Cultivate the greatest possible relationship with the greatest possible benefits.
A "life goal" is one that brings you to a heightened state of being. For example, a businessman's goal is to be rich. Trading stocks or investing in real estate is the means to help accomplish that goal.
A similar formula applies to Judaism. The goal of Judaism is to cultivate the greatest possible relationship with God.
The 613 mitzvot are separate constructs which teach us about the reality of God's existence and how to live with that awareness.
Most of the 613 mitzvot in the Torah require the performance of a certain action - like giving charity, or eating matzah on Passover. These are the means to the end.
The "goal mitzvot" are the Six Constant Mitzvot. Rather than requiring the performance of a certain action, these mitzvot are a state of being, of living with the reality of God's existence.
The Six Constant Mitzvot are:
Know there is a God.
Don't believe in other gods.
God is one.
Don't be misled by your heart and eyes.
Every moment of awareness is another occasion to actualize these goals. None of the other mitzvot has that same constant opportunity, and that's why the Six Constant Mitzvot are our priority. All the other mitzvot only build and bolster these goals.
INTELLECTUAL KNOWLEDGE OF GOD
The first of the Ten Commandments declares: "I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt" (Exodus 20:2).
This is the mitzvah to "Know there is a God."
The logic underlying this commandment seems difficult to understand. Someone who already observe God's commandments obviously believes in His existence -- so what need is there for a new command to do so? And if someone doesn't know that God exists, why should he listen to this command?!
So exactly who is this mitzvah for?
The answer is that we should not believe in God "on faith" alone. Investigate the evidence. Get knowledge. Research. Study. Analyze. It is a fundamental principle of Judaism: You have to know, not just believe.
"You shall know this day, and understand it in your heart, that the Almighty is God" (Deut. 4:39, the "Aleynu" prayer).
But there's more. It is not enough to intellectually know that God is in charge of everything. You must also know it in your heart. This emotional knowledge is much more profound, because it affects how a person actually conducts his life.
The circus performer is willing to walk the tightrope because he is confident there's a net below to catch him. Similarly, a child will jump down off a ledge into his father's arms, completely confident that his father will catch him.
The whole point of life is to strengthen your awareness of God. How do you know if you're really aware of God? Through trust. If you are, then you are willing to walk the tightrope, so to speak, or jump into your father's arms.
STEPS TO TRUST IN GOD
Rebbeinu Bechaya, in his 12th century book of self-improvement, "Duties of the Heart" (Chovos Halevavos), describes four key steps to build trust in God:
Step one is to realize that the Almighty loves you with unbounded love. The closest thing we can compare this to is the love a parent has for a child. The Almighty is our Father in Heaven. His love for us exceeds all of the love in this world. Awareness of God is to live with this realization.
Deep down we know that God loves us. Anyone in trouble prays to God. This is true even of people who have ignored Him all their lives. As the saying goes, "there's no atheist in a foxhole." Even if you've done everything wrong, when you need your Father, He's there.
STEP TWO -- DIRECT LINE
The U.S. Defense Department spends millions of dollars each year to send broadcast signals to distant stars, on the chance there's life out there. It may take 2,000 years for the signals to get there, but they're still listening 'round the clock.
If they ever get an answer -- even just a "hello" -- the whole world would be flabbergasted.
Have you ever had a prayer answered? Four out of five people will say "yes." The Creator of this universe has privately communicated with you. It's mind-boggling.
Most people whose prayer was answered didn't even know in which direction to send the signal! They simply said, "God, please help..." Five billion human beings, a whole galaxy of planets and stars -- and God answered this individual!
The mitzvah of belief in God means living with the reality that you're not alone. God's awareness and attention to every detail is constant. He picks up signals when you ask.
STEP THREE - HE DOES IT ALL
If your parent gives you a dollar, you're actually diminishing his net worth -- even if he's a multi-millionaire. But if the Almighty gives you a billion dollars, it does not diminish His net worth. God has all the power. He created this universe from nothing. He can make you a genius. He can heal your child. He can do anything.
Think about how many miracles God made for you to breathe your first lungful of air. A fetus doesn't use lungs; it takes oxygen from the mother's blood. When a child is born, the baby has to breathe on its own and the whole biological system changes. A heart valve closes, the lungs inflate -- and it all has to fall into place at exactly at the right time.
