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The blessing G-d promises for those who observe the teachings of the Torah open with:
If you follow My statutes, and observe and carry out My commandments (26:3).
Rashi comments on the two clauses: following statutes, and observing and carrying out commandments. Using Midrashic sources, he comments that 'observing and carrying out commandments' refers to the actual performance of the Mitzvot. The first clause 'following My statutes' is not redundant, but it refers to putting in dedicated and persistent effort into learning Torah.
The connection between putting in effort and observing may be summed up in the following observation. Which festival is observed most widely amongst Jews at large - and with the greatest intensity? Logically, it would be Shavuot, which (until the popularization of the all-night Torah learning session) in terms of preparation requires the least effort and disruption of routine, but is a time of joy. It is indeed in connection with Shavuot that the Torah insists on - 'You shall rejoice before G-d' (Deut. 16:11). But in fact Shavuot appears to be the least widely observed of the three festivals. More widely observed - especially in Israel - is Sukkot. Though also a time of rejoicing: in which context we are commanded: 'You shall rejoice on your festivals' (Deut. 16:14), it takes hard work to design, put up, and make presentable a kosher sukka. Yet it is a much loved festival, even by those who do not currently aspire to full Torah observance. Yet Pesach - with its heavy cleaning preparations and highly restrictive rules and regulations - counter-intuitively gets near the top of the list. The Seder is almost complete observed throughout Jewry - even by those who are barely aware of Shavuot or Purim. And in the popularity stakes, Pesach is rivaled by only Yom Kippur. Those who never see the inside of a Jewish place of worship make sure they attend on that day. Yom Kippur is the most demanding - and popular - of all days. Called shabbat shabbaton - the Sabbath of Sabbaths (23:32), it includes fasting for twenty-five hours (without even a glass of water), and intense communal focus on confessing one's sins and setting out to do much better in the following year. Indeed, the high spiritual plane demanded on Yom Kippur makes it is the only time of the year that it is permitted to address G-d out loud in the same way as angels, with: 'Baruch shem kevod malchuto le-olam va-ed'.
As frequently quoted from Chazal: 'The more mesirat nefesh (persistent dedication) a person puts into something, the more it belongs to him'. (Please would a kind reader give me the source of that statement which I have not yet located?) It is that mesirat nefesh which has been ensuring Pesach and Yom Kippur's continuing widespread popularity.
This gives an insight of why putting 'dedicated and persistent effort' into learning Torah is weighted together with 'observing and carrying out the commandments'. It is the effort taken to understand a Halacha from its roots - from its Torah and Nach sources, through the Gemara and commentaries' highly complex exposition of those sources, though the bridge between Gemara and Halacha by works such as the Beth Yosef, and by tracing how, over generations, these sources have come together to give the Halacha as we understand it today requires years of study before one 'gets it'. It is that regular and demanding study involving much mesirat nefesh that indeed makes Torah observance indeed belong to the person…
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Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: email@example.com for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.
Parashiot from the First, Second, and Third Series may be viewed on the Shema Yisrael web-site: http://www.shemayisrael.com/parsha/solomon/archives/archives.htm
Also by Jacob Solomon:
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