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Sunday, 10 July 2016

Become a mitzvah machine!

Daf Yomi Bava Kama 39


The righteous Yosef has been sold into slavery in Egypt.  He finds himself in the home of Potiphar, who appreciates his loyalty and skill, and places him completely in charge of all his affairs.  Unfortunately, however, Potiphar is not the only one taken by Yosef’s charm.  Potiphar’s wife finds herself drawn to the young servant-boy and she begins to proposition him.

Day in, day out, he refuses her advances.  Until one day he’s at home alone, doing his chores when Mrs. P. arrives.  As she would do whenever her husband was not around, she begins to engage Yosef in inappropriate conversation. 
‘Just this once,’ Yosef says to himself, ‘nobody will ever know.’

Suddenly, he is hit with a vision.  It’s a picture of his father, Yaakov, holding up the holy breastplate of the Kohen Gadol (High Priest).  But instead of the twelve stones that would later adorn the plate, there are eleven stones and an empty space.
‘If you give in to temptation,’ the voice chides him, ‘you will cut yourself off from the family of Israel forever.’

At that point, he escapes Mrs. P.’s clutches, leaving his jacket in her hands.  He runs out of the house just as fast as his legs can carry him and waits until the end of the day when his master would return. 

The Torah declares, “If an ox gores a man or a woman and they die, the ox shall surely be stoned.”
Mishnah: A stadium ox is not liable to be put to death, for the verse states, “If an ox gores,” i.e. but not if humans caused it to gore.
Rashi explains: A stadium ox is designed to gore.  They train it for that purpose.

You can’t blame the stadium ox that gores a human being.  Let’s be honest, that’s all it knows!  That’s what it’s been trained to do by the matador!  It seems to be evil, but in fact it’s a ‘killing machine.’  Machines don’t make choices; they do exactly as they’ve been programmed.

Oftentimes we look around and see people acting contrary to the will of Hashem.  Our first reaction is to dismiss them as sinners.  Whether consciously or not, we are judging them and looking down on their actions and behaviour.

But how many of those people are choosing to act as they do?  They’re not acting defiantly!  Most of them were trained from birth to overlook the basics of Jewish observance.  You can’t hold them responsible, they’ve been programmed a certain way.

Sometimes we even encounter people who were born into it and, at some point, chose to reject their faith or practice.  And we’re quick to judge them, viewing their every action as a challenge to the Almighty. 

But that’s likewise absolutely wrong.  Maybe they made a poor choice years ago.  A choice that led them down a certain path to bring them to who they are today. 

You know what our Sages teach us?  G-d doesn’t hold them accountable for every bad decision they make today.  Because the ‘decisions’ they appear to be making are not really decisions at all.  Once they trained themselves to act contrary to the will of Heaven, on a certain level, they removed their decision-making ability.  Now what seems to be a sin is really nothing more than behaviour by rote.  It’s what they’re programmed to do. 

And so Hashem looks at them and says, ‘I’m not going to judge them.  I’m not going to punish them.  They’re not making conscious decisions to abandon Me.  I will only hold them responsible for their original poor decision.  Beyond that, I immediately forgive them.’ 

And if it’s good enough for G-d, it should certainly be good for enough for us.

Here’s the good news.  While you don’t get punished for continued poor behaviour based on pre-programmed decisions, you always get rewarded for good behaviour, even when you’re simply acting the way you’ve been programmed!   And so if you train yourself to do mitzvos, even if years later you’re doing them by rote – because you couldn’t imagine doing anything else – you still get incredible reward for each and every act of obedience to the will of G-d!

That doesn’t mean you should simply go through the motions, without any effort or feeling.  It goes without saying that the more effort you put in, the greater your reward.  But whatever the case, whether you’re feeling it or not, G-d rewards your positive results!

What do our Sages mean when they describe Yosef’s vision of his father and the holy breastplate?  At Yosef’s most challenging moment, he suddenly finds himself unable to cross the line.  Everything that has happened in his life up until that point tells him: don’t do it.  

Utilizing free choice alone, he might not have been able to resist the temptation.  But with the aid of his ‘nature and nurture’ – the pattern of his life that he had conditioned himself to – he can overcome.  All he has to do is picture his father, his family, and his future, and he’s able to withstand the pressure.  And he receives eternal reward for his incredible act of Heavenly sacrifice.


It’s time to become a stadium ox for the good.  My friend, Dr. Nathan Light, calls it an Orthod-ox.  You need to train yourself so that doing G-d’s will is second nature.  May you get into the groove of Torah and mitzvos until you couldn’t imagine doing it any other way!