When Rachie and I were first married, we lived in Jerusalem while I was studying at the Mir Yeshiva. I remember one occasion when I arrived at an apartment building 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 produced a harness from his cab, expertly tied it around the fridge and then put on the harness 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’ Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the great 19th century leader of German Jewry, (d. 1888) 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. The bricklayer’s hod, the yoke on the ox, or the harness on the fridge-schlepper enables them to efficiently carry, pull or lift much heavier loads.
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 to me that the process of a shiva has helped them cope with a bereavement in a way that would have been unthinkable otherwise. And the rhythm of Jewish life, with its emphasis of Torah, Avodah and Gemilut Chasadim, Torah study, prayer, and acts of kindness, have given Jews, across the world, a framework to continue to function (and sometimes even flourish) under lockdown.
The source of this idea is a Midrash on this week’s portion. The Midrash paints the picture for us of Moses coming down Mt Sinai carrying the two tablets of stone engraved by G-d with the words of the Ten Commandments. He then sees the Israelites worshipping the golden calf. As he approaches the camp, the letters miraculously ‘fly off’ the stones leaving Moses carrying blank hunks that suddenly became too heavy to bear and he smashes them to the ground. (Midrash Tanchuma)
The Midrash is teaching us that it was the actual 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 centuries of persecution bears out the truth of this message. In keeping the Torah, the Torah carries us whatever our challenges might be.