Habits are a powerful thing – habits are how we live and function because motivation is fleeting. But there is a dangerous possibility of habitual religious observance:
רְאֵה אָנֹכִי נֹתֵן לִפְנֵיכֶם הַיּוֹם בְּרָכָה וּקְלָלָה – I am giving before you today a blessing and a curse. (11:26)
Moshe does not call on us to view life’s choices through a black and white dualism of mitzvah versus sin. Instead, he counsels us to make choices through the nuance of blessing and curse, because the blessing is what matters, not the mitzvah itself. A mitzvah is simply a vehicle for what God wishes for each of us – a life of blessing.
But who would ever choose the curse?
R’ Shlomo Farhi explains that by the curse finds us when we focus on the mitzvah instead of the blessing. It is all too easy to empty Judaism of its spirituality; meticulous observance can become mechanical rote – and without mindful intention and inspiration, it can look similar, but it’s not the same.
If we don’t consider an action before following through, we have not made a choice at all, and are simply following conditioning.
That’s where we need to discern the blessing from the curse. What can look like a mitzvah on the surface might not be serving God at all. It’s just robotic programming; it isn’t the path of blessing – it’s the other path. It’s not a path people choose; they find themselves there by not choosing at all!
In its ideal form, Jewish observance is conscious and mindful. We opt in because it matters to us and means something.
On the flip side of this, there is a problem with inspiration run wild.
In the laws that follow, Moshe warns the Jewish People not to co-opt the religious practices of the local Canaanites – because feeling inspired to serve God in ways we choose isn’t serving God at all.
When we blur the boundaries of inspired contribution and dutiful obligation, things can get dangerous.
The people had seen this tense dynamic play out with Nadav and Avihu, with a compelling point made about equality before the law: even the foremost spiritual elite are subject to the framework of the Torah. What had steered them wrong was misguided inspiration that was ultimately misguided folly.
So what are the guidelines of inspired observance that is welcomed with blessing?
R’ Shlomo Farhi teaches that we just need to apply our inspiration where it fits in. When we can and should follow our inspiration, and our actions have enhanced value.
But this can go too far. If someone decides that a white shirt is the most dignified way for them to dress, that is their prerogative. But if that thought process leads them to judge anyone else for not also opting to wear white shirts, that’s the path of mitzvah with no blessing. Our inspiration needs to fit.
Misplaced rigidity only alienates.
We can and should infuse our Jewish observance with mindful feeling. We must choose for it to matter. And we have to find the right place for it – choose the blessing, not the mitzvah. Because inspiration wrongly applied can backfire.
But if we are going through the motions without any inspiration at all, that might be worse.