Last week I noted the comment of Rashi that compared observance of mitzvot to “practice.” I mentioned that I would try to explain Rashi’s (and the Midrash’s) comment if someone asked.
Imagine yourself a citizen of the United States of America. Citizen of the USA celebrate certain national holidays that carry special meaning to them: Independence Day means parades, hot dogs and fireworks. Memorial Day means good sales. Thanksgiving means Turkey, too much food, bad football, and then more sales. Each day carries cultural, emotional and national meaning. We also have national rituals: we pledge allegiance to the flag. We sing the Star Spangled Banner before baseball games and Monster Truck matches.
Now imagine that, for whatever reason, you were forced to leave the United States. Take it a step further: the People’s Republic of China overthrew the American government in a bloodless coup by lacing every turkey in America with sleeping pills. We never knew what hit us (and we missed the only Detroit Lions Thanksgiving win in decades.) The Chinese exiled us all to Canada, and we can no longer tell the difference between Americans and Canadians. (We all start saying out like it’s “oot,” eh?)
When July 4th rolled around that fateful year, would we celebrate? If we did, celebrating America’s “independence” would seem a cruel, almost gruesome exercise, if not a way to remember the past in the hopes for a return to the hot-dog-eating contests and marching bands someday in the future. Without a nation, national symbols ring hollow, lacking meaning or purpose.
What does that have to do with the mitzvot? That all depends on how we view them. Because we’ve been raised after 2,000 years of exile (almost), we view the mitzvot that we consider so central to our lives only from a religious, spiritual perspective. Without a doubt they have critical impact on us as spiritual beings. But when given, the commandments had an additional, national element that was meant to bind us together as a people, sharing common practices, rituals and culture.
Rashi’s comment, that we must continue to perform the commandments in the exile so that they’ll not seem strange upon our return to Israel, tells me that first and foremost, the mitzvot are vehicles to express our national identity. Without that element, performing God’s commandments certainly has meaning, but only a shadow of their original intent.
Why do I keep kosher? I do it because the Torah commands me to. But do I follow the dietary laws to improve and refine myself spiritually, or to connect to my national identity? Either way, I’m keeping kosher. But the first perspective is all about me; the second is about something far greater.
Ironically, according to this perspective, one need not necessarily live in the Land of Israel himself to keep commandments as a member of the nation of Israel. The Jewish people must control the Land. We must have a Jewish “nation.” But if that nation exists, with its homeland, language and national aspirations, then the commandments take on their deeper, national aspiration even in Michigan or Mexico.
Sadly, too many religious Jews still lack an appreciation for this critical aspect of our Jewish identity. We still have far too many “galut” Jews, who cannot see in God’s holy commandments the seed of a holy “nation”. They see community; they see congregation; but they don’t really see nation, especially not in the commandments.
On the other side, of course, we find Jews who strongly believe in the critical importance of the Jewish nation. But they see our national identity expressed only through Land, language, army and national accomplishment in the secular realm. They fail to understand that our national aspirations can only be realized through the combination of a strong, viable state together with the spirituality that the mitzvot infuse into our collective identity. Without the mitzvot we might have a nation, but it won’t be a Jewish nation.
We must continue to work towards the day when all Jews appreciate that to build a proper Jewish nation, we must have a Land. But we must also be excellent in the mitzvot, and use them to propel us collectively closer to God, as we grow into a “Holy Nation.”