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Home » Free Choice, Shmini

Because I Said So

Submitted by on April 14, 2023 – 12:37 pmNo Comment | 462 views

Because I said so, was a common refrain when I was young. We knew that we were more competent than all adults combined, and we constantly challenged our elders when we were instructed to do something. When the explanation was above our pay grades, their response was often, “Because I said so.”

“Because I said so,” has fallen out of vogue. It is seen as a degradation of the child. Children should never be made to feel that they and their opinions don’t matter; that their only role is to obey “Because I said so.” And this is entirely correct. As a child, it never felt good to be told “Because I said so.” Sometimes I complied, more often, I rebelled. It was a power play, and I knew it.

Yet, if you change the context, the words because I said so can be highly meaningful and fulfilling. One of the most popular cards in the flower shop is, “Just because.” I don’t have a particular reason to send you flowers. You didn’t do anything kind, and I didn’t do anything rotten. I sent the flowers just because. I thought of you. I felt loving toward you, and I wanted to say it with flowers. Just because.

“Just because” and “Because I said so” are complete opposites, yet they say the same thing. They convey the idea of doing something despite not knowing why. The difference is that when you do it “Because I said so,” you feel compelled. When you do it “just because,” you feel delighted. This makes all the difference.

Aaron’s Sons
On the day the sacred tabernacle was inaugurated in the desert, Aaron’s sons entered the sanctuary with a pan of coals and incense. This was the holiest offering one could bring in the Tabernacle. Yet, it was called a “foreign offering” because “G-d did not instruct them to bring it.”[1]

Surely, they had good reason to bring it. These were not young children. Nadab and Abihu were mature adults, brilliant Torah scholars, and pious devout priests of G-d. Yet, they were wrong because they brought an offering they were not instructed to bring. As Samuel the prophet once said in another context, “Obedience is better than an offering.”[2] The offering was beautiful and uplifting, but it was wrong because it was their idea. G-d did not instruct it.

Wine or Love
Speaking on G-d’s behalf, King Solomon once proclaimed, “Your love is sweeter than wine.”[3] Wine is renowned for its flavor and bouquet. When one serves G-d in a manner that is intuitive and makes sense, it is as pleasurable as wine. Yet, G-d tells us that He enjoys our love more than our wine. He wants us to do as He asks because we love Him and want to please Him rather than because it pleases us.

Suppose your spouse asks you for a favor and you refuse because you don’t understand why he or she wants it. Your ostensible reason is that you want to enjoy the favor and you can only enjoy it if you understand the reason. That is what you are thinking but stop for a moment and ask yourself what your spouse is hearing.

Here is what your spouse hears. That I want it meant little to you. To do this favor for me, you need to want it first. To please me is not high on your priority list. You will only do it if you understand and agree with it. If it pleases you.

The moment you realize this, you swallow your objections and do it. You don’t need wine to make your spouse happy. You just need to know that your spouse is happy. You just need to show some love. Of course, once you did the deed, it is nice to understand because the more you understand each other the better you can connect. But there is time for that. First, go make your spouse happy.

The same applies to G-d. G-d loves it when we understand why we are doing a Mitzvah. G-d loves it when we take pleasure from doing a Mitzvah. But G-d does not want that to be our first reason to do His bidding. First, it needs to be about G-d. Just knowing that it pleases G-d should be enough. Holding out until we understand so it can please us too should be out of the question.

Once we do the Mitzvah for G-d’s sake, there is plenty of time to study it, understand it, and learn how pleasurable it is. There will be plenty of time for wine. But first comes love.

When our ancestors received the Torah, they said, “We will do, and we will listen.”[4] By that, they meant that G-d’s wish would be their command. Once they fulfill G-d’s will, they will listen for an explanation. Nadab and Abihu, Aaron’s sons, also proclaimed loudly that they would do and then listen. But in their haste to take delight in their relationship with G-d, they inadvertently placed themselves first. They rushed into the sanctuary because they wanted to experience the pleasure of being in G-d’s home rather than because G-d wanted them there.

That was the first and last time a Jew ever walked into the sanctuary unbidden. But it was not the last time a Jew chose to change G-d’s rules for convenience. Sadly, this happens sometimes, and it isn’t right.

Don’t Reinvent the Wheel
Celebrating the Seder the weekend before or after Passover is not celebrating Passover. It is pleasant and convenient to do it on the weekend. G-d is surely happy to see His children take pleasure from His Mitzvah to eat Matzah, but the Saturday before Passover is not Passover. This is wine when we need love.

There are countless examples, and we can each apply the one that relates to us and our choices. Just like you can’t celebrate your wife’s birthday by taking her to a venue you enjoy, and she doesn’t, so can you not hold a Jewish wedding in a Catholic church. Shabbat can’t be celebrated on Thursday even if that is when the family is visiting. That is putting us ahead of G-d. It is wine ahead of love. When we read the story of Nadab and Abihu, we are reminded that their story is sometimes our story.

The Torah doesn’t tell stories just for the sake of storytelling. The Torah’s stories are instructive. The lesson of this story is to follow G-d’s prescriptions even before we understand them. You might believe that social equity is the highest calling of our times. Others might believe that freedom and liberty are the highest callings of our times. The story of Nadab and Abihu reminds us to put our opinions on the back burner and do as G-d instructs.

Eventually, we too can understand G-d’s opinion. But until we do, it is enough for us that G-d understands. Until we understand, we can do it just because. Because G-d said so.[5]

[1] Leviticus 10:1.

[2] I Samuel 15:22.

[3] Song of Songs 1:2.

[4] Exodus 24:7.

[5] This essay is based on Sefat Emet by Rabbi Yehudahu Aryeh Leib of Gur on Leviticus 10:1.