Shabbat Parshat Vayakhel 5779
Improving Observance One Step at a Time
Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5774
On Thursday afternoon I typed in “teach me the entire Torah” and out popped the phrase “teach me the entire Torah on one foot.”
Many are familiar with the passage from the Talmud. A person comes to convert to Judaism and requests that Hillel teach them the entire Torah on one foot. The answer that Hillel gives is equally famous – “what is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. The rest is commentary, now go and learn.”
What nearly everyone takes away from this piece is the centrality of kindness and treating people respectfully in Judaism.
That is certainly correct, but if that is all that you take from it you are missing a lot.
Before the convert approaches Hillel, he approaches Shammai. Shammai’s response is quite different than Hillel’s. Shammai chases him away with the building beam that was in his hand!
This Gemara talks about our attitude towards converts and conversions, but that for another time. Thankfully we generally side with Hillel.
In a similar vein the Gemara records that Hillel converted him and then told him “what is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. The rest is commentary, now go and learn.”
How much must a convert know before they convert? That is another fascinating question.
I am most interested today in the piece of Hillel’s answer that does not get enough attention.
The rest is commentary, now go and learn.
Hillel does not say “remember the great ideal and you don’t need to know anything else”. Hillel tells this person looking to grow into Judaism that this is an overarching principle BUT THERE IS MORE, so go and learn!
Rashi explains that in order to know what is hated, you have to learn! You can’t achieve the principle without the learning.
No one expects you to master everything right away, it will take time to achieve a fully observant lifestyle but KNOW that is expected of you as well.
And in order to get there – “go and learn” – you have to learn in order to know what to do.
The one line is easy – it is the process, the “go and learn” that is the hard part!
I raise this point for reasons that will become clear and hopefully relevant in a moment but first I want to highlight a great piece in the commentary of the Ramban to this week’s parsha.
The Torah opens Parshat Vayakhel with another repetition of the prohibition to work on Shabbat. Unlike many of the other occasions which all generally prohibit work, the third verse in the parsha specifies a particular activity.
שמות פרק לה
ג) לא תבערו אש בכל משבתיכם ביום השבת:
Do not kindle fire on Shabbat!
In your bulletin your will find a number of approaches trying to explain why fire is singled out and what relevance it has to the tabernacle.
The Ramban explains that the reason that it is specified here is that certain fire related activities were not prohibited until this time. He quotes the Mechilta who says- you might think that one can light a candle, heat food and create fire for warmth on Shabbat – this verse comes to teach you – you may not kindle fire on Shabbat.
The Ramban argues that these activities were not included in the prohibition when it was given during the Ten Commandments.
Why should that be? What not just give all of the laws at once?
The Ramban does not address the question directly but gives us information that hints at an answer.
He writes that these 3 provide pleasure and benefit to the body and contribute to our enjoyment of Shabbat, our Oneg Shabbat.
Maybe, Hashem in his infinite wisdom knew that these would be the hardest to give up. It is not so hard to not trap or sew or build for one day of the week. But to go without heat, I guess at night in the desert and light, that is another story. And so God held off a little while before introducing those prohibitions. God let the Jews get comfortable with the other prohibited activities before springing this one on them. Because God understood that it is a process and that changing one’s routine takes time and some things are harder than others to give up!
I actually found this piece first and it led me to the Gemara about Hillel and the convert.
I believe that they share a common theme.
Both the Jews in the desert and the potential convert are new to Judaism. Both must undergo a journey in order to reach their end goal of full observance with the recognition that it takes time and that not everything can be done at once.
And in both cases the only way to continue growing is to continue learning what it means to live as a Jew.
Some of you may be thinking, well what does that have to do with me? I was born Jewish and did not live through the exodus!
What is true for those new to Judaism is just as true for those trying to grow in their Judaism.
We need to recognize that there is a process of growth for us as well. That growth can be gradual but needs to be continual and in order to grow you need to learn!
I will conclude with an aphorism of my own – the greatest obstacle to religious growth is the lack of awareness of the need for continued religious growth.