Rabbi Tarfon was once travelling from Jerusalem to Lod. In ancient times, travelling alone was dangerous – there was risk of attack by highwaymen. When you were ready to take a trip, you would stand by the side of the road and wait for a group of travelers, a caravan.
Prior to the building of the VFT between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, the journey to Lod would take a couple of days. But the caravan would keep going as long as the members could muster the strength, oftentimes many hours into the night. Rabbi Tarfon, however, found himself in a quandary: upon nightfall, he had become obligated to recite the evening Shema. Should he take the risk and stop to daven, if that meant dropping out of the caravan?
Mishnah: Beis Shamai says: Each evening a person should lie down and recite the Shema. And in the morning, he should stand up, as the verse states, “when you lie down and when you rise.” Beis Hillel says: Each person should read it as he regularly would, as it states, “when you go on the way.”
Gemara: Rav Nacḥman bar Yitzcḥak taught: One who acts in accordance with the opinion of Beis Shamai is deserving of death, as we learned: Rabbi Tarfon said: I was coming on the road when I stopped and reclined to recite the Shema in accordance with the statement of Beis Shamai. Yet in so doing, I endangered myself due to the highwaymen who accost travelers. The Sages said to him: You deserved to be in a position where you were liable to pay with your life, as you transgressed the statement of Beis Hillel!
What was Rabbi Tarfon thinking when he lay down to recite the Shema and had to leave the caravan? Rabbi Tarfon’s calculation, no doubt, was that by doing it Beis Shamai’s way, he was fulfilling both opinions, and he was willing to do that no matter the consequences. The Rabbis response to him was: you’re acting foolishly if you’re risking your life to do an unnecessarily pious act!
It’s a rare occasion that we’re expected to put everything on the line to maintain our connection with Hashem. Serving Heaven is meant to be a favourable experience. That doesn’t mean that it’s easy –things in life that come too easy tend to have little value. The performance of mitzvos should be both challenging and, at the same time, satisfying. If it feels like you’re risking your life to stay in a relationship with G-d, you’re probably trying too hard and you just need to relax.
How do we balance the dual requirements of challenge and enjoyment? If you open up a Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law), you’ll find that most halachos (laws) have a letter-of-the-law mandate and then a more stringent opinion. Why? Because we’re all different. Some of us will be able to excel in one area of mitzvah observance, while others will be champions in other areas. Beyond the basic law, it’s not a one-size-fits all. If you’re finding that mitzvah observance is ‘strangling’ you, first things first, you need to check whether you’re choking on actual halachos or chumros (stringencies). What works for one person in terms of self-sacrifice and chumra will not work for another person. Yes, you need to break yourself and your character a little for G-d, but not to the extent that you feel as if you’re hanging off the edge of the cliff.
Hashem loves you dearly. He gave you mitzvos to enhance your relationship with Him. Mitzvos are a mark of love between you and Him. If you’re not enjoying their performance, you need to ask yourself what you’re doing wrong. Your relationship with Heaven should be a joy!
The same is true of the spousal relationship. If coming home to your spouse feels like the hardest, most challenging, task of the day, you’re clearly doing something wrong. If every word you breathe, every move you make, feels like you’re walking on eggshells, you’re trying way too hard. If that sounds like your relationship, somewhere along the road things have gone awry.
Marriage should be the most exhilarating experience in life. When it’s working the way it should be, it carries all the challenges of life on its back, as you have a life-partner to share everything with! If your marriage is not the most wonderful aspect of your life, it’s time to figure out why not. Discuss it with your partner. Don’t be afraid to seek outside guidance. It should never feel like a burden. Till 120, you want to be running home to see your spouse with the most incredible feeling of excitement and exhilaration!
Nobody is forcing you to be in a relationship with Hashem or your spouse. You’ve chosen it because when you do it right, it’s the most awesome experience! May those relationships forever be the most fun, enjoyable, and fulfilling aspects of your life!