One of the central pillars of Mussar thought and practice, often either overlooked or dismissed, is that of obligation. The metaphoric shorthand for this concept is the Sinai moment and as we approach the festival of Shavuot which celebrates this moment in the historic consciousness of the Jewish people it is appropriate to reflect on the subject.
The idea that bearing the other as our burden makes for more joy in our lives does not necessarily require the idea of obligation. In fact, in the modern context the idea of mutuality — that we bear the other as our burden and we expect the other to bear us as their burden — is a more conventional and often more comfortable template for religious ethics and Mussar in particular.
Nevertheless, the idea of obligation is central to the Judaic worldview and, as such, to the Mussar worldview. The historic Jewish response to the perception of an external Source of obligation is contained in the development of the concept of Mitzvah. We have defined this concept as the consciousness of an overwhelming obligation to bear the other as our burden infinitely extended that each one of us experiences, even if fleetingly, at some moment in our lives.
This is what we call the Sinai moment – the Jewish response to the existential compulsion to be commanded to goodness. That’s an existential moment and it can occur on Shavuot, or at the bedside of a parent or the birth of a child or a myriad of other possible transformative moments. Whether we accept the obligation that we perceive becomes the question.
The project of expressing this obligation in such ways as to either interrupt our self-absorption or to actualize our acceptance of the obligation by serving others is the project that we call Halacha, which translates mitzvot into human action. These are the mitzvot sanctioned by history and culture, and in a fully operative halachic system, we would measure how well they open us up to our obligations. If they do not work, we would develop new mitzvot.
In our Thursday class on Nefesh HaHayyim, we have been exploring the kabbalistic theory that human beings have incredible power and responsibility to shape the world we live in. This remarkably chutzpadik view — that what humans do matters –is an unequivocal antidote to any kind of futility and despair. In what I have come to call “Jewish String Theory,” Rav Hayyim asserts that every neshama is connected, as though in a spider web, through myriads of worlds to beyond the cosmos. The entire physical universe is covered with strings, attached to humans at the base and reverberating through human action, thoughts and words in the cosmos.
According to this system, when a person intends to do a mitzvah it already sends up a signal and impacts something above it that then sends down the energy that allows the person to complete the task. Human beings are not the puppets on a string controlled from above, but are pulling the string to draw down goodness.
On the eve of our great celebration of the imagined moment of existential obligation and the covenant with the Other that we were forced to accept, we can ask ourselves:
- How can I use the traditional/historic actions the Jewish people devised to both interrupt my self-absorption or aid my bearing the other as my burden.
- How have these traditional activities helped to support my spiritual efforts?
- How am I interrupting myself so that I am more aware of my obligation to serve others in my life?
- Once interrupted, how am I fulfilling my obligation to serve?
Chag Shavuot Sameach,
Rabbi Ira Stone
P.S. Please join me in praying for refuah shelemah, healing of body and spirit, for CCM’s founding board chair and beloved madricha, Linda Kriger, who is in critical condition following brain surgery. Linda’s husband, Jake, asks that we join the circle of people singing “Limnot Yameinu: Teach Us to Treasure Each Day” the song Linda and Jake sing to each other daily. Here is a link to a rendition sung in Linda’s honor by Rabbis Annie Lewis and Yosef Goldman: Yosef & Annie: Teach Us