Think about how much God has given you since you were born into this world. He is leading you every step of the way.
Everything God does for you is a gift. And whatever you want from God is nothing compared to what He's already given you. If you're asking for a billion dollars, it's nothing compared to a pair of eyes that He gave you for free.
God sustains the universe every second -- every creature, every blade of grass. God makes your heart pump. He provides your food. He created the sun with heat and light. There is nothing that can stop God. Your parents, teachers and boss are the delivery people. Every single thing you have is sent from God.
Knowing this gives you confidence to trust that God will continue to give you everything you need.
STEP FOUR -- BEST OF EVERYTHING
God doesn't need anything from you. He doesn't need you to eat kosher food, or to observe Shabbat.
God only wants to give. Everything in the world is for our benefit.
So if God doesn't grant your desire, you have to ask yourself why. Why hasn't God given you 100 million dollars?
Maybe it's not good for you. Maybe you'd become arrogant, greedy, excessive. Maybe you'd hire others to accomplish your goals, and you'd miss out on making the effort to try.
God knows what's good for us. Trust in God means understanding that when He doesn't give you something, it's a message. He's trying to wake you up, to get you to reevaluate your goals.
Good parents do this with their children, too. A child wants five cookies; you give him one. Or you take him to the doctor to get a shot: The child is crying, "Why are you doing this to me?" But you know it's for his own good.
Anytime something bad happens, you have to ask yourself, "Why?" Understand that God knows what He's doing. He's trying to raise us up. He knows what's good for us and He wants us to have the best of everything.
GIVING UP WHEN THINGS GET TOUGH
Man's self-destructive tendency (yetzer hara) overpowers him daily and threatens to kill him. Were it not for God's help, man would not survive. (Talmud - Kiddushin 30)
Every single aspect of our existence depends on God. Whether we stand up, raise our hands, use our brain, do a mitzvah, or battle the desire to do the wrong thing, our ability is all a gift from God. We are powerless without Him.
It follows, then, that any goal is attainable if God gives us the power.
So how did the phrase "I can't" enter our lexicon?
The Talmud reports that Moses reprimanded the Jewish people: "When you stood at Mount Sinai, God asked, 'Who will insure that you will always fear God?' You should have replied 'Almighty, You will.' You should have seized the opportunity to request that God give you fear of Heaven."
The Jews wanted to be able to take full credit for their fear of Heaven, therefore they were reluctant to ask for it.
Had they understood that every single thing comes as a result of God's assistance, then they would have surely asked God for fear of Heaven, too.
This demonstrated a lack of gratitude and appreciation for all that God had done until then.
This desire to ignore God's role in our accomplishments and take credit for ourselves is what makes people say "This I can do, and this I can't." We avoid having to acknowledge that it's all a gift. We'd rather feel that we fought and accomplished on our own steam. So we say "I can't" -- when we'd rather not make the effort to do something difficult.
If we were truly grateful, if every morning we would thank the Almighty for our eyes, our hands, our brain, then we'd also thank the Almighty for insight and understanding, and we'd say, "Almighty, please give me more!" If we acknowledge that every accomplishment is from God, then we will realize there is nothing we cannot undertake... if God gives us the power.
RESPONSIBILITY TO CHANGE THE WORLD
What can one person do? One person can accomplish anything and everything -- since it's all a gift from God anyway! Now we can understand why the Torah obligates each and every one of us to change the world.
The Code of Jewish Law (O.C. 1:3) says: "It is proper for all those who fear God to constantly be in pain and worry over the destruction of the Holy Temple." But why should we be expected to feel pain over something that happened 2,000 years ago?
The Talmud says: "Any generation in which the Holy Temple is not rebuilt, is held responsible for its destruction." In other words, if we don't take responsibility for improving ourselves and changing the world, then we are just as guilty as those whose deeds caused the Temple to be destroyed.
What can we do about it? Says the Talmud (Yoma 86b): "If one person does a sincere teshuva (return to God), then the whole world merits forgiveness."
