Judaism: All Or Nothing?
I have been testing the waters, trying to get involved in Judaism. But I feel like I'm swimming in a vast ocean of unfamiliar concepts: Hebrew texts, legal nuances, culture, etc. I'm not sure any of this is for me!
The Aish Rabbi Replies
There is a misconception that many people have about Judaism, what I call "the all or nothing" syndrome. With 613 mitzvot in the Torah, things can seem a bit overwhelming. People take a look at traditional Judaism with all these different commandments and say to themselves, there's no way that I can be successful at living that type of lifestyle, so what's the point of looking into it or getting involved? Where to start? What to focus on? How to make sense of it all?!
That's not the Jewish way!
Imagine you bump into an old friend and he tells you how miserable he is. You ask him, what's the matter? He says, I'm in the precious metals industry. My company just found a vein of gold in Brazil that's going to be worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
You say, that's fantastic. Your financial problems are solved. What's the problem?
He says, you just don't get it. Do you realize that this is just one vein of gold? It represents such a tiny fraction of all of the unmined gold in the world. What do I really have, compared with what's out there?
You say, are you nuts? Who the heck cares about what you haven't found yet? What you've got now is a gold mine!
That's the Jewish approach. Any aspect that you learn about, or can incorporate into your life, is a gold mine. What does it matter what aspect of Judaism you're not ready to take on? In Judaism, every mitzvah is of infinite value. Every mitzvah is more than any gold mine. Don't worry about what you can't do. Even if you never take on another mitzvah, you've still struck eternal gold.
The best advice: Relax.
Here's a true story that happened about 80 years ago in Jerusalem.
One Saturday afternoon, a young boy was walking in the Old City of Jerusalem. Suddenly he saw a gold coin on the ground. This was no mere candy money; this was a gold coin! Since it was ownerless he would be able to claim it as his. But there was one problem: The boy would not handle money on Shabbat. Suddenly he had the idea to guard it by putting his foot over the coin - and stand there until Shabbat ended... in four hours!
One hour passed and then another. Things were going well. But then some older boys came along, and said, "Hey, why are you just standing there like that?" He didn't answer them, so they pushed him down and took away the coin.
The boy returned home very very sad. He had tried to do the right thing by observing Shabbat, but wound up losing his gold coin. Later at the synagogue, the rabbi saw the boy and asked, "What's wrong?" When the boy explained the whole story, the rabbi said: "I have an idea how we can fix it. Come to my house when Shabbat is over."
After Shabbat ended, the boy went to the rabbi's house, and they sat down to talk. "I know how disappointed you are at having lost the gold coin," said the rabbi, "so here - I want to give something." And he pulled out of his desk a gold coin - just like the one the boy had found earlier that day!
"But," the rabbi continued, "I'll give you this gold coin on one condition. In exchange, you give me the merit of the mitzvah you did in observing Shabbat."
The boy thought for a moment and said: "Hmmm... If the mitzvah is worth that much, then no deal!"
The misconception that Judaism is all-or-nothing includes the false idea that a person is either "observant," or "non-observant." But that's not true. In fact, here's a secret:
Nobody is observing all the mitzvot.
That's because certain mitzvot only women usually do - like lighting Shabbat candles or going to the mikveh. Other mitzvot only men can fulfill - like Brit Milah. Others only apply to first-born children, such as the "fast of the first born" on the day before Passover. And only a Kohen can fulfill the mitzvah of reciting the Priestly Blessing.
Other mitzvot - like getting divorced with a proper Get - are procedural mitzvot that are only done under certain circumstances, and that one hopes never to fulfill. Finally, there are many mitzvot that apply only in the times of the Holy Temple, laws that in our day are temporarily suspended.
So when we talk about the totality of mitzvot, we'll never do them all anyway! So rather than get overwhelmed with the vastness of it all, better to be realistic about what we can do, and move forward in a positive way.
Let's say, for example, that a person wants to try the mitzvah of prayer. We may go to synagogue and see someone immersed in intensive prayer for one hour. We cannot conceive of how we could possibly get to that point ourselves. That's understandable, especially for one who is not fluent in Hebrew. So it's a matter of knowing which prayer gets top priority - for example, the Amidah prayer.
The Amidah has 19 blessings, and it's very difficult to concentrate for that entire time without being distracted, or one's mind wandering to other things like shopping and checking your email. So the key is to take on a small goal: "I am committing that for the first prayer of the 19, I will not rush nor allow anything to interfere between me and these few words." That goal is realistic and attainable, and one can begin to approach a high degree of intensity and concentration on that one prayer.
What this does is give a taste of the higher goal. All that's needed is to extrapolate to all 19. This is much more effective than starting off by saying, "Today I'm going to pray the entire 19 with great concentration!" - and then after three words, you're thinking about what's for breakfast.
If it's too lofty a goal, then at least taste it once. Break down a huge goal into bite-size steps that are realistic to achieve, and will give a taste of the full goal.
In Jacob's famous dream, God shows him a vision of a ladder reaching toward Heaven. Spiritual growth, like climbing a ladder, must be one step at a time. By setting small, incremental goals, we are encouraged by the periodic success. To make the plan foolproof, make your initial goal something you know you can reach. Tasting success will bolster your confidence and determination, and you can use this energy to strive for higher goals. Remember, the longest journey begins with just one step. And what goes in slow, will remain.