I can; therefore I must

photo by Rebecca Kowalsky


There are times when two different kinds of life experience synthesize to bring new insight. A friend told me about someone who went very much out of her way to do a kindness. This friend acknowledged the person for it, and the person shrugged it off, saying: “I was capable of doing it, so I had to do it.” The next day I heard someone describe her conversion process saying: “I grew up with the idea that as long as I don’t hurt anyone I can do whatever I want. Although that is still true to a great extent, something about these obligations was compelling for me, as they made me aware that there is something beyond me, that’s much greater than me.”

My purpose in relating these two incidents is not to talk about religion but to talk about how we experience obligation, emotionally and spiritually. When does the sense of being obligated feel good and when does it feel bad?

The statement: “I can, therefore I must” impressed my friend. She expected the other person to feel this was a choice and she didn’t have to do it. Instead her attitude was: If I have been created with this purpose in mind and I’ve been given the means to do it, then how can I not do it?

The juxtaposition of these two people’s experience reminded me of the verse Loving-kindness and truth meet; justice and peace kiss. (Psalms 85 verse 11). Truth and kindness are both “musts.” The only difference is that the religious demand is clear and well-defined. The opportunity to do a kindness or follow the undeniable stirrings of the heart is not so clear and it is something we need to figure out for ourselves. Both stem from the same basic human-Divine relationship of trust and hearing what this situation demands of me.

In both cases, however, we can feel resentful or we can feel inspired. We can feel drained and overwhelmed or we can feel enriched. What determines how we feel about it? How can we feel enriched by the things we’re obligated to do?

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3 Responses to I can; therefore I must

  1. Heather Gelb says:

    This post is very relevant to a spiritual dilemma I am going through now. For many weeks I have been holding onto a grudge against someone close who hurt me deeply. I find it very difficult to attach myself to an authority greater than my own strong feelings. I must continually remind myself that I am OBLIGATED to release all grudges, to nullify negative feelings and listen to a Higher Authority. Perhaps, then, this process of releasing the ingrained grudge will be easier. Without this obligation, the commandment “thou shall not bear a grudge”, I can understand how people can hold onto grudges for years, even decades, to the detriment of healthy family relationships (like parents or siblings who refuse to talk to each other, many times over misunderstandings)

  2. Ephraim Becker says:

    Dear Heather,

    The verse that instructs us not to take revenge or bear a grudge (but to rather love our fellow as ourselves) ends with the words ‘I am G-d’. As our Rabbis have taught, those are the critical words for making the emotional shift from negativity to positivity. The news is that the One Who commands this shift is the One Who loves us and looks after our needs as only the doting father can. Feeling that we are well taken care of allows us to make the critical shift. Good news does that for us. Imagine if you received the call containing the best news that you could imagine. Now imagine that the one who hurt you is the only one around with whom to dance in joy over the great news…

    To paraphrase the verse: ‘Do not bear a grudge and rather love your fellow because of the great news that I am your G-d!’

    With best wishes,
    Ephraim

  3. Heather Gelb says:

    Thank you, Ephraim.

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