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Dear Friends,

In this week’s Torah portion, Tzav, we read,

“This is the torah of burnt offerings.” The rabbis of old asked why the Torah made the unusual choice to use the word torah- “teaching” or “instruction,” rather than something more direct such as “These are the rules.” One such rabbi was the Talmudic sage Resh Lakish who asked, “Why does the Torah say, `This is the torah of burnt offerings?]]]’” Then, in good rabbinic fashion, he answered his own question stating, “In order to teach that if someone studies the laws of an offering, it is as though they had actually offered the sacrifice themselves.”

About this, Rabbi Bradley Artson observes,

Resh Lakish offers a remarkable notion: that study is vicarious action, that reading about something with sufficient imagination and identification constitutes doing it. Upon that idea-the power of the mind to create images that are as forceful as life itself-the entire enterprise of Judaism stands and thrives.
He goes on to offer a beautiful teaching about Talmud Torah- study for its own sake. He notes that while most study is in the service of something else, Torah study is a powerful endeavor in its own right.

It is a beautiful insight but one that is largely unsatisfying for me. After all, are we not part of a tradition that holds us accountable for what we DO rather than what we THINK or FEEL? Did not the Israelites respond to God’s offer of the Torah at Mt Sinai with “Naaseh v’nishmah”- “We will do and we will eventually comprehend the meaning behind it,” thereby placing the focus on action over and above thought and feeling?

Part of the power of Judaism for me is the fact that our tradition does not hold us accountable for the dark thoughts or feelings we might have. We can think whatever we want. But we are judged by what we actually do. That is why the Ten Commandments instructs us to “honor” our parents. At any moment we can feel whatever ambivalence or resentment that may have come into our family relationships, but regardless of how we feel, we are still called upon to act with respect. The action, not the feeling, is determinative in Judaism.

That is one of the core differences between a good deed and a mitzvah. A good deed is something you do because you feel moved to do it. By contrast, a mitzvah, often mistranslated as “good deed,” is in fact a sacred obligation we are called to fulfill regardless of how we may feel in that moment.

We are in a moment when we are called to act on behalf of our community in more meaningful and impactful ways than ever before. This is no time for “cardiac Judaism” in which we feel a connection and commitment. That feeling is wonderful, but it does nothing to help strengthen and secure our Jewish present and future.

Each of us contributes to the community in our own, unique ways. There is no right or wrong way to give back. But if ever there were a time when our community needs us all, every one of us, to step up, this is that time.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Daniel Cohen