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Bereishit: Saying No Is Constructive

Submitted by on October 15, 2009 – 3:48 pmNo Comment | 2,154 views

Obsessed with Prohibitions

The Torah is obsessed with the word No; don’t do this,
refrain from that, this is negative and that is dangerous. For every “do” there
are ten “don’ts.” Take Shabbat for example. Its only positive commandment is to
sanctify the day; all others are negative. Don’t drive, don’t cook, don’t shower
and don’t garden. Why are we so focused on the don’ts, can’t we be a little
more open-minded?

This challenge was recently issued to me by a Jew who describes
himself as positively oriented. The G-d of Torah he maintains is one of wrath
and vengeance whereas his G-d is filled with love and nurture. He teaches his
children the beauty of Judaism and celebrates the rich tapestry of our culture,
but doesn’t bother much with the prohibitions. “Anything goes, he says, “so
long as the children learn to cherish our traditions.”

In typical Jewish fashion, I replied with a question, ‘How
many wives do you have?’
‘One.‘
‘And how many women are you not
married to?’
‘All the other women in the world.’
‘So how would you describe yourself, as a married man or as not married? After
all, for every woman to whom you are married there are about four and a half billion
to whom you are not married.’

You cannot be married to one person unless you are not
married to everyone else; by definition the no’s outnumber the yes. Does this
mean that you are defined by the women you are not married to? (1)

When Shabbat Becomes
Holy

Shabbat is a day of celebration; not self denial. True, we
don’t shop and cook on this day, but that is because it is too special a day to
be wasted in so prosaic a manner; these trivialities can wait for Monday. Shabbat
is not Monday. It is holy. It is special. It is Shabbat.

A friend told me that when his children were younger he and
his wife always made sure to have Shabbat dinner at home with the children. Neighbors
and friends were allowed to go to parties, but his daughters remained at home.
The children, he told me, never felt deprived. On the contrary, they felt that
Friday night was holy, too holy for mundane parties – those were for weekdays.

Not being married to four a half billion women does not
define you as single. On the contrary it defines you as a person committed
exclusively to one woman. Similarly, saying no to the weekday activities doesn’t
define Shabbat as a negative day. On the contrary, it defines Shabbat as a holy
day. A day that stands alone; apart and exalted.

The Map

Think of a map. The first step in map reading is selecting a
destination. Once the destination is selected only a limited number of the
map’s routes can be used. There might five or ten roads that lead to your
destination without costly maneuvers or wasteful detours. There are hundreds of
other roads on the map, but they are not for you; they don’t lead to your
destination.

If you map out directions for your son, you will likely show
him the roads to take and exhort him not to take any other road. That is not
focusing on the negative; that is showing him the way. If you merely show him
how to cherish the route that leads to his destination, but tell him to select any
route he likes, so long as he cherishes the value of your route, he will likely
never reach his destination.

Now suppose your son has no particular destination in mind. In
that case you can encourage him to explore all the roads on the map. You might
point out the roads with scenic views or the routes that resonate with a
particular family tradition, but you would not confine him to the roads of your
childhood. You would encourage him to explore the entire map and chart his own
course.

Until you choose a destination you can travel any road on
the map, but when your intention is to reach a particular destination, you must
confine yourself to the few roads that lead to your destination. Forays into
offshoots and side paths are counter productive.

Torah leads us to a relationship with G-d. There are
multiple roads that lead to G-d; these roads are reflected in the mosaic of
customs and traditions that exist within the framework of authentic Torah
Judaism. Any path beyond this framework leads to a pleasant journey, but not necessarily
to G-d. If G-d is your destination then this is not the path for you.

This is why the history of humanity begins with a prohibition.
G-d placed Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and commanded them to eat of all
the fruits in the garden and then immediately added a prohibition, not to eat
from the tree of knowledge. G-d added that prohibition because the fruit of
that tree would lead Adam and Eve away from G-d. The fruit was delicious and
tempting, eating it would be enjoyable and delectable, but it would lead to the
wrong destination. (2)

Prohibitions serve as landmarks that guide us to holy and
G-dly destinations. They are marked by the Torah to help us avoid the paths
that lead astray. So long as we avoid them we are making progress; once we
indulge them we begin to wander. Those who tread the paths that lead to G-d and
avoid paths that lead from G-d are, in fact, positively oriented; they are
moving forward. Those who follow the path of whim flounder in the open minded
sea; they ride its precarious waves, but rise and fall at their peril.

Questions For Further Discussion

Do you feel too focused on the No's?

What do you think can be done to shift to a positive approach without compromising our destination?

You are invited to respond by posting your comment below.

For another approach on this subject see http://www.chabad.org/461021

Footnotes

  1. A similar example: You cannot have a home unless its walls exclude the rest of the city. If one home in the city belongs to you then by definition all others do not. Are you therefore a person with a home or are you largely without a home?
  2. You might be wondering why Adam and Eve were permitted every tree in the garden, but one whereas we are forbidden almost every route in the map and are only permitted one or two.This is because Adam and Eve were already in the garden; they were at their destination. Once you are at your destination there is only one wrong way to go and that is backwards. Every other path is permissible because they are all part of the Garden; all part of the destination.Let us return to our earlier example of marriage. Once married, husband and wife are permitted many forms of interaction that were forbidden before marriage. However, the one area of danger they must studiously avoid is curiosity about what life might be like if they were married to someone else. There is no way to pose that question without compromising the purity and integrity of their marriage; innocent as these musings seem they are ruinous to a marriage.The Tree of Knowledge represents the mind’s innate curiosity. Adam and Eve could converse with G-d and intuit His existence on a deep level. But even in the Garden they could stray along the path of curiosity by wondering whether it could be proved that G-d exists beyond the garden or beyond the realm of holiness. Is there room for G-d in the mundane? Is the prosaic intrinsically holy?This intellectual curiosity would prove their undoing for it would entice them to toy with the forbidden in their ultimate quest for an answer. This curiosity, said G-d, represents the only path out of the Garden and away from the destination; don’t take it. Not if you like it here; not if this is your chosen destination.Once Adam and Eve were rejected from Eden they found themselves at the bottom of the map. From that starting point there are an almost unlimited number of wrong paths and very few right paths that lead back to Eden. This is why we have so many prohibitions today compared to the single prohibition in Eden.