Guest author: Rabbi Jacob J. Staub
Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, is a time for teshuvah—returning to the divinely commanded path, the Torah, that was revealed at Mount Sinai (Exodus 20), from which we have each invariably strayed over the course of the year. According to Jewish traditions, the Torah includes 613 commandments.
Why aren’t Jews overwhelmed by the sheer number of commandments? Why don’t Jews feel condemned by the need to observe of the commandments, as Paul assumed to be the case in his Epistles?
The approach of Hasidic teachers to this question may be helpful to all people who seek to commune with the divine presence. They observe that the biblical verse, Cursed be the one who does not observe and do the terms of the Torah (Deuteronomy 27: 26) makes no sense, because nobody is able to observe all 613 commandments.
Their response: each of the 613 commandments contains the other 612. If a person observes even one of the commandments with wholehearted devotion and a full heart, it is as if he or she observes them all. Why? Because the purpose of each commandment is to arouse our awareness that we are in God’s hands, that we are not in charge, that without the constant sustenance of God’s loving embrace, we would be unable to survive. Thus, observing one commandment wholeheartedly removes the “curse” of being separated from God and serves as the pathway to breaking open our hearts and letting God’s love in.
For seekers who are burdened by a sense of their own sinfulness and alienation from God, this Hasidic guidance provides a way to reconcile that is not overwhelming. Choose a commandment: blessing God as you eat a ripe peach; working in a soup kitchen; reconciling with a family member from whom you have been estranged; lighting the Sabbath candles. Perform the commandment wholeheartedly, mindful that you are connecting with the divine, that you are doing teshuvah. And bask in the loving light.
Rabbi Jacob Staub is Professor of Jewish Philosophy and Spirituality at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, PA, where he directs the program in Jewish Spiritual Direction.