Embracing the Torah with Mind and Heart

Rabbi Daniel Myers

In Parshat Shmini, just when the joy of the dedication of the Mishkan reached its peak, tragedy struck with the death of Aharon’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu. There are many different opinions regarding the actual transgression that was committed on that fateful day; the Sifra maintains that they erred in bringing their own incense into the Kodesh Kadoshim, while Ramban (16:2) argues that it is inconceivable that they would have entered the holiest part of the sanctuary without permission. Rather, they offered the regular daily Ketoret, incense, upon the Mizbaiach Hazahav, though they were not commanded to do so. One theme that appears in most of the commentators is that Nadav and Avihu performed an unauthorized service in the Mishkan. One lesson from this incident is clear: Avodath Hashem which is based solely on one’s intuition, impulse or feelings is most destructive and dangerous-even if performed with intense religious passion and enthusiasm. All service to Hashem must emanate from one source, the Halacha. An individual may perform an action with great fervor and fanfare and not accomplish anything positive, while another may do an action in a most cold and perfunctory manner and fulfill a Mitzvah Midoraita. For example, if one eats a drop of bitter herbs on Pesach night, less then the required amount of K’zait, and truly feels the pain and suffering of our ancestors in Egypt, he has still not fulfilled the mitzvah of Maror. Conversely, one who eats the required amount of Maror, but with little feeling, has nevertheless fulfilled his obligation. The same applies to Shma, Tefila and all other Mitzvoth; if they are fulfilled according to all the dictates of the Halacha, in the proper Zman, with the appropriate dress, Kavana, etc then one is Halachically Yozaih, otherwise, he is not.

This was actually one of the main issues involved in the Chassidic-Mitnaged controversy over two centuries ago; the Gra and his followers were concerned that the religious enthusiasm of the Chassidim actually warped their Halachic observance. (See The Chassidic Movement and the Gaon of Vilna page 12 where he writes the following: “The manner and mode of Chassidic worship were in themselves considered an abomination and a perversion of proper prayer. The Chassidim were accused by their opponents, the Mitnagdim, of delaying offering their prayers at the proper time and reciting the Shema Yisrael and the Tefila long after the appropriate hour of their recital had passed.” Baruch Hashem, today many Chassidim are Makpid on the Zmanim of Tefila, as well as all details of the four sections of the Shulchan Aruch.) However, this concept of precise Halachic legislation is fraught with danger, namely, that one will carefully follow all the legal minutia without feeling or passion; the mind will be engaged in the Halchic process while the heart is left out in the cold. This certainly is not the Derech of the Torah, which demands of us to embrace Hashem, so to speak, B’chol Livavcha Uvchol Nafshicha, with all of our hearts and all of our souls. This may be one of the messages of the Haftora for Parshat Shmini, which describes king David dancing with complete abandon in a public display of boundless joy that the ark was coming home to Jerusalem after twenty years in exile. This event is the perfect companion for Parshat Shmini, which relates the tragic deaths of Nadav and Avihu, whose religious zealousness led to their demise. In the Haftora, David’s wife, Michal maintained that it was unseemly for the king to engage in such “undignified” behavior in front of the nation; King David sharply replied that it was a privilege and honor for him to demonstrate his boundless love for Hashem in such a passionate manner. There is nothing wrong- even for the king of B’nai Yisreal, who must be given the utmost respect and honor-with expressing unbridled and uncontrollable joy, if that Simcha is appropriate and directed to the Almighty.

Our actions must always be guided by Halacha in a most precise and meticulous manner; however, the observance should not consist simply of a cold, mechanical act, but must be filled with energy, excitement and fervor. All of one’s passions that are often directed to the mundane activities in one’s life should be harnessed and directed to Avodath Hashem, one’s service of Hashem. This delicate combination of mind and emotion may be the message of the Passuk “David Melech Yisrael Chai V’kayam,” king David was so full of enthusiasm, vigor and life-he was Chai-yet, he was Kayam, anchored and grounded with Chochma, Bina and Daat.