An Observation About Observance: The Week's End, Friday May 5, 2023
May 5th 2023

We are all familiar with the term observant Jew in our vernacular. This week’s Torah portion Emor contains an expressive exhortation with regards to religious observance: וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם מִצְוֹתַי וַֽעֲשִׂיתֶם אֹתָם “You shall observe My commandments and do them” (Leviticus 22:31). What does it mean to observe a commandment? If one does a mitzvah, one is surely doing more than observing, so why then does the Torah tell us to observe the commandments in addition to performing them?

One of the leading orthodox Rabbis in the first half of the nineteenth century, Rabbi Moses Schreiber of Bratislava, also known from his main work as the Hatam Sofer, reminds us of another time in which the Torah uses the Hebrew root ש-מ-ר for the word “observe.” At the beginning of the Joseph narrative, we read of Joseph retelling and interpreting his two dreams to the ire and jealousy of his brothers. Some commentators believe that the hatred came about because of the boastful way in which Joseph recounted these dreams of glory. The Torah concludes by saying that Joseph’s brothers were angry at him and that: וְאָבִיו שָׁמַר אֶת־הַדָּבָר his father watched the incident, in other words, kept the matter in mind. Rashi explains that watched means waited in anticipation of fulfillment.

From this instance, the Hatam Sofer explains that the Torah can teach us to do more than merely perform mitzvot. It exhorts us to enthusiastically watch for them and anticipate their fulfillment, to be ready and able to perform them when opportunity knocks. When one is called an observant Jew, one does much more than watch. It is not enough to be a Jewish observer; one must be a Jewish anticipator as well. Shabbat Shalom.