Ideals and Yokes

The question I started with was wondering about the first two paragraphs of Shema. (Which is what Arukh haShulchan Yomi is up to.) The first paragraph is an exercise of accepting ol Malkhus Shamayim, the yoke of the Kingdom of [the One in] heaven. The second — ol Mitzvos, the yoke of the commandments.

Those mitzvos are the commands of that King. So… How does the intent I am supposed to have when saying each of these paragraphs differ? The metaphor of “yoke” tells me that we’re talking about some kind of burden that is necessary if I am going to live productively. But how is the yoke of Hashem’s Rule different than that of His mitzvos? Aren’t I accepting to try my best to listen to Him either way?

And somehow this distinction relates to the difference between the goals of Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur. On Rosh haShanah we talk about accepting Hashem as our King. We do not even directly speak about teshuvah. On Yom Kippur we talk about abandoning sin, embracing mitzvos, and changing our middos so that the correct behaviors come more naturally to us. Rosh haShanah — ol Malkhus. Yom Kippur — ol mitzvos.

We use the word “ideal” in two ways. (Yes, I need the jump in topic to build to a proposed answer. Actually, I’ll need two.)

The first I think of as “the mountain peak”. This is the ideal we strive for. The person with perfect middos, who is compassionate, generous, learned, righteous, G-d fearing…

But that perfection never existed. Even Moshe sins. (And notice that the beraisa‘s list of four people who hadn’t sinned are all named in relation to their more accomplished relatives (Bava Bara 17a), “Benyamin, ben Yaaqov, Amram, father of Moses; Yishai, father of David; and Khil’av ben David.”)

כִּ֣י אָדָ֔ם אֵ֥ין צַדִּ֖יק בָּאָ֑רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר יַעֲשֶׂה־טּ֖וֹב וְלֹ֥א יֶחֱטָֽא׃

For there is not one good man on earth who does what is best and doesn’t err.

— Koheles 7:20

So, the ideal life is not one on the mountaintop. It’s the life lived reaching toward it.

כִּ֤י שֶׁ֨בַע ׀ יִפּ֣וֹל צַדִּ֣יק וָקָ֑ם וּ֝רְשָׁעִ֗ים יִכָּשְׁל֥וּ בְרָעָֽה׃

Seven times the righteous man falls and gets up, While the wicked are tripped by one misfortune.

— Koheles 24:16

It is inevitable that in the kind of life we want to lead, we will at times be trapped in periods of darkness. Setbacks. Struggling with our faith. But we don’t aim for a life of struggling with faith. This is a second usage of the word “ideal”. Not the mountain top we aspire to reach, but the path up that mountain.

We are in the “image” of the Divine. We cannot reach that Infinite Perfection mountaintop. But we are called upon to head up the mountain.

Two different meanings of the word ideal: the mountain top we aspire to, and the ideal process to strive for that aspiration. (And now, our second and last topic jump.)

If you ask someone who isn’t dieting if they want to diet and they say “yes”… So, why aren’t they dieting? It’s the right thing to do. Usually it’s not a logistical issue. So if they really want to diet why didn’t they choose to diet?

Because the truth is that they want something else more. It is not so much that the person wants to diet as they want to be the kind of person who really wants to diet. They don’t want dieting more than they want lasagna, but they want to be the kind of person who does.

Which dovetails with our discussion of the two definitions of the word “ideal”. The person we are describing doesn’t want to be traveling that path, and yet they still want to be the kind of person who gets to the mountain top. Inconsistent? Yes. But people’s feelings and desires often are. And we need to start with the “eye on the prize”, the desire for the aspirational goal. That’s what gives us the motivation to continue hiking up the mountain toward it.

And that brings me back to the opening question — the difference between ol malkhus Shamayim and ol mitzvos. Between the goals of the first and second chapters of Shema, between Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur.

Malkhus Shamayim is accepting Hashem as King. It’s the aspirational goal — I want to be on His team. Not to be an obstacle so that the betterment of the world and of myself happens at my expense. But to work with the Ruler to make it happen. But we To accept ol malkhus Shamayim is to want to be a particular kind of person, one whose will matches Hashem’s Will.

Ol Mitzvos is accepting the path there, all the nitty-gritty work of attitudes, desires, priorities, virtues and behaviors. When someone accepts ol mitzvos, they are reprioritizing their wants so that they actually want.

The first paragraph of Shema as well as Rosh haShanah is about aiming for the right mountain top, the aspirational ideal. The wanting to be the kind of person who wants the right thing. It comes first because it’s the draw that gets us to the next step, the actual desire to do the work to get there. The second paragraph, Vehayah Im Shamoa, is about ol mitzvos, halakhah — the art of walking (\הלכ\ = walk / travel) up the mountain. Yom Kippur is for taking that next step forward.

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