The Torah is seemingly obsessed with the word "no": don't do this, refrain from that, this is negative, and that is dangerous. There are so many more "dont's" than "dos." Take Shabbat, for example. Its only positive commandment is to sanctify the day; all others are negative. Don't drive, don't cook, don't shower, and don't garden. Why are we so focused on the don'ts? Can't we be a little more open-minded?

This challenge was recently issued to me by a Jew who describes himself as "positively oriented." The G‑d of Torah, he maintains, is one of wrath and vengeance, whereas his G‑d is filled with love. He teaches his children the beauty of Judaism and celebrates the rich tapestry of our culture, but doesn't bother much with the prohibitions. "Anything goes," he says, "so long as the children learn to cherish our traditions."

In typical Jewish fashion, I replied with a question: "How many wives do you have?"


"And how many women are you not married to?"

"All the other women in the world."

Are you defined by the women you are not married to? "So how would you describe yourself – as a married man, or as not married? After all, for every woman to whom you are married, there are more than three billion to whom you are not married."

You cannot be married to one person unless you are not married to everyone else. By definition, the nos outnumber the yeses. Does this mean that you are defined by the women you are not married to?

When Shabbat Becomes Holy

Shabbat is a day of celebration; not self-denial. True, we don't shop and cook on this day, but that is because it is too special a day to be wasted in so prosaic a manner; these trivialities can wait for Monday. Shabbat is not Monday. It is holy. It is special. It is Shabbat.

A friend told me that when his children were younger, he and his wife always made sure to have Shabbat dinner at home with them. Classmates and friends were allowed to go to parties, but his children remained at home. The children, he told me, never felt deprived. On the contrary, they felt that Friday night was holy, too holy for mundane parties – those were for weekdays.

Not being married to four-a-half billion women does not mean you are single. On the contrary, it defines you as a person committed exclusively to one woman. Similarly, saying no to the weekday activities doesn't define Shabbat as a negative day. On the contrary, it defines Shabbat as a holy day. A day that stands alone; apart and exalted.

The Map

Think of a map. The first step in map reading is selecting a destination. Once the destination is selected, only a limited number of the map's routes can be used. There might be only five or ten roads that lead to your destination without costly maneuvers or wasteful detours. There might be hundreds of other roads on the map, but they are not for you; they don't lead to your destination.

Prohibitions serve as landmarks that guide us to holy and G‑dly destinationsIf you map out directions for your son, you will likely show him the roads to take and exhort him not to take any other road. That is not focusing on the negative; that is showing him the way. If you merely show him how to cherish the route that leads to his destination, but tell him to select any route he likes, so long as he cherishes the value of the route, he will likely never reach his destination.

Now suppose your son has no particular destination in mind. In that case you can encourage him to explore all the roads on the map. You might point out the roads with scenic views or the routes that are part of a particular family tradition, but you would not confine him to the roads of your childhood. You would encourage him to explore the entire map and chart his own course.

Until you choose a destination you can travel any road on the map, but when your intention is to reach a particular destination, you must confine yourself to the few roads that lead to your destination. Forays into side paths are counterproductive.

Torah leads us to a relationship with G‑d. There are multiple roads that lead to G‑d; these roads are reflected in the mosaic of traditions that exist within the framework of authentic Torah Judaism. Any path beyond this framework may lead to a pleasant journey, but not necessarily to G‑d. If G‑d is your destination, then this is not the path for you.

This is why the history of humanity began with a prohibition. G‑d placed Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and commanded them to eat of all the fruits in the garden and then immediately added a prohibition: not to eat from the tree of knowledge. G‑d added that prohibition because the fruit of that tree would lead Adam and Eve away from G‑d. The fruit was delicious, and eating it would be enjoyable, but it would lead to the wrong destination.1

Prohibitions serve as landmarks that guide us to holy and G‑dly destinations. They are set by the Torah to help us avoid the paths that lead astray. Those who tread the paths that lead to G‑d and avoid paths that lead from G‑d are, in fact, positively oriented; they are moving forward. Those who follow the path of whim flounder in the open-minded sea; they ride its precarious waves, but rise and fall at their peril.