It's Impossible to Break Halacha

I have no doubt that this conversation occurs in every high school shiur. At some point in the year, a discussion about “Shomer Negiah” arrises.

Naturally, the talmidim and talmidos begin timidly; not wanting to reveal to their rebbe or morah the extent of their exposure or familiarity with the topic. Quickly, however, the conversation shifts as kids look around the room, exchanging knowing looks and making veiled remarks about each other.

When it happened this year, I waited for a moment of quiet, and stated as honestly as I could: “Despite what you think you have or haven't done, every one of you guys in this shiur is Shomer Negiah.”

That got a reaction. “Come on Rebbe!” One talmid exclaimed incredulously. “You can't possibly be that naive?”

“Far from it,” I explained, “however, to the best of my understanding, this classroom is single gender, and none of you are currently engaging in any activity prohibited by the Torah. Which means that all of you are – right now – shomer negiah.”

It took a minute for that to sink in. Right now no one is doing anything wrong. “But Rebbe, that's crazy. Right now we're not doing anything other than sitting here!”

That's the point. What ever we might've done, or will do later, is irrelevant to the moment. Right now, you are who you are, and you're doing whatever you're doing. This is you, nothing more, and nothing less. Most importantly, Hashem doesn't have a label for you. “I'm not Shomer Negiah” is not a heter.

The argument can, of course, be applied to every area of Halacha. “I don't keep kosher” is a nonsensical statement. Are you eating treif right now? Most likely not.

But even if the answer is “yes, I'm eating a cheeseburger right now,” that doesn't mean that you don't “keep kosher”. It simply means that in this moment, you're in violation a mitzvah of the Torah. There is nothing that can be gleaned or stated about your “keeping” or “breaking” of the Torah. There is nothing holding you back from eating kosher food for your next meal, and every meal afterwards.

Likewise, I'd argue, most Jews keep most of Shabbos, most of the time. Sure, driving a car is violating Shabbos. But sitting on the couch is not. And if we calculate the minutes of violation of Halacha as a percentage of the total time we spend on this planet, the statement of Reish Lakish (חגיגה כז א׳) becomes even more apparent:

פּוֹשְׁעֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל שֶׁמְּלֵאִין מִצְוֹת כְּרִמּוֹן, דִּכְתִיב: ״כְּפֶלַח הָרִמּוֹן רַקָּתֵךְ״, אַל תִּקְרֵי ״רַקָּתֵךְ״, אֶלָּא: רֵקָנִין שֶׁבָּךְ

The sinners of Israel are filled with good deeds as a pomegranate is full of seeds, as it is written: “Your temples [rakatekh] are like a pomegranate split open” (Song of Songs 4:3), which is to be expounded as follows: Do not read this word as rakatekh, rather read it as reikanin shebakh, meaning the empty, worthless people among you; even these people are as full of good deeds as a pomegranate is full of seeds.

Of course, none of this is to whitewash the nature or severity of Aveiros. Violating the mitzvos of the Torah and the Will of the Ribono Shel Olam is not trivial; the Torah is quite clear on this point. In every recitation of Keriyas Shema we acknowledge the reality of Schar V'Onesh (Reward and Punishment).

But what would you tell someone who was once unable to overcome their desire to eat Chametz on Pesach? It seems ludicrous to suggest that we would label them a “chametz eater” and expect them to spend the rest of the Yom Tov eating pizza.

What would you tell someone who “broke Yom Kippur?” That they shouldn't continue fasting? Of course they should! But why should they fast once they've “broken” Yom Kippur? Why should one decline a slice of pizza once they've “broken” Pesach?

Because we all know that at its core, the Torah cannot be broken. The Torah is, and will always remain whole and intact. Pesach is still Pesach. Yom Kippur is still Yom Kippur. Torah is absolute and true, as true as the laws of nature. We cannot “break” the laws of gravity; we can only hurt ourselves trying. Likewise, we cannot break Halacha. We can only break ourselves against it.

To understand this breaking, and how to fix it, we need to know that each and every one of us, in the deepest recesses of our souls and identities, is trying to connect to Hashem. The Rambam paskens this truth L'Halacha (גירושין ב:כ), and Rashi learns it from a Pasuk in our parsha. When the Torah instructs us to bring a Korban – יַקְרִיב אֹתוֹ לִרְצֹנוֹ – “He shall bring it willingly,” Rashi comments:

מְלַמֵּד שֶׁכּוֹפִין אוֹתוֹ, יָכוֹל בְּעַל כָּרְחוֹ, תַּלְמוּד לוֹמַר “לִרְצוֹנוֹ”, הָא כֵּיצַד? כּוֹפִין אוֹתוֹ עַד שֶׁיֹּאמַר רוֹצֶה אֲנִי: The Beis Din must put pressure upon him to bring it if he is remiss in bringing the sacrifice he had promised. One might think that this means that they shall force him against his will! The Pasuk, however, states, לרצונו “he must bring it willingly”. How is this possible? They press him until he says, “I wish to do it”.

The Divrei Yechezkel explains simply: When we are pressured into doing a mitzvah, we are revealing the part of ourselves that always wanted to do it.

All this is to say that inside of each of us, there are conflicting desires and priorities. We have a “higher self”; one that identifies with Ratzon Hashem, the purpose of our existence and the interests of Klal Yisrael. And then we have all the stuff. We want to live our best and most meaningful lives, but we don't always succeed in making the best choices when faced with conflicting desires.

When we fail at living up to our higher selves we experience that breaking. We feel shame, frustration, weakness and vulnerability.

We don't break the Torah. Instead, we break the value and importance of Torah inside of ourselves. We break our self confidence to observe Ratzon Hashem.

When the Beis HaMikdash stood in Yerushalayim, there was direct path for a person to fix themselves. They would bring a Korban. The Rikanti (פ׳ נח) explains how this activity would help:

ודע כי הקרבן מקרב רצון השפל ומייחדו ומקרבו ברצון העליון. Know, that the Korban raises up our “lower will”, and unifies it will the “Upper Will” of Hashem.

In a visible, visceral and physical sense the Korban took the “animal” inside of us, and raised it up to Shamayim. Jews would leave the Mikdash with a renewed sense of connection to the higher parts of themselves, and to their mission in life.

Chazal tell us that in the absence of Korbanos, we achieve similar results by learning the Parshiyos of the Korbanos. But how could that possibly help?

The Beis Yaakov of Izhbitz (אחרי מות מו) explains:

שעיקר החטא הוא רק לפי תפיסת אדם, שמצד תפיסתו נראה לו שנתרחק מהשי”ת, כי מצד השי”ת הוא כעניין שנאמר (איוב ל״ה:ו׳) אם חטאת מה תפעל בו Sin is a problem that arises from human perspective, in that we experience that we are now further from Hashem. From Hashem's perspective, however, no sin affects Him.

When we learn the about Korbanos, we realize that Hashem desperately wants us to experience the reunification of ourselves. That's the whole point of the Korban experience; and knowing that Hashem wants us to un-break ourselves is the purpose of the Limmud.

Sefer Vayikra is often glossed over in schools and shuls. We are far more excited about the stories of the Avos and Yetzias Mitzraim than we are about the details of the Mizbeach. But the Medrash (ויקרא רבה ז׳) disagrees without methodology:

אָמַר רַבִּי אַסֵּי מִפְּנֵי מָה מַתְחִילִין לַתִּינוֹקוֹת בְּתוֹרַת כֹּהֲנִים וְאֵין מַתְחִילִין בִּבְרֵאשִׁית, אֶלָּא שֶׁהַתִּינוֹקוֹת טְהוֹרִין וְהַקָּרְבָּנוֹת טְהוֹרִין יָבוֹאוּ טְהוֹרִין וְיִתְעַסְּקוּ בִּטְהוֹרִים. Rabbi Asi says: Why do we begin our educational curriculum from Sefer Vayikra rather than Bereishis? Children are pure, and Korbanos are pure. Let those who are pure engage in that which is pure.

Imagine an education that began with “You are perfect and wonderful... and even when you mess up, you can always return to this state of purity. Jews have been failing for centuries, but Hashem already gave us a way to fix it. Come, let's learn how you can take the animal side of you, and raise it up to be a part of the learning and growing process...”

This is what Sefer Vayikra has to offer: A world of connection and closeness. A world of redemption and repair. A world where right now I'm not doing anything wrong, and there is no need to label myself or identify with my past Aveiros.

Hashem should help us to delve into this Sefer and the purity it provides; that we should live it in our own lives, teach it to our children and arrive at the festival of freedom with a renewed desire to be free.