| Second Thoughts |

The Un-Comfort Zone

It is precisely our fealty to mitzvos outside our natural comfort zone that defines us as Jews


WE Jews are very proud that our bris milah is favored by many physicians because of its health benefits. Similarly with the laws of kashrus: Good for us. And therapists are now counseling their harried patients to take 15 minutes in the afternoon and just sit and contemplate — sounds like Minchah to me.

That living the full Torah life is actually good for us comes as no surprise to a believing Jew. Of course, we observe Torah mitzvos not because they are good for our bodies, but because, as Divine commandments from the Commander, they are good for our souls. Theoretically, even in the unlikely event that a mitzvah turned out not to be good for us, we would still observe it. Because we observe mitzvos not for our own benefit, but only because they fulflll the Will of G-d.

We are quite comfortable with certain mitzvos: helping the downtrodden, visiting the sick, endowing a poor bride, attending the dead with dignity. These are not unnatural for us; they are instinctive, and we willingly perform them.

But there are certain mitzvos that do not come naturally. It does not come naturally to engage in a 24-hour fast on Yom Kippur, or to cut off the foreskin of an eight-day-old infant, or to refrain from simple acts like flipping on a switch on Shabbos. Instinctively we would resist such commands. But it is precisely our fealty to mitzvos outside our natural comfort zone that defines us as Jews.

With this in mind, a crucial Biblical question falls into place. The Akeidah narrative ends with G-d saying to Avraham that because Avraham was willing to offer up his beloved son Yitzchak as a sacrifice only because G-d asked him to do so, “atah yadati — now I know that you are a G-d-fearing person…” (Bereishis 22:12). Why that word “atah —now”? Is it only now that G-d discovers that Avraham is G-d-fearing? Until this point, was not G-d fully aware of this?

One answer, based on a penetrating comment of the Gaon of Vilna, is that kindness and chesed were an integral part of Avraham’s nature. For him it was not difficult to offer hospitality to total strangers, or to plead to save the evil Sodomites. These acts did not define him as a Jew. What did define him was his willingness to act in a way that contradicted and was antithetical to his own benevolent nature. The ultimate manifestation of this, the pinnacle of his loyalty to G-d, was his willingness to offer up as a sacrifice his beloved son. This meant he had to act unfeelingly and unmercifully, he had to override his naturally kind nature, all because of G-d’s command. Here finally was the climactic test that would demonstrate that he was a genuinely G-d-fearing man.

This, incidentally, is what is meant by the rabbinic dictum, “Gadol hametzuveh v’oseh…” The one who acts because of a mitzvah is greater than the one who [does the same act] not because it is a mitzvah, but of his own volition” (Kiddushin 31a). That is: Yossel and Berel, for example, each give tzedakah to a pauper. Yossel gives because he feels sorry for the man; Berel gives because it is a mitzvah to do so. Counterintuitively, the halachah prefers Berel’s way. Why? Because he is not giving because of his personal feelings of compassion, which are here today but are fleeting and might not be here tomorrow. He is giving because he is commanded to do so.

Obviously, it is praiseworthy if tzedakah is accompanied by sensitivity and compassion, but the bottom line is that the underlying reason for the tzedakah is not his feelings, but G-d’s directive. Doing what come naturally is fine; doing what does not come naturally — but because G-d wants you to behave this way — is even better.

To observe Shabbos and its cholent and its ambience of peace is fine; to observe Shabbos despite the disapproval of your boss and the derision of your coworkers marks you as a G-d-fearing Jew

Atah…” says G-d to Avraham — now that you obeyed me even when it was not natural or comfortable, but only because I commanded it — now I know that you are a G-d-fearing person.

Torah is good for us; it is healthy, life-preserving, beneficial in every way — but these are by-products. We observe mitzvos even if occasionally they pull us outside of our normal comfort zone. Because Torah is not about us; it is about Him.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 940)

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