Are Commandments Walls or Bridges?
Each morning of Sukkot, near the end of the festive prayer service, the entire congregation carries their four species, marches in a circle around the cantor (the leader of the service) who holds a Sefer Torah—the Torah scroll, and pray for rain. On the last day of Sukkot, which is referred to as Hoshana Raba, we encircle the Torah seven times. This number is reminiscent of the seven times the Jewish people encircled the city of Jericho and the walls came tumbling down. The day after Hoshana Raba we celebrate the holiday of Shemini Azeret, also referred to as Simchat Torah, and we dance in a circle around an empty space hugging the Torah in our arms. Why?
During the seven days of Sukkot when we circle the Torah we remind ourselves that Torah must be the center of our lives. If we are self-centered, we cannot love others nor can we love God. To achieve true love we need to move ourselves out of the center and put the Torah – the will and wisdom of God — in the center.
Some people, however, claim that the laws of the Torah are actually obstacles to achieving true love. They argue that the routines, formalities and minutiae of Torah law, interfere with experiencing a warm, personal, individual, spontaneous and loving relationship with God and people. They believe that the Commandments build walls not bridges.
This problem could happen, but only when we forget that the laws of the Torah are the will of God and express what God asks of us. True love means to do for your beloved what s/he asks of you — not what you feel like doing even though it is against his/her will.
And even when we understand this basic truth, the Commandments could interfere with our loving relationship to God if we perform them mindlessly. The richness of ritual depends on the measure of intention you invest in it. Imagine that you get married and a friend advises you, “Tell her three times a day that you love her.” If you don’t mean it at all but simply repeat like a parrot “I love you,” then this mindless routine will become obstructive and destructive to your love.
This only happens when we consider the Commandments of God to only be on the peripheral of our daily lives. However, when we put the Torah in the center of our lives and acknowledge that it is the axis upon which our lives revolves then, over time, it actually breaks down the walls that divide us and separate us from God. This was the message that God communicated to us through the prophet Isaiah, “It is only your wrongdoings that separate you from Me.”
The Torah and the commandments, however, break the barriers that divide us and build bonds of love.