Parshat Terumah: Towards a Theology of Being Commanded

Rabbi David Silverstein

Parshat Terumah begins with a directive from God instructing the Jewish people to contribute monetarily to the construction of the Mishkan. Using precise language, God asks Moshe to “take a portion from every man whose heart motivates him.” Rav Chaim Paltiel argues that the usage of the phrase “whose heart motivates him” is used demonstrate that as opposed to the obligatory contributions used to pay for the beams of the Mishkan, the donations alluded to in this Parsha are voluntary in nature and not a mandatory obligations. Explaining the rationale behind the biblical demand requiring the foundational aspect of the Tabernacle (the beams) be built from obligatory communal funds, Rav Yehuda Amital notes the Torah’s attempt to highlight that “one’s service of the Almighty must be based first and foremost upon an ingrained sense of obligation, duty, commitment – not good will and voluntarism. One must feel obligated to fulfill the mitzvot, and cannot perform them merely because he finds them interesting or appealing.”

The centrality of obligation in one’s religious life is highlighted by the statement of Rabbi Hanina that “greater [is the reward of a mitzvah performed by] one who is commanded than one who is not commanded.” Interestingly this statement is cited three times in the Babylonian Talmud and never challenged! Rabbi Chanina’s statement seems counterintuitive since it seems to prioritize formal obligation over personal initiative!

Sensitive to this question, the Ran argues that while the performance of any Jewish ritual is certainly religiously positive, the performance of a mitzvah by one who is commanded in that specific mitzvah is of greater religious significance. After all, the Ran notes, God must have some logical reason why he commanded certain groups of people to perform specific mitzvoth while exempting others from engaging in the same ritual. Performing a mitzvah from a place of commandedness guarantees that the divine will is actualized. Mitzvoth performed from the spirit of volunteerism, by contrast, do not guarantee with the same degree of certainty that the action being performed is, in fact the will of God.

Sefer Ikarim provides another way to think about the principle that greater reward is provided to the individual who is commanded. According to this model, every mitzvah performed through the lens of being commanded constitutes two simultaneous affirmations. The first is the affirmation that one intends to do what is “right” or “good.” The second aspect affirms that the action is being performed because it is a divine command. A mitzvah performed by one who is not commanded always runs the risk of lacking a divine imperative. To put it differently, an act that one is commanded to perform by definition constitutes a mitzvah. Non-obligatory actions may have the status of a mitzvah, but could just as easily have the status of a “good deed.”

Rav Moshe Feinstein elaborates on this theme and argues that the principle of “greater is one who is commanded” applies specifically to mitzvoth whose rationale is well known. Since mitzvoth whose reason is clear provide some form of utilitarian benefit to the person performing the mitzvah, there is always the risk that the performance of the mitzvah is a function of the personal benefit it provides and not because it is demanded by God. Only mitzvoth done from a place of being commanded guarantee that mitzvah observance is an act of self-transcendence and not self-worship.

Rav Dovid Sperber provides an interesting application of Rabbi Hanina’s principle. Expanding on a position of the Rambam regarding righteous gentiles, Rav Sperber notes that if a person who is not obligated in specific mitzvah “opts in” and accepts upon himself a mitzvah (or a group of mitzvoth) as an obligation, the individual acquires the status of “greater is one who is commanded.” In fact, he goes further and argues that opting into to an obligation actually places one on a “higher” plan than one who is born into an obligation. According to this model, the greatest religious act is to “choose” to be commanded and by extension, voluntarily accept the yoke of heaven.

Whichever model one accepts, Parshat Terumah provides an interesting opportunity to reflect upon the dialectic of personal initiative versus divine command. In particular, the comments of Rav Dovid Sperber may have particular resonance in the modern period when commitment to a life of observance is not necessarily a sociological given. Since most of world Jewry is not fully committed to Halacha, contemporary Jewish life may provide a unique opportunity for an individual Jew to make the right choice to “opt in” to a life of commitment and obligation.

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Parshat Mishpatim-The Torah’s Approach to the Ordinary

Parshat Mishpatim introduces us to a new category of mitzvoth. Ordinarily we think of mitzvoth as proscribed rituals externally imposed upon our reality. For example, while the default assumption for most moderns is not necessarily to pray daily, the Torah demands that a person go out of his way to take time and daven regularly. Moreover, the daily experiences of most mitzvoth are consistent, leaving ample opportunity for an individual to prepare accordingly. A Jew is certainly not surprised for example, to learn that every year he must sit in a Sukkah for seven days. Classical mitzvoth are fixed in our calendar cycle and leave little room for being caught off guard.

Parshat Mishpatim, by contrast, speaks of a much more spontaneous type of religious experience. Moreover, the mitzvoth defined in our sidra describe institutions that are not religious by nature. In its attempt to provide a theological foundation for the ordinary, the Torah delineates rules of conduct that are designed to take normal activities and transform them into “Jewish normal activities.” For example, while there is no formal mitzvah to own a slave, if a person opts to own a Jewish slave, the Torah provides specific rules that are intended to govern the slave-master relationship. The Seforno (21:1) highlights the spontaneity of the Mishpatim by noting that these are a category of mitzvoth which only need to be performed “when the need arises.”

Interestingly enough, the Torah begins its discussion of this new type of mitzvah by discussing the laws of the Jewish slave. Placing rules of slavery at the beginning of a law code is one of the unique features of the biblical narrative. In fact, Dr. Nachum Sarna writes that “none of the other law collections from the ancient Near East open with this topic. Hammurabi’s, for example, deals with slavery last.”

This unique aspect of the bible’s legal code raises the question of why the Torah chose specifically to begin with the halachot of the Jewish slave?  Dr. Sarna provides his own theory noting that the “priority given to this subject by the Torah doubtless has a historical explanation: Having recently experienced liberation from bondage, the Israelite is enjoined to be especially sensitive to the condition of the slave.” The Ibn Ezra tries to explain this phenomenon by appealing to the psychological difficulties associated with the experience of slavery. By beginning with this subject, the Torah wanted to stress that there is “nothing in the world more challenging than being owned by another.”

Whichever position you accept, it is clear the rules of the Jewish slave represent a larger narrative either describing the psychological challenges of servitude or reminding the Israelites to remember their own slavery when dealing with others. Moreover, the Eved Ivri also serves as a case study in the Torah’s approach to the ordinary. By insisting that normal daily activities should be placed in a larger theological context, the Torah concertizes the Jewish notion that holiness can be found in the everyday.