Some years ago, I arrived at an apartment building in Israel to visit a friend. At the same time, a van arrived and the driver proceeded to unload a fridge which was to be delivered to a resident on the third floor. I stood, aghast, wondering how the driver, a middle-aged Russian oleh, who was not much more than five feet tall, was going to get the fridge up all those stairs in an apartment block without a lift! Could I offer to help? Should I? I would probably do my back in! Before I had a chance to say anything the driver had removed a harness from his cab, and expertly tied it around the fridge and then hauled it on to his back and proceeded to climb the stairs with the fridge on his back!

In his comment on the phrase ol hamitzvot – ‘the yoke of the commandments’ Rav Hirsch (19th century Germany) explains that we tend to think of a yoke as a heavy burden on our shoulders. In fact, it is a light length of wood which helps us carry heavy burdens, much heavier in fact than we could carry without it.

Understood in this way, we can see that our heritage, our Jewish tradition, far from being a heavy burden to bear, in fact helps us to bear much larger burdens. For example, many people have said that the process of a shiva has helped them cope with a bereavement in a way that would have been unthinkable otherwise.

The source of this idea is a Midrash on this week’s portion. When Moses came down the mountain carrying the two tablets of stone he saw the Israelites worshipping the golden calf. As Moses approached the camp, the letters miraculously ‘flew off’ the stones leaving Moses carrying blank hunks that suddenly became too heavy to bear and he smashed them to the ground. (Midrash Tanchuma) The Midrash is teaching us that it was the words of the commandments, engraved on the stone, that made it possible for Moses to carry the much heavier weight of the tablets. The ongoing existence of the Jewish people, despite the centuries of persecution bears out the truth of this message. Shabbat shalom.

Dayan Ivan Binstock