Rabbi Emanuel Cohn
Former Avrech in Montreal (2001-2003)
Founder of “Torah MiCinema” – Teaching Film and Judaism


This week we are going to celebrate Shavuot, the festival which represents our receiving the Torah. In light of this important event I think it would do no harm to ask ourselves truly: What significance does the Torah really have to our lives? What does it mean for us to be “observant” Jews?

When someone is referring to Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s famous essay “The Lonely Man of Faith” (Tradition, 1965), what first comes up is his differentiation between the account of Genesis Chapter 1 vs. Genesis Chapter 2, and the two types of “Adam” evolving from there. However, what I think is the probably most important section of this book, is the Rav’s critique on what some would call “the Modern-Orthodox Society”. This section can be found towards the end of this book. Here is the quote:

He [the Western man], of course, comes to a place of worship. He attends lectures on religion and appreciates the ceremonial, yet he is searching not for a faith in all its singularity and otherness, but for religious culture. He seeks not the greatness found in sacrificial action but the convenience one discovers in a com­fortable, serene state of mind. He is desirous of an aesthetic experience rather than a covenantal one, of a social ethos rather than a divine imperative. In a word, he wants to find in faith that which he cannot find in his laboratory, or in the privacy of his luxurious home. His efforts are noble, yet he is not ready for a genuine faith experience which requires the giving of one’s self unreservedly to God, who demands unconditional commitment, sacrificial action, and retreat.”

After such a “bombardment” one can not remain indifferent, we must not remain indifferent. We must ask ourselves genuinely: To what extent is the Torah an “aesthetic experience” for us, a “religious culture”? And to what extent is it an all-embracing Torat Chayim, being not an external addition, but an essential and central part of and in our lives? What does it mean to be an “observant Jew”? The term “observant” has something ironical in it, since “observing” is an external, visual action, a facade. The question is to what extent we are only “observing” Jews or truly living ob-Serving Jews, the Service of God expressing our existential longing for meaning?

The term “Shomer Mitzvot” (= guarding, keeping the Mitzvot) is also misleading. Is a Jew really only supposed to safeguard the commandments? Where is the expression of one’s personal input?! When I guard something, I can not “touch” it, and I’m not supposed to touch it. Is this a fitting vocabulary for the Mitzvot? In contrary, we should touch them, internalize them! We should LIVE the Mitzvot, not “keep” them.

Now you may think that these are all big words, with nothing behind them. How can one make the transformation from an “observant” to an “ob-Servant” Jew? From a “Shomer Mitzvot” to a “Chai Mitzvot”? Isn’t it all dependent on the spiritual potential one is gifted with by the Creator? This may be true to a certain extent, but I believe that everyone can make her/ his “religious” life more meaningful. I can’t point at a recipe (unfortunately…), but I would like to share only two thoughts which I think are important:

1) Hachana, preparation. Chassidut teaches us that preparing for a Mitzva is at least as important as performing it. There is a big difference between going into Shavuot after three days of spiritual and intellectual preparation or straight from the office on Tuesday afternoon without any preparation. It is no chance that God tells Moshe before His revelation at Mount Sinai: “Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow, and let them wash their garments; and let them be ready for the third day, for on the third day God will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people…” (Shemot 19, 10-12) Hachana is the spiritual content of the action to be performed, and it can make the difference between “performing the Mitzvah” and “experiencing” it. How do we prepare ourselves for the receiving of our Torah (besides baking cheesecakes)?

2) Let us have the courage to (re)invite God into our lives. It is painful, and it is easier “locking Him up” in a Shul or in a Beit Midrash. But this is not “Torat CHAYIM”, which stands for a Divine involvement in all aspects of our lives. The first Passuk of the Book of Bamidbar, which we are going to read this Shabbat, starts with the following words: “God spoke to Moshe in the wilderness of Sinai, in the tent of meeting…” We can learn from here that before man communicates with God in the “tent of meeting”, which is a synagogue in our time, there must be a connection between man and God in the wilderness, in the desert, in nature! Rabbi Nachman of Breslav thought it was of utmost importance that a person speaks to God outside the realms of the synagogue in his own mother tongue, even about seemingly trivial things.Only when the Divine becomes a natural and integral part of our personal lives, in the wilderness as well as in the synagogue, we can hope for a transformation and elevation from a society of religious aestheticism to -returning to the terminology of Rav Soloveitchik- a community of covenant. There is not a more suitable time then now, a few days before we recommit ourselves to the Divine Covenant, to reflect on our commitment to it.