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When God Writes the Warning Labels, I’m Listening

God gave us lots of laws because, let’s face it, we need them.
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January 4, 2024
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For the year 2024, I have a small wish: Not to be insulted so often by warning labels intended for morons. For example, I’ve never been tempted — no matter how hungry — to rip open that tiny, padded square tucked inside the pocket of a new jacket that says “Silica gel. Do not eat,” and pour those beads down the hatch. And have any of you been stunned to learn that you should not fold up the new stroller while your child was still inside it? I bet that even the most die-hard do-it-yourselfers reading the warning on their new rotary tool stating, “This product not intended for use as a dental drill,” never shrugged in response, asking themselves, “What’s the worst that could happen?”  

It’s scary to live in a society with people who require such remedial instructions. I hope they aren’t the same folks answering customer service lines trying to resolve phone and internet billing problems, but based on my experience, I have my doubts. 

I’m not allergic to warnings or rules. As a Jew, I signed up more than 3,300 years ago to be part of this tribe, which has 613 commandments. Of course, I wasn’t there when we received The Law — if I had been, I’d be featured on some sort of infomercial for my remarkable skin — but all Jews were there in one incarnation or other. 

God gave us lots of laws because, let’s face it, we need them. Human beings easily mess things up: we act or speak before we think, and flatter ourselves that we know best when we really don’t. “Truth takes time” said the writer Robert Caro, and it definitely took time for me to realize the truth that if God told me not to do something, or to do something, there was a good reason for it.

Unlike human-made laws and warnings, God’s laws and warnings give me credit for having intelligence greater than that of a head of cauliflower. 

Unlike human-made laws and warnings, God’s laws and warnings give me credit for having intelligence greater than that of a head of cauliflower. God didn’t issue a commandment saying, “Never iron clothes while being worn” or warn me that pepper spray “may irritate eyes.” God’s commandments are not always convenient, but they are good for me. When someone knocks at my door seeking tzedakah, I may not feel like interrupting whatever else I am doing, but in most cases I’m obligated to answer that call, and I become a better person for it. Without Jewish teachings, would this idea have come naturally to me? I doubt it.

One of the most meaningful “warnings” is in the third paragraph of the Shema, cautioning us not to run after the desires of our hearts and our eyes. Even this phrasing contains a lesson. Don’t our eyes see something first before our hearts desire it? That seems true, but the gleam in our eye didn’t start there: that glimmer of desire was already deep in our hearts. This idea alone has given me much to think about, especially regarding my attitude toward materialism.  

When my husband and I were raising our kids, our appreciation for Jewish laws grew exponentially. We could see on a daily basis how teaching them to our children taught essential spiritual and psychological tools such as discipline, self-restraint, compassion and appreciation for the power of words. They learned this from laws of kashruth; practicing the mitzvot of chesed and tzedakah; and learning to choose their words carefully to avoid causing pain through lashon harah. As baalei teshuva, we were honing our own practice in all these areas as well.   

God’s laws and warnings are smart, and He also gets to the point quickly. “Honor your father and your mother.” “Do not steal.” “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Full disclosure: We can only understand these more deeply by studying the commentaries.) Still, imagine if any of these were written by Congress — the draft form of each one would run to more than 1,000 pages, and that’s before the amendments were strapped on. If you need 1,000 pages to get to the point, I’m not listening. 

God’s advice improves me and enriches my life. When He writes the warnings, I’m reading the labels.


Judy Gruen’s next memoir, “Bylines and Blessings: Overcoming Obstacles, Striving for Excellence, and Redefining Success,” will be published on Feb. 20. She is also a book editor and writing coach.

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