The Jewish nation is one unit. Therefore the actions of one person can change the fate of the entire group. You -- one solitary individual -- have the power to change the entire world through teshuva. And since you have the power ... you also have the responsibility.
OPIATE OF THE MASSES?
Marx said that "religion is the opiate of the masses." But Marx was talking about the religion that says: "Resist not evil, turn the other cheek."
Judaism, on the other hand, teaches people to stand up and take responsibility for the world. If anything, secularism is the opiate because it breeds inactivity.
Imagine asking the conquering Romans, "The Greeks are starving to death, isn't that terrible?" They'd say, "What are you talking about, that's the greatest news we've heard all week! Let's get the war machine out!"
Ask a typical college student: "Isn't it terrible that Africans are starving to death? What are you going to do about it?" He says, "What can I do about it? Who am I? I'm only one person. I can't do anything about it."
Without really believing in God, you'll just give up.
Judaism says you can do something. If you believe God's doing it all, if you see how much He's already done for you, then you know that God will help.
All you have to do is take the responsibility and make an effort. God will take care of the rest.
WE TRY, GOD DELIVERS
Have you ever seen a building under construction? The builders use cranes to pick up an entire truckload of bricks, and then one or two men put their hands under the derrick and push the truckload into the right place.
An idiot sees two guys pushing a truckload of bricks and he thinks they're as strong as Hercules. A wise person understands it's the crane that's moving.
The Torah says explicitly that in the end of days, the Jewish people are going to return to God. And that's already happening.
The Jews have returned to Israel, which is mind-boggling. We've witnessed incredible miracles in Israel -- whether the War of Independence, the Six Day War, the Gulf War. We've lived with miracles. The Almighty is bringing us home. The crane is moving.
People sometimes say, "I'd love to make aliyah to Israel, but I don't have the money." What's the solution? I tell them, put one dollar a week into a separate bank account. They look at me like I'm crazy. "What are you talking about -- that's $52 a year. In 10 years, I'll have $520. What will that do for me?!" I tell them, if you put in a dollar a week, the Almighty will see that you're sincere and He'll take care of the rest.
Those of you who've begun learning Torah or keeping Shabbos: Remember how hard it was when you first started? Now when you look back and see the progress you've made, isn't it true that you were putting one dollar in the bank? You were making the effort, and the Almighty led you to your goal.
THE BUCKET AND THE MOUNTAIN
The Midrash says the wise person and the fool are both told, "Take this Torah and learn it all." The fool looks at the Torah and says, "That's like trying to move a mountain into the sea! Even if I work all day and night, I couldn't possibly finish it " So what does he do? He fills one bucket of dirt, and then he lies down to go to sleep.
The wise person says, "I get paid by the bucket. If I make an effort, I get paid. I can't imagine how I'm going to move this mountain into the sea, but if the Almighty said do it, I might as well try." So he takes a bucket and puts it in the sea; another bucket and puts it into the sea; another bucket ...
"Hey, meshugena, what are you doing?" yells the fool.
"Listen, I'm getting paid," answers the wise person. And he keeps going. Another bucket into the sea. Until he comes to a stone. He pushes that stone which starts a landslide and the whole mountain crumbles and flows into the sea.
That's what we're doing. One dollar a week. The mountain will go into the sea.
God is your Father, Creator of this universe. He wants to give you everything. By making the effort, you're allowing Him to do it. You're accepting it. See how much He had done for you until now. He wants to do much more. Just keep on putting that bucket into the sea; one dollar a week in the bank. The rewards are waiting.
GOD GAVE US THE ABILITY
The Torah says that accomplishing all of Torah is near to us, very much within our reach (Deut. 30:14).
Our problem is that we don't want to try. We don't make the effort.
If you heard about a business opportunity that would bring you millions, is there any limit to how far you'd go to make it work? If I said I'd give you a million dollars if you'll memorize one page of the phone book by next week, could you do it?
Realize that the reward for even one mitzvah is worth more than anything you can earn in this world. So don't look at the effort as a pain; look at it as an opportunity. You have the ability to be great, and there's nothing better you can do with your energy.
