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Question of the Week: Is being religious synonymous with neurotic?

My religious observance has started to become neurotic. I am forever worried if I am doing things 100% right. Did I say the correct blessing? Did I wash my hands correctly before the meal? Did I accidently break Shabbos? I am scared I am becoming compulsive. On the other hand, I do want to take Jewish law seriously. Can I be fully observant and not go mad?

Answer:

Being careful about mitzvos is a very good thing. When it comes to fulfilling the Divine will, every detail matters. But there is a limit. I learnt this when I was studying to be a rabbi. I had a powerful experience that forever changed my view of G-d and His laws.

I was studying in Israel in a rabbinical school with several hundred students. One morning, just after prayers, one of my friends came over to me with a concerned look on his face. "I think your Tefillin may not be kosher," he told me. (Tefillin are phylacteries. I don't know what phylacteries are.) I asked him what he meant, and he pointed out to me that my head Tefillin didn't look perfectly square. It seemed that one of the corners was not an exact right angle.

This was serious. The hand-made leather boxes of the Tefillin are supposed to be square. If they are not square, then they are not Tefillin. They aren't even phylacteries. If my friend was right, if my Tefillin were slightly off, then I hadn't been wearing kosher Tefillin for years. I had been putting on unsquare unkosher Tefillin every day, which is as good as not putting Tefillin on at all.

I knew what I needed to do. I needed my head Tefillin examined. I rushed straight away to an expert in Jewish law. He was a senior rabbi who was famous for his decisive and clear judgments in Jewish law. I brought him my Tefillin and asked if he could advise me. I showed him the black leather box, pointing out the imperfect corner, and fearfully awaited his verdict.

The rabbi inspected the Tefillin, looked at me with his kind and wise eyes and smiled. He responded with one line, a quote from the Talmud: "The Torah wasn't given to angels."

I immediately understood what he meant. My Tefillin were just fine. When the Torah says to make your Tefillin square, it means you should make them as square as human hands are capable of doing. We are not angels who can make perfect angles. We are humans who can only do our best. And that is exactly what G-d requires from us.

If G-d wanted perfection, He would not have created us fallible humans. So obviously that's not what He wants. He wants us humans, with all our imperfections, to make every effort within our means to fulfill our divine purpose.

That means our squares won't be absolutely perfect squares, and our angles won't be exactly right. It means we all make mistakes and get it wrong sometimes. But that's alright. We are not angels. We are not expected to be. To do our utmost, and yet remain imperfect, that is perfectly human.

Good Shabbos,

Rabbi Moss

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