The Tiny and the Vast
Live by Them
We just finished a holiday where we, quite literally, put on a scavenger hunt for the crumbiest of crumbs before Passover began. On the holiday itself, there are those who have a handy-dandy matzah chart to measure out the minimum requirement one must eat to fulfill the commandment of eating matzah on the holiday. This is just a small example of the ways in which Judaism prioritizes attention to detail.
Taken at face value, it can be an immensely powerful way to add meaning to one’s life. Whether it’s the minimum of a food or drink, the required dimensions of a sukkah, or the minimum amount of time chanukah candles need to stay lit, we are a faith that understands the magnitude of minutia.
Taken to the extremes though, it can lead to a certain type of fanaticism. We have seen it in our history. We also see it today in the ways in which the focus on the picayune leads to alienation and exclusion.
From our origins, the Torah implores us to understand how our sanctity is intertwined with our devotion to her laws. In this week’s portion, Ahareit Mot, it shares an axiom that speaks to that dynamic (Leviticus 18:5):
וּשְׁמַרְתֶּ֤ם אֶת־חֻקֹּתַי֙ וְאֶת־מִשְׁפָּטַ֔י אֲשֶׁ֨ר יַעֲשֶׂ֥ה אֹתָ֛ם הָאָדָ֖ם וָחַ֣י בָּהֶ֑ם אֲנִ֖י יְהֹוָֽה׃
You shall keep My laws and My rules, by the pursuit of which human beings shall live: I am Adonai.
It is that last phrasing that has drawn scores of commentary over the years. Is the “living” talking about the life in this world, the world to come, or some combination of the two? How should we really live our lives?
One particular commentary, from Rebbe Nachman of Breslov1, drew me in this year.
Concerning those who are exacting and unnecessarily strict it is said: “and live through them” (Leviticus 18:5), and not to die by them (Yoma 85b). For they have no vitality whatsoever and are always in a state of darkness, because it seems to them that they fail to meet their religious duties with the mitzvot they perform. And on account of their exactitude and bitterness they have no vitality from any mitzvah.
In the eyes of Rebbe Nachman, you can’t live a life fulfilling mitzvot through simply adhering to the most rigid form of said behavior. If he were here, I imagine he would argue that an observant life requires a high level of focus on detail but not so much that it no longer feels like you’re actually living life. After all, it says “live by them!”
That balance is speaking to me these days. It is the Judaism upon which I was raised and one I hope to continue to be able to incorporate into my daily life. Coming out of a holiday like Passover, where I always need this reminder, it is the thought that I am practicing with intent these days. God is in the details but you can’t fully appreciate the divine awe unless you’re taking a step back and seeing the whole picture.
Likute Moharan II-44-1:5