On the roof of the Aish center looking down at the Western Wall with Chevra & Davai in 2011

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Saturday, December 17, 2011

When does one know enough to be a heretic? a Yud Beis Tammuz story

On the 12th day of the Hebrew month of Tammuz, Lubavicthers around the world celebrate the release of the Sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe also known as the Frierdiker (previous) Rebbe of blessed memory from Russian prison. During his imprisonment his chief prison guard who was in charge of the Rebbe’s interrogation was a Jew. Not only was he a Jew, he was the grandson of a chassid. In his famous verbal attack on the Rebbe, he said something like “Now you’re dealing with a real apikoros (heretic).” The Rebbe responded “You’re not an apikoros. You’re just an am ha’aretz (literally a man of the earth, but in this case, a fool.) The statement is funny and usually brings smiles at the fabrengen, but when does someone know enough where they are no longer an am ha’aretz and become apikoros? Even more practical is, as Ba’al Teshuvas, when are we held accountable for our actions?

Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, also known as the Rambam tells us that there is a leniency in heavenly judgment for Jews who have been kidnapped by gentiles and raised in their homes. Since they were not raised with a proper Jewish education and environment, they should not be held fully accountable for their actions. The Rabbis tell us that everyone in our generation, Ba’al Teshuvas especially, have this status today. While the countries that live in today, especially America have been nicer to Jews than any other country in history, our living in an environment that supported religious observance has been lacking. The question that I have is as we grow in our Judaism, when does this status change, if ever?

When we read the Torah, we see how our forefathers were on such a high level that their sins sometimes brought about immediate punishment as witnessed in Parsha Vayshev with the two oldest sons of Judah, Er & Onan. In our lifetimes, we don’t see such immediate punishment, but presumably, some of our actions bring punishment and some don’t depending on what rung of the spiritual latter that we’re standing on at the time we commit the sin. If someone was brought up with no concept of keeping kosher, and they one day choose to take the bacon off of their bacon cheese burger, most of us would acknowledge that they’re taking a big step in the right direction. I would imagine that the heavenly reaction to this would also be positive. However if the same person learns and grows until they become a religiously observant Jew, but then goes back to have that same bacon-less cheeseburger, I would imagine that both ours and the heavenly reaction would be quite different. Somewhere in that time, this person knew enough and reached a new spiritual level where they accepted upon themselves the mitzvah of kashrus and with that came the potential for punishment for violating those laws.

I once heard a Rabbi ask the question: How can one define the word “Mitzvah”? The class threw out a whole host of answers… a good thing to do… something moral… commandment… rule.... a connection and development of the relationship with G-d… etc. While he acknowledged that all of these answers were correct, he proposed that a mitzvah is a self imposed limit on our physical choices and activity. If someone chooses to keep kosher then they are limiting what they can eat. The same holds true for Shabbas, prayer or any other mitzvah that we can think of.

It would seem that this new limit has an opposite reaction in heaven. Before a Ba’al Teshuva chooses to keep kosher, his choices are not limited, but the punishment for making those choices appears to be limited, or at least watered down. As well, the heavenly energy that mirrors this mitzvah is held back. As he limits his own choices by taking on different mitzvahs, his responsibility increases and the consequences for conscious failure along with the positive spiritual reaction appear to break through their previous limits and increase. Therefore it would seem that we become more responsible for our actions and we take on the responsibility of choosing to learn Torah and accept mitzvahs.

Some might think that the best solution is to remain ignorant of mitzvahs to avoid potential judgment, but it would seem that we’re not only judged on what we know, but what we should know. Both us and Hakodesh Barachu know both our limitations and our potential. As the story goes, the holy Reb Zusha was approaching the end of his life when his students found him crying. When they asked why he was crying, he explained that when he enters his final judgment, he’s not afraid of being asked why he wasn’t Avraham or Moshe, because he didn’t have the same capabilities and talents as them. He was only afraid of being asked, Zushe, why weren’t you Zushe? Why didn’t you accomplish the tests that you had the power to pass or live up to your own potential on any given day?

As Ba’al Teshuvas, we need to constantly strive to climb the spiritual latter and strive to release more heavenly light in this world to the limits of our potential. As we choose to limit our physical choices, we’re actually removing the limitations of Hashem’s infinite light.

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