One of the themes we’ve been talking about lately is the concept of obligation. On page 11 I was suggesting that in Hillel’s worldview the spirit of the law is paramount, and that viewing it solely as a demanding or constraining set of obligations was to miss the point. In brief, God is not keeping score.
This position is challenged a little by the mishna we are discussing today:
R. Joshua b. Korhah said: why was the section of ‘Shema’ placed before that of ‘and it shall come to pass’? So that one should first accept upon himself the yoke of the kingdom of heaven and then take upon himself the yoke of the commandments.
So, as opposed to the three readings of the Shema we saw yesterday, we are presented with another one, and this time the theme of obligation seems to be very much central. What do we do with this?
Maybe I’m just the wrong sort of ox, but the idea of assuming a yoke doesn’t come very naturally to me. And I don’t think I’m alone, I think the modern consciousness is not very well attuned to such an image, it feels alien to our liberal, democratic and fundamentally autonomous worldview.
How then are we to understand it?
First of all, reading the MIshna carefully, we can see that there is actually already a rejection of a certain worldview. Rabbi Joshua is telling us that we mustn’t just accept the yoke of mitzvot without having first spent some serious time contemplating the yoke of heaven. This is actually quite in tune with Hillel’s worldview – do not embrace the law out of a spirit of obligation, resignation, defeat. The law is holy, it is not here to satisfy your craving for consolation, to fulfil a masochistic desire or to meet a need to obsess.
So, before you embrace the Law, understand that in doing so you are connecting with something Heavenly, with something Divine, with something powerfully Other.
Building on what we said yesterday about the Divine, I think we can see that the ‘yoke of heaven’ can actually be quite a profound thing. It is perhaps, quite literally, uplifting.
When we meditate on everything that is fine, true and good in the world, when we manage to hear – shema - the better angels of our nature, we may well be momentarily moved. We may have a brief epiphany. But, more often than not, we quickly forget about it, and get on with life much as we did before.
In a sense, we view these moments of inspiration as somewhat illusory, the product of a febrile imagination, they’re somehow not very real.
No doubt, some forms of psychoanalysis, including some of Freud himself, have helped propagate this worldview. And it’s also supported by the other strongly materialist worldviews so prevalent nowadays, including a certain interpretation of neuroscience, a reductionist approach to philosophy, a strand of evolutionary biology and a resistant breed of Marx-esque economic determinism.
With all of this in the intellectual air, it really is tough to take goodness or truth seriously as ‘real things’. Following that, it becomes very hard to commit to them as principles by which to live one’s life.
To swear allegiance to these ethereal ideals, that requires both hard intellectual work and a great deal of moral fabric. We need to see that they are, in some quiet and subtle sense, very very real, and we must then make something of a leap of faith to live by them.
And perhaps we don’t even always manage to make that leap. Perhaps we carry on like the stubborn ox, refusing to believe that these ideals are actually good for us, that these fleeting visions of what we might be, of what society might look like, are actually precious gifts of insight, flashes of illumination in an otherwise perplexing world.
We don’t embrace them, we do our best to ignore them, we flee, like Jonah, to another part of the world, one where we think we’re safe from their calling.
We try, but eventually, perhaps, we run out of steam. Eventually we start to get it, we start to see that this stuff really does matter, that man does not live by bread alone, that the stuff of the spirit is what ultimately makes the difference. For ourselves and for society, living without ideals only leads to alienation and disintegration; without the wholeness of a vision the possibility of meaning evaporates.
Eventually we might start to accept this as a reality. And I think that the idea of not studying the mystical tradition until we are 40 recognises how difficult this is, it acknowledges quite how much patience and experience it requires.
But even then, when we feel almost forced into responding to the call of our spirit, we still can’t quite do it, we still think we can get away with thoughtless, selfish living, focussing on our straightforward material needs and ignoring our subtler, higher ones. We treat spiritual life as something of a luxury, and not one that we always deem worthy of our time or energy.
This then is the yoke of heaven, to accept the reality of these demands, of our true nature, and to focus our energy on living by them. And, as the tradition recognises, this is not something we do once, but something we do twice daily, for we are sure to be constantly forgetting it.
And once we have embarked on this mission, once we see the yoke as something which elevates us, which makes us more than human, ubermenschen, and certainly not like the animals of the field, only then can we understand the mitzvot. Only then can we approach them with the care and spirit they require, only then can we know the right way to weave them into our lives.
We see this idea expressed again later on our daf, in quite a different way. We are told not to engage with our personal needs before praying in the morning, lest we miss out on the verse:
Righteousness shall go before him, and shall make for his feet a path. (Ps. 85.14)
When we pray, when we engage with the Divine, when we commit to it, we come away with a renewed burst of righteousness, our moral energies are bolstered, our spirits are lifted.
A path is suddenly laid out before us, and our feet find it ever so slightly easier to walk it.