There’s a wonderful little parable I heard in my yeshivah days:

Yankel, a poor and illiterate shtetl Jew, was celebrating the wedding of his only daughter. Standing exuberantly under the chuppah about to see his daughter achieve lifelong happiness, he was distracted by a distant shout. It was the town crier running in, bearing an important letter addressed to him.

Unable to read, Yankel handed the letter to the town scribe. Perusing the document, a scant look flitted across his face. He leaned over to Yankel and whispered something in his ear. “Oy vey!” Yankel cried, and fainted on the spot.

The difference between simply understanding something and actually “getting it.”

What was in the letter?

Yankel, I’m sorry to tell you, but your father has passed.

Now, let’s think about this for a moment. Of the two, Yankel and the scribe, who better understood the content of the letter? One could argue that it was the scribe, for he could read it while Yankel could not.

Why, then, did Yankel react so dramatically to the message while the scribe did not?

Because it was his father, not the scribe’s.

It’s a great little rhetorical device to convey an important idea: the difference between simply understanding something and actually “getting it.”

And it’s the magic ingredient we need to inject into our religious lives right now.

An Acute Case of Religious Boredom

After all, who doesn’t suffer from a little bit of “religious boredom” every once in a while? Whether you’re a seasoned pro already swaying for decades, or a novice just getting your feet wet with Shabbat observance, there are bound to be times you’re not particularly moved by what you’re doing. Sure, you may go through the motions, but what do you do when it just doesn’t seem to be going anywhere?

Ask yourself: Does Judaism move me?

If the answer is “Yes! Every day, all day!” then great, good for you! You can stop right here. But if your answer is “Not always,” keep on reading.


We’ll start with the commonly used word for Jewish practice, halachah or halakhah, depending which style guide you adhere to. Commonly translated as “Jewish law,” the root H-L-KH in Hebrew means “to go” or “walk,” which begs the question, why is Jewish law called “walking?”

Jewish law is not merely a laundry list of do’s and don’ts, as it is unfortunately often caricatured

Some explain that it points to the idea that the Jewish people “walk” with it throughout life, or in other words, it’s the way in which we “go” as Jews.1 Others point to the verse, “And you shall make known to them the way they shall go and the deed[s] they shall do,”2 which articulates this idea of Jews “going” along G‑d’s path.

Indeed, Jewish law is not merely a laundry list of do’s and don’ts, as it is unfortunately often caricatured. Rather, it’s a gift from Above, bestowed upon us to set us in motion.

And when I say “motion,” it’s not simply a linear path through life, from Sunday to Shabbat, from cradle to crypt, and from the Diaspora to Israel. Rather, it’s an internal sense of motion, a way of life that ought to move you the same way a melancholy song moves you to tears and the news that you won the lottery moves you (I would assume) to dance with joy.

It’s an emotional, visceral experience that ought to be moving you in all different directions.

So, it’s not just “law.” Oh no, it’s far more than that. It’s a subscription that takes over your life unlike any other, jettisoning your inertia and setting you in perpetual motion.

A Difficult Word to Translate

This sounds pretty amazing, but like most things involving lofty rhetoric, the question is: how? How do you board this elevator of motion? What if you’re not at all moved by what you learn, do, and hear? Are you missing the point? And if yes, well, what should you do?

Let’s look at the opening verse of our parshah: “And these are the ordinances that you shall set before them.”3 “Ordinances” is a scary word. Fortunately, we have alternate translations provided to us by Scripture’s lead translator—the venerable Onkeles, who way back when, in the times of the early Roman Empire, rendered the entire Torah into Aramaic. Mishpat, the Hebrew word for “ordinance” that appears in our verse, isrendered by Onkeles (in a different verse,4 but the same word) as hilcheta.

Our word du jour—halachah!

Building on this translation, we’re going to suggest that the key to winning the halachah game is found in the next words, “… that you shall set before them.”

Once again, the English translation, while accurate, fails to convey the depth and richness of the original text. The Hebrew lifneihem, “before them,” can mean multiple things, and one perfectly legitimate translation would be “to their pinimyut.”

I warned you that translating pnimiyut would be difficult! That’s because it’s one of those words that is an idea, a sort of intuitive notion that is conveyed at a farbrengen(don’t ask me to translate that!) over schnapps and herring with camaraderie and song. But if I must, it means “internalize”—the kind of thing that Yankel did (and which the scribe did not do) when he heard the contents of the letter.

And that’s what you must do when applying yourself to Torah and Judaism. You must apply yourself in a pnimiyut type of way, seeking to connect and cross the bridge from “understanding” to “getting it.”

Apply, Connect, and You Will Be Moved

Think of pictures of devout Jews poring over Torah. It could be by candlelight on a wooden table, with a lantern hiding in a cave, on the couch with the family, or in a gallery lit up with LED bulbs. Whatever the setting, the story is the same. This is a people engaged in a labor of love, a child yearning not just to study, but to connect with G‑d.

Learning and practicing halachah is not just doing or understanding something. It’s connecting with something.

This is a people engaged in a labor of love, a child yearning not just to study, but to connect with G‑d.

When you do that, it connects back with you. As with any relationship, when you seek deeper connection, it’s reciprocated. So when you approach halachah with a desire to actually connect to the G‑d embedded within it, it reaches back into you and shakes your core.

And then, you’ll be moved.

Find something in Torah, in Judaism, that you connect with. If you like prayer, run with it. If studying the intricacies of the lunar calendar is your thing, lean in, heavy. Embrace that Friday night candle-lighting or the opportunity to visit the sick. Whatever it is, you must find something that you connect with on a deep, emotional level.

Connect in a way that when you hear or think about it, you’re no longer the distant scribe reading the letter, rather you’re Yankel and it’s your own Father involved.5