Parashat Behaalotekha 5770 (on the burden and joy of mitzvot))

Devar Torah given at Kehilat Hadar,aside from giving information, guidance and encouragement for those interested in “harnessing ox power” – “a viable source of alternative energy for small farms and acreages”, also contains an analysis of the New Testament’s contrasting of the “easy yoke” of faith in Jesus with the burden of the Law. For these Christians, the commandments were hard and cruel. No one could do all of them, which meant that everyone would be punished. In contrast, anyone could be saved by believing in Jesus, which was, for them, preferable to the unreasonable weight of the mitzvot.

For the Israelites in this week’s parsha too, the mitzvot seem just too burdensome:
וַיִּסְעוּ מֵהַר יְהוָה דֶּרֶךְ שְׁלֹשֶׁת יָמִים

They travelled from the mountain of Hashem for three days… (Numbers 10:33)

A midrash in Yalkut Shimoni (Parashat Behaalotekha s.v. “vayehi binsoa”; v. Ramban ad loc. & Tosafot Shabbat 116a), asks why the Israelites travel for a straight three days march, away from Mount Sinai, when normally one day is as much as they can manage in one go. And the midrash answers that they were running away from Sinai like children who had just been let out of school. Every day that they had been camped at Sinai, God had given them more and moremitzvot, and they had had enough. And so, as soon as they were allowed to leave, they ran and ran, in case God tried to give them any more.

This is the yoke of the mitzvot – the burdenof the commandments. The weight of shabbat and kashrut hangs around our necks. Don’t eat that! You can’t do this today! No shelfish! No Friday nights on the town! The Israelites just couldn’t take any more.

But what better image could there be of the weight of the law on one’s shoulders, than Moses carrying the ten commandments? There, back in Exodus, another midrash – from midrash tanhuma (Warsaw ed., Parashat Ki Tissa, 26) – describes Moses coming down from Sinai and finding the Israelites worshipping the golden calf. In this midrash, he doesn’t deliberately throw down the tablets to shatter them in front of the sinful people. Rather, these were solid stone tablets – they must have weighed an incredible amount. The only reason he had managed to get them down from the top of the mountain, says the midrash, is because it only looked like he had been carrying them. In reality, they were carrying themselves. As he approached the camp that was full of idol-worship, the letters of the ten commandments detached from the stone, and flew away. Moses was left with the heavy blank tablets, and could no longer bear their weight.

So the burden of the mitzvot, which seemed almost unbearable, was literally weightless to Moses. How did he achieve this? Why was the yoke of the mitzvot so easy for him carry? And can it be just as easy for us?

Well, what is a yoke? A yoke is a device that fits around the necks – or sometimes the heads of oxen (who, I found out, are just cattle taught to work) to enable them to pull a plough or a wagon. It is not weight for its own sake; rather, it is a way to effectively perform a purpose. Moses, having just received the Torah from God, must have had a very clear sense of what the mitzvot are, and what their purpose is. In this state, the mitzvot were not a burden for Moses at all! In fact, mitzvot can be a source of joy, as R’ David Hartman explains in his essay “the Joy of Torah” (A Heart of Many Rooms). There he references the evening blessing before the shema:
ונשמח בדברי תורתך ובמצותך

We rejoice in the words of your Torah, and in your mitzvot!

This may have been easy for Moses. After all, he must have had a clear understanding of the purpose of the mitzvot – he had just heard them mi pi ha gevura – from the mouth of the almighty. For us, it is more difficult.

Though there are plenty of ideas out there: Perhaps the life of mitzvot can be a path to strengthening our relationship with God, as Buber thought. Or perhaps as Rav Shai Held often proposes, it is a way to create “a world in which human dignity is real and the presence of God is manifest”. Perhaps it is to achieve tikkun ha-nefesh – the spiritual-intellectual perfection that Maimonides champions. Or maybe the performance of mitzvot directly contributes to the uniting of the sefirot that dictate the structure of the universe, as some kabbalists claim. Or perhapssomething else entirely.

But offers us some direction from its FAQ, where we are told:

Yes, two oxen yoked together can pull more than double the combined weight two single oxen could pull, if the conditions, training, and capability of the teamster are optimum.

Another important feature of a yoke is that it binds two oxen together. These oxen can now pull a heavier wagon than they could separately. The yoke of the mitzvot was similarly placed on the people as a whole. For each of us to work out how to motivateourselves to perform the mitzvot on our own, and for what purpose, and to then achieve that goal, may indeed be too difficult. But we are lucky enough to be working in parallel.

If the Teamster is the Creator of the Universe and God of Israel, and if we can develop our understanding of the purpose of the mitzvot together, and practice them together, I hope that we can experience them not as a burden, but as a joy, and move as individuals, a community and as a world, closer to their goal.

Shabbat shalom