"Shoot!" (Q & A)

The Ascent Question & Answer Forum

conducted by Yerachmiel Tilles,
co-founder and first educational director of Ascent,
and Managing Editor of this site and KabbalaOnline.org

The three hebrew letters shin-vuv-tof [pronounced "shoot"] are often used as the abbreviation of she'eilot v'tshuvot: the ongoing written query-and-response process in Torah on every aspect of Jewish life which has been taking place since the beginning of Diaspora.) 

the Rabbi


Readers are encouraged to shoot! All questions are welcomed.

(All questions will be answered promptly; however, all may not be posted)

"Why should I respect a person who doesn't steal because it is a mitzvah not to do so? I feel it is much better not to steal because you feel it to be wrong. Also, such a person is much more trustworthy."

This question has been posed to us many times in Ascent Shavout Seminars over the years. Although the Talmud states (in several tractates) "He who is commanded and fulfills is greater that he who fulfills it though not commanded," * most people off the street would probably agree with you. But let's reflect on both parts of your question: a) which is a higher motivation, and b) who is more reliable.

* Many scholars understand "greater" as referring to the reward of doing the mitzvah, rather than to the nature of the person who does it.

First of all, there is a substantive difference between subjective and objective values. When a person believes a deed is good because G-d so commanded, that value will remain a permanent one in his eyes. In contrast, a person who upholds a standard because he subjectively feels it to be right, or because the culture in which he lives has accepted it, may change his mind as his personal situation changes, or due to a shift in society's mores.

The classic example of impermanent values in this century was, to our misfortune, Nazi Germany. The Nazis were not barbarians in the accepted sense of the word. German society at that time represented the pinnacle of Western culture. Yet, they created a belief-system in which genocide was a beneficial positive act. It is a terrifying example of how relative values can become secondary to temporal needs.

Now, we can attain a deeper understanding of the Ten Commandments. Have you ever wondered why it was neccesary for G-d to proclaim, "Do not murder. Do not adulter. Do not steal. Honor your parents." Why such an uproar for things everyone knows to be right. Certainly, all societies must guard these values for the sake of their own survival. Why didn't G-d stop after the first four "more creative" commandments about divinity, idolatry, oathing, and Shabbat?

Simply put, G-d wants us to not murder, not steal, etc. because He said so. Not just because it feels correct. Under the divine imperative, the morals and ethics are more likely to endure, even if they should stop feeling right for some perceived reason or in a situation of pressure. That is why our response at Mount Sinai, "na'aseh v'nishma"-- "we will do and [then] we will understand," was so important. By making G-d's will more primary than our own intellects, we demonstrated the highest possible level of commitment.

It is also important to realize that a person who does a good deed because "it feels right" is operating instinctively. Why should doing what comes naturally be considered better than a conscious act of will? Is someone a better person because of his innate qualities, or because his positive achievments are a result of strong efforts?

A naturally good person is good without thinking about it, and if he should slip up it is not an issue. A person who accepts the obligation of the commandments has to understand what he is doing at all times and come up with proper decisions. Nor does he have the option of backing off from his commitment because "I don't feel like it today." For him there are no justifiable excuses.

It is human nature that when a person is ordered to do something, there is a part of him that rebels against obeying, as if on principle, and even with something he would want to do anyway. Consequently, the good deed can be harder for someone who is commanded than for someone who performs it voluntarily, and therefore his accomplishment is greater since he had to overcome his own inner resistance.

One final point. Could it be that your position is based on a hidden premise that contradicts your conclusions? At heart, you have a deep, genuine respect for moral people and moral behavior. Could it not be because you stand at the end of a long line of ancestors who were raised according to the absolute values presented in the Torah?

Many Jews today who were raised in mitzvah-observant homes but subsequently broke away are honestly suprised that their children and grandchildren do not respect the same values which they [hopelessly ambiguous!] learned from their parents and grandparents. It is not enough to a naturally good person; one is too likely to take a "vacation" "just this one time" or to rationalize selfish behavior. One must be committed to goodness in a manner that transcends the vagaries of one's ever-changing personal situation and cultural context, and not only on the basis of convenience or feeling. May G-d Al-mighty grant us the strength to withstand all tests...and may we always want to pass them!

Yerachmiel Tilles

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