We are taught that Rachmana liba bai, that in the service of G-d, the Merciful One desires the feeling that permeates our heart far more than any physical act we could possibly do. As parents, educators and role models, therefore, it follows that one of the traps that we should be most wary of is allowing ourselves or our children to fall into rote when it comes to performing G-d’s mitzvot.
The mitzvot are the mandated structure within which we are given the opportunity to express our love for G-d and our sincere desire for a relationship with Him, and as such, that structure must be meticulously adhered to in all its details. But devoid of inner meaning, the mitzvot are but an empty shell, a structure surrounding nothing. The depth of a mitzvah lies in the feeling with which it is performed.
So how are we to encourage our children, and ourselves, to truly feel a deep-seated love and desire to serve G-d when performing the mitzvot?
From our youngest days, we are taught that our forefather, Abraham, was the quintessential man of chesed, kindness. We are taught that his kindness toward others is perhaps unmatched in the annals of history. However, there is only one place in all the Torah where his kindness is actually mentioned explicitly. That is at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Vayeira, where he gives food to the three passersby who provide him with the tidings of his future son and the impending destruction of Sodom.
There is, however, only one problem. As it turned out, these passersby were not people, they were angels, and so did not need any food, shade or rest.
What emerges is that the only time the Torah chooses to explicitly mention Abraham’s kindness is in an instance when, while he thought he was doing kindness, he was not really doing so at all. Why not mention any of the instances in which Abraham actually performed an act of kindness? Wouldn’t those have been far more appropriate?
Rabbi Tzaddok Hakohen Rabinowitz of 19th-century Lublin, Poland, answers that the Torah’s choice of this particular event is to teach us a fundamental principle in expanding our relationship with G-d. That which ultimately separates us from all the rest of creation and defines us as G-dly beings, our free will, is contained in what we want to do, not in that which we actually do.
We might genuinely want to do a mitzvah, but G-d may prevent it from being carried out, and yet we are still rewarded — as long as we actually wanted to carry it out. Here, the Torah specifically picks a situation in which Abraham wanted to do the mitzvah of acting with kindness, yet didn’t, to teach us this important lesson: Rachmana liba bai.
While our strict adherence to the structure of G-d’s commandments is of awesome value and importance, it is not in and of itself the goal. G-d, more than anything, wants a genuine relationship with us, a relationship built on a strong and passionate emotional connection. He wants our heart. This, however, requires serious effort if it is to be sustained and strengthened over time, just as does the emotional connection in any relationship.
May we always maintain the focus and drive necessary to continuously grow ever closer to our Maker through the observance of His mitzvot and the studying of His Torah, and through that may we merit the close and meaningful relationship with the Divine which we are all truly capable of enjoying.JN
Rabbi Yisroel Weiner is the principal of the Phoenix Hebrew Academy.