Excerpted from A Listening People



Language does some strange things as it develops over the years. It tends to spread in all kinds of unpredictable directions, often sending us off on false errands or down dead-end streets. Instead of attending to its primary function, providing handy expressions for the objects and concepts with which we have to deal, it often waxes philosophical, imbuing a word with values which were never intended when it was originally coined.

We can take the word mitzvah as an example. Derived from the root tzivah, to command, it was meant to describe a directive, something that we had been ordered to do. It has, of course, retained that meaning. However, in modern parlance it has also taken on additional freight, often describing a good deed, something that we may choose to do but which is not a true obligation.

The dilution of the sharp specificity of a word frequently results in degeneration. What is left of the original meaning now has a dull edge. This is so because the relationship between old and new is symbiotic. Even as the old gives birth to the new [in the case of mitzvah, fulfilling a command is good, therefore any good deed can be described as a “mitzvah”], the new, if not watched closely, can alter the old [a good deed is not obligatory, and so even the original mitzvah is not quite as demanding as it used to be.]

Such dilution of the original meaning of mitzvah would be devastating. It would rob the word of its absolute insistence upon undeviating obedience. Mitzvos do make demands. They are yokes, unyielding and heavy. We trifle with them at our spiritual peril.


We can conceive of a farmer placing a yoke upon an animal for one of two reasons. Perhaps a job needs to be done and to do it the animal must be hitched to the implement that is used to perform the task at hand. It is the required task that is the true goal. The yoke is no more than the means by which it is to be accomplished. But occasionally an animal must be broken in. It must learn the art of submission. The yoke that is imposed becomes its own goal; there is no reference to a task outside itself.

Which of these two do we mean when we speak of the yoke of the mitzvos? Are we concerned that this or the other act be performed, or is it our goal that we might stand as yoked servants in relation to our G-d?

We can make a good case for the latter option, basing ourselves on Rashi to Rosh HaShanah 28a. The issues with which that Gemara deals need not detain us here. Rashi’s remarks are important to us. He writes:

“Mitzvos were given to Israel, not that the people might derive personal benefit from their fulfillment but rather that they might be a yoke upon their necks.”

Rashi is spelling out what mitzvos are supposed to do. They are there to harness us to G-d’s will.

Accepting the yoke of the mitzvos, then, more than indicating a willingness to abide by the Torah’s commands is a matter of agreeing to stand in a specific relationship to G-d. We are to define ourselves as “commanded ones”, servants indentured to His purpose. By reciting this parashah twice daily, we are telling ourselves who we are rather than affirming what we are to do.

*Note: Original Hebrew and Aramaic text which appears in the book has been translated into English and footnotes have been removed for brevity.