thrown a ‘dummy’ grenade dozens of times, but now, as part of the test at the end of basic training, everyone including all of my commanders, was watching. I started thinking too much: about everything that could go wrong and all the mistakes one could make when throwing a live grenade, so for a moment I froze.

And the commander overseeing the test finally yelled at me, “Stop thinking! Just throw it!”

Sometimes, we think too much, and we need to rely on what is deep inside of us, what we really already know.

This week, we read the portion of Yitro, famous for its introduction of the commandments. There is a fascinating discussion about the nature of the opening statement of these Commandments: “Anochi Hashem Elokecha, I am the Lord your G-d…”

Is this an actual commandment, or simply an introduction? Maimonides says it is a mitzvah: to know that a G-d exists (Sefer Hamitzvot 1). The Ramban, in his commentary on the Sefer HaMitzvot, disagrees, and suggests it is a preamble to the Ten Commandments that follow. 

There is a fascinating insight on this question suggested by Rav Elchonon Wasserman, in his Kovetz Ma’amarim. But to understand his comment, a brief introduction is in order.

Rav Elchonon was a student and close confidant of the Chofetz Chaim in the years before World War II. In fact, Rav Elchonon sent his children to learn in the yeshiva in Radin to be close to the Chofetz Chaim, while the Chofetz Chaim sent many of his grandchildren to Baranovich to study in the famed yeshiva of Rav Elchonon. 

Rav Elchonon visited the United States as late as 1939, and many begged him to stay, sensing the danger of returning to Europe. But Rav Elchonon could not abandon his flock. He was caught up in the storm of the Holocaust and ended up in the Kovno ghetto, where he was murdered by the Nazis in 1941.

He is known famously for his Kovetz Chiddushim: novel ideas on difficult questions in the Talmud. Lesser known is his Kovetz Ma’amarim, a collection of essays based on talks he gave in the ghetto before his ultimate death, and published posthumously by his students.

In this book he asks our question: How, according to Maimonides, can we be obligated to believe in G-d? His response is remarkable no less for the fact that he delivered it in the ghetto to an audience that must have been struggling with this question.

Belief, Rav Elchonon says, is a psychological state. A command to achieve it is of no use; I either believe or I don’t. If I already believe, there is no need for the commandment, and if I do not believe, what good is the commandment? 

Working under the premise that the Torah would never ask of us something of which we are not capable, his conclusion is that everyone believes in G-d. We are created with an innate knowledge that Hashem exists. This begs the obvious question: why there are so many people who do not believe?

Suggests Rav Elchonon: there is something that gets in the way of our accepting that innate belief in G-d, and that is what he calls ‘mother’s milk.’ From the moment we are born we discover that when we are hungry all we have to do is cry and pretty soon we will be rewarded. This teaches us that we can control our lives, we can get what we want when we want it if we are just willing to make a little noise. We become the center of our own universe; we assume that we are in control and that we can have pleasure whenever we want it.

And when we begin to struggle with the existential questions of G-d and creation and the obligations that might entail, we naturally have a hard time giving up on that control, realizing that we are not at the center of the universe and that we are vehicles for bringing the consciousness of G-d into it.

The mitzvah, then, of knowing Hashem, according to Rav Elchonon, is to accept what we already know, what is true and the source of all truth deep inside each of us.

It is to rely on being part of something so much greater than ourselves, and to access the inner instinctive knowledge we already have that we are not random, we are created, with purpose and meaning that allows us to be vehicles and partners in making a more beautiful and meaningful world.

We would do well to ask ourselves what is holding us back from doing and accepting things we already know to be true. Why we allow ourselves to get into petty arguments with the people we love the most, when deep down we know how much we love them and how petty these debates can be.

Perhaps in accessing those inner truths, we can remind ourselves just how great the world, and let go of the tendency to live in a much smaller reality just so we can remain at its center.

Shabbat shalom from Jerusalem.