Rabbi Y’hoshua ben Korchah said that we must first take upon ourselves the “yoke of the kingdom of heaven,” and after that, the “yoke of the mitzvot.”

In educating adults and especially children, it can be more effective to begin with actions — i.e. the mitzvot — and add layers of understanding later. In fact, children don’t usually understand abstract idea without a physical reference. Practice is more clearly defined. But the assumption that doing the mitzvot leads inevitably to “accepting the yoke of the kingdom of heaven” is not often confirmed in actual practice. Typically, people know “what to do” — or some part of it — but not why they’re doing it.

Even when people have received some information about the “why’s,” it’s often not about abstract truths that lead to personal devotion to God. This is especially true when the minhag or halachah is derived from Kabbalah; wrapping the r’tzuah/strap around the left arm 7 times, for example. It might be done diligently and faithfully, but without the contemplative understanding that the Ari (for one) intended. 

This is not necessarily a bad thing. Doing the practice without understanding, but with a vague sense of its importance, might still qualify as “karma yoga.” But it wouldn’t qualify as “jnana yoga.” “Bhakti yoga?” I’d have to think about it.

We know that the “yoke of the mitzvot” means doing the appropriate halachah in a given instance.

But what’s the “yoke of the kingdom of heaven?”

“Yoke” itself is an interesting word.

Sanskrit: युग (yugá, “yoke, team”)

“Yoke” can ultimately be traced to a Sanskrit word that is also the root of “Yoga.”

In both Hebrew and Sanskrit, it conveys connecting [oneself] with something — like an ox is yoked to a cart. 

How do we “yoke” ourselves to “the kingdom of heaven,” if that kingdom is spiritual; not found in a physical/material location?

My previous post gave examples of multiple teachers urging us to recognize that our sense of separation from God is based on a misconception. God is creating and filling us at every moment. If God withdrew, we’d cease to exist at all. We can never be separate from God. “Knowing” that really means experiencing it — first in prayer or meditation; ultimately in every detail and moment of daily life, no matter how mundane.

So, Rabbi Joshua is telling us that we must first come to recognize our connection with God experientially (or at the very least, to become thoroughly convinced of the connection), before mastering the mitzvot.

In learning Torah, we tend to think of each mitzvah separately. 613 of them, to be exact. 365 negative ones (“don’t do’s”) and 248 positive ones (“do’s”).  There doesn’t seem to be any direct or logical connection between not eating pork and observing Shabbat.

How can we find a connection, if there is one?

As an undergraduate 50 years ago, I was taught a system of analyzing literary texts. It was called “New Criticism.” It’s considered passé now, but it gave me a few valuable tools in understanding Torah when I later began learning.

One main technique was: Find one idea or principle within the text that explains all the various elements of the text.  This is what I mean by “Holistic Torah” — understanding Torah in such a way that all the mitzvot, individual words and verses of the text serve a single purpose: Help us recognize God as the very source of our life.

With regard to Torah, what might that one principle be? I think the Rambam stated it most clearly: Know that there is a Primary Being that is bringing everything into existence from Its own existence. Nothing exists without It. Nothing exists separate from It.  The ocean doesn’t exist without water, even though the water can be the wave, the ocean, a drop of water, etc. Each separate form of water is at the same time always connected with the water itself. We would think it absurd to discuss “ocean” without its connection with water. The Rambam is saying that it’s true of the Universe, too. God is the essential element of Creation, just as water is the essential element of the ocean.

Think of Torah as being this one mitzvah — knowing personally that the Divine is creating us at every instant while permanently remaining in us — expressed in 613 ways.

One mitzvah with 613 parts.

Every individual form of the essential mitzvah, then, is meant to re-awaken in us our connection with the Source of our own life; “connect us with heaven,” as it were. We can look at each individual element of Torah — both the actions and the words — pointing our minds in the same direction.

Laying tefilin, placing and kissing a mezuzah, wearing tzitzit are all reminders. They’re not unrelated acts. They’re meant to give us ongoing opportunities during the course of every day to remember/re-experience our connection with God. Jewish life as defined by Torah, is therefore a life of ongoing contemplation. Halachah, which came later, provided greater clarification and uniformity of the forms.

Epimenides of Knossos (Crete), a poet, addressed Zeus, saying, “…in you we live and move and have our being.” Paul applies this with reference to God (Acts 17:28; “…in Him we live and move and have our being”), introducing it in the previous verse by saying “…He is not far from any one of us.” 

I accept the truth of the utterance and the poetic economy of its expression, even if I differ theologically with Epimenides and Paul in other ways. 

It states, as tersely as could be desired, the unifying principle of Torah.

All else is commentary. Now go and learn.