The Midrash (Tanna d'Bei Eliyahu) tells the story of Elijah the Prophet meeting up with a fisherman. "Do you study Torah?" Elijah asked. "No," replied the fisherman, "I'm just a simple man. I am not endowed with any measure of talent or intelligence."
"Tell me," said Elijah, "how do you prepare your fishing net?" "Well," said the man, "It's actually quite complicated. First I have to select the proper gauge rope, and then I have to weave the net in a particular pattern to ensure that it has the proper balance of strength and flexibility."
"How do you go about actually catching the fish?" inquired Elijah. "Oh," said the man, "that, too, is quite complex. There are many factors involved -- including season of the year, time of day, type of fish, water depth, temperature, and speed of the current."
"When you get to heaven," said Elijah, "you will testify that you didn't study Torah because you're just a simple man, not endowed with any talent or intelligence? But do you think He gave you the brains to be a fisherman -- but not the brains to learn Torah?!"
The fisherman realized that Elijah was right. He was devastated and began to cry inconsolably.
Elijah told him: "Don't be so upset. I'll tell you a little secret. Everyone uses this excuse in one way or another. We all expect that we're going to get upstairs and say, 'Almighty, I wanted to change the world; I wanted to know all of Torah; I wanted to love humanity. But you didn't give me enough intelligence, strength or personality.' And the Almighty will turn to each one of us and say 'Your actions contradict your words. When it came to something you cared about, whether making money or building a home, then you figured out how to do it. You became an expert. But obviously Torah didn't concern you enough.'"
That's our problem. We don't take Torah seriously. The constant mitzvah of "know there is a God" means that changing the world is our responsibility. And because God's power is behind us, we are not absolved from making the effort.
"Open your mouth and I will fill it." (Psalms)
The Chofetz Chaim (20th century Poland) says: If you're going out to raise money, the amount you ask from people depends on their status. If you're speaking to a newspaper vendor, you're not going to ask him for $500; the guy is struggling. But if you ask for a penny, you'll insult him. So you ask for $50. He'll argue a bit, and if he gives you $20, you did okay.
Ask the successful businessman for $5 and you're insulting him. Ask him for a million dollars and he says you're crazy. So you ask for $5,000, you have an argument, you come out with $500, and you've done well.
Now you come to the billionaire. (If he gives you an appointment!) If you ask for $500, you're wasting his time. So you ask for $5 million, you argue back and forth, he gives you $500,000, and you've done well.
When you approach God, don't insult Him. He is your father. He loves you. He's the Creator of this universe. What's a billion dollars? Says God: "Open your mouth and I'll fill it."
If you pay attention to the Jewish prayers, you'll see that we ask God for everything -- food, sustenance, health, family, wisdom, Torah, Israel, peace, spirituality, and mitzvot. That's how a Jew prays. God wants to give you everything.
IT'S ALL FOR THE GOOD
If you really understand that the Almighty loves you and has all the power, then when something doesn't go your way, you'll want to know why. Because everything that God does is for our good. He never gets angry. He never punishes you. He never takes revenge. Everything is for our benefit. Sometimes we don't find out until a little later...
The Talmud tells the story of Rebbe Akiva, who was a student of Rav Nachum Ish Gamzu -- whose very name means "also this is for the good." Rebbe Akiva was once travelling to a distant town. He had a rooster to wake him up, a donkey to ride on, and some candles for light. As night began to fall, he arrived at a village and all the hotels were full for the night. He had no place to sleep. So he went to the forest to camp out. As he was studying Torah, a wind blew out his candle, leaving him in the dark. Shortly after that, a lion came and devoured his donkey. And then a cat came and ate his rooster.
There was Rebbe Akiva, alone in the forest and he'd just lost everything! But he said, "Also this must be for the good."
Rebbe Akiva got up in the morning and continued his journey on foot. He passed through the village and learned, to his horror, that a band of marauders had come in the night, burned down the village, murdered the people and took all their possessions.
"I now see how God protected me. Had I gotten a hotel room, they would have taken me too. Or my horse would have neighed, or my rooster would have crowed, or the bandits would have found me by my candlelight. Everything God does is for the good."
God created this world and gave us a Torah. Why did He do it? It's all a beautiful gift. Be grateful. And if you make the effort to attempt even the impossible, God will surely help.