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    Why blame the tefillin? – Chukkat

    Belief is often difficult. Going to his death, a Jewish martyr is said to have told God, “Look, God, You make it very hard for me to believe in You. But I tell You, God, it will not help You one bit. Nothing You do will stop me believing in You!”

    A good thought for this week’s sidra, which begins, Zot chukkat haTorah, “This is the statute of the Torah” (Num. 19:2).

    Commandments which are called statutes are ordained without any obvious explanation attached. They are an intellectual and emotional challenge. But just because they can be difficult to understand, is that any reason to reject them?

    We might put it like this, “God, You sometimes make it hard for us to obey. But we tell You, God, it will not help You one bit. Nothing will stop us obeying Your will!”

    Maybe there is an analogy in something Elie Wiesel told a journalist. “Suppose I put on tefillin,” said Wiesel. “I say, if I have problems with God, it is not the tefillin’s fault. If I have problems with God, why should I blame the Sabbath?”

    Expand the analogy. If we have problems with God, why should this stop us observing the Torah? “But that’s an intellectual cop-out,” I hear you say. “Isn’t the reason we observe the Torah the fact that it was ordained by God?”

    To which the answer could be that what Abraham Joshua Heschel calls the dogmatic reason for observance, that it is the will of God, may be the most basic reason, but it is not the only one. There is also the sociological reason: I carry out a Jewish practice because this is what Jews do. Or the symbolic reason: I carry out a practice because it symbolises a great ideal. Or the aesthetic reason: it is part of my life because it brings beauty and poetry into my life.

    If I have problems with God, why should I not put on tefillin? Not that I should give up trying to work through my problems with God. Keeping on with tefillin or any other practice will continue, and hopefully the time will come when the dogmatic perspective will clear.

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