Photo Credit:
Rabbi Steven Pruzansky

Consider three things and you will not come to sin: Know what is above you: an eye that sees and an ear that hears, and all your deeds inscribed in the Book.” – Pirkei Avot 2:1

 

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The Jewish people have always aspired to the highest level of morality. Consequently, any misstep rattles us to our core. As none of us is immune to temptation, it behooves us to discover new ways of suppressing it.

A congregant once overheard an exchange in a supermarket between a non-Jewish mother and young child. The mother had apparently caught the child attempting to shoplift a candy bar. She slapped the child’s hand and admonished him severely: “We do not steal!”

My congregant anticipated that this moment would be seized by the mother as a wonderful opportunity to broach with her young child the concept of values, morality, and decency. The mother, however, continued: “Don’t you see there are cameras all around the store? If you steal, you will get caught and go to jail. Is that what you want?”

Chalk that up as a missed opportunity. But is not this approach all too common in our community as well? How often do we communicate that the real crime is not the illicit behavior but rather getting caught (or worse: the real crime is getting caught and implicating others in order to receive more lenient treatment)?

What the mother neglected to convey was any sense of a higher morality. And what is often missing from our world is the reality that God is watching – that there