Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker once asked students if they would rather face the vicissitudes of their lives or be transformed into totally happy pigs.
A young woman raised her hand and said, “I’d rather be a happy pig.” Other hands shot up. “Me too!” “Same here!” “Pig!” “Pig!” “Pig!”
R’ Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev conveys a pithy thought on the wording of the parsha’s prohibition against bowing down before “the sun, moon or other heavenly bodies that I have not commanded” (Devarim 17:3).
The Berditchever notes that it is permitted to bow to a human being.
And indeed, Avraham bowed to his guests who appeared in the guise of men; Yosef’s brothers bowed to him. Ovadiah bowed before his master Eliyahu.
Why is that permitted? Explained the Berditchever: People, by virtue of our being commanded creations, intended to not just exist but to shoulder responsibility, are singular parts of creation. Our being commanded exalts us, places us on a plane above everything else in the universe.
The sun and the moon – and animals – are not charged, or able, to choose. They are bound by their natures and their instincts.
Not so, us.
The phrase “that I have not commanded,” above is understood by Rashi as “that I have not commanded you to worship.” The Berditchever, however, sees something else in the phrase: “that I have not graced with commandments.” That are not, in other words, commanded, and thus exalted, entities like humans are.
On Rosh Hashanah, which rapidly approaches, we are judged for our choices. And yet it is a festive holiday. Because even as we face our failures and stand kivnei maron, “like sheep,” before the Judge of all, we celebrate. Because we are, in the end, not sheep, nor mindlessly happy pigs. We are commanded beings – something that should fill us with joy.
© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran