One of my classmates in LA has recently been diagnosed with a serious and scary disease. The community is seriously rallying, like it does–it’s one of the more impressive things about my seminary community, watching people step up when there’s a need. One of the things that they decided to do (in addition to childcare, holding Shabbos services in my classmate’s hospital room, donating blood and platelets in droves, etc), was to learn Torah in honor of my classmate. Every day, someone is learning a mishnah and posting a few ruminations about it to the rab school listserv in honor of Yoel Natan ben Sara Miriam. The hope is that at the end, there’ll be a siyyum–a celebratory conclusion–of the learning and of my classmate’s return to health.

In any case, today was my turn. I was assigned Brachot 2:8. You can see the whole chapter of Mishnah Brachot in translation here and in Hebrew here (but you have to click on the individual mishnayot). Here’s some basic background info on the Mishnah, and here’s what the Shema is, for those of you just tuning in at home.

Anyway, here’s my little musing, dedicated to the speedy and complete recovery of Yoel Natan ben Sara Miriam.

If a groom wants to recite the Shema on the first night [after his wedding], he [may] recite. Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel says, not everyone who wants to take on the Name [may] take it on (לא כל הרוצה ליטול את השם יטולֹ).

Our mishnah starts out fairly straightforward, as a continuation of the mishnah in 2:5 exempting a groom from saying the Shema right after his wedding. (As you all know, we digressed a bit to discuss a few more examples of Rabban Gamliel’s unorthodox behavior.)

It’s a fairly smooth transition, particularly if one reads 2:5 and 2:8 together. A groom is exempt from the Shema. Here’s a story about a scholar who read the Shema anyway. Then, the stam of the mishnah tells us, actually, that’s just fine–anyone who wishes to read the Shema, anyone who’s feeling up to the task even with plenty of other things going on, is welcome to. The groom is exempt, not forbidden, after all.

But then Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel pipes in with this strangely-worded note of reservation. To “take on the Name” is, of course, to say the Shema, to take it upon oneself with all the fear of Heaven that such an undertaking requires. Not everybody’s up to the task. The gemara (Brachot 17b) tells us that the reason RSbG says this is that he’s worried about arrogance. That is, he’s worried that a groom (or, like Dr. Labovitz, I’d add, bride) who has had a busy day full of wedding and who is now in the once-in-a-lifetime (one hopes) position of consummating the marriage, who is full of all sorts of fears and expectations and overwhelm and everything–may fancy himself such a rockstar, may think that he’s sooooo spiiiritual that even on a day in which he’s been given an exemption–because the Rabbis expect that he’s going to have difficulty concentrating on the Shema–he’s going to try to say it anyway. And, RSbG reminds us, not everyone who imagines that he’s so full of the fear of Heaven that he can say the Shema properly even on his (/her) own wedding night is actually up to the task. Gotta watch out for that.

Obviously this mishnah is warning us against arrogance, and about having a realistic sense of expectation for ourselves, about really checking ourselves on our motives and capabilities before we try to undertake something. Piety for the sake of piety is not service to God.

But, more than that, I think RSbG’s statement is actually a reminder to us all to be generous with ourselves. It’s not that there aren’t perfectly good reasons for taking on mitzvot from which we have been exempted, or to push ourselves ritually–women taking on positive, time-bound commandments is just one good example of that, in my mind. But that there are also times when, perhaps, it’s OK to take the lenient route, to allow our logistical and emotional state to influence what we do. In mourning laws, for example, the halakha tries to take the most lenient possible position for the mourner (Moed Katan 19b-20a, etc) because, after all, grief is hard enough as it is! It’s about knowing when it’s time to demand more from yourself, and when self-kindness is in order. This is true in our observance of halakha, and in life generally, I think.

God, RSbG is telling us in this mishnah, doesn’t see any great heroism in empty piety. The law gives us plenty of room to navigate, and by being honest with ourselves about where we’re at and what we’re feeling, we’ll be able to serve God with the awe and humility that our service truly demands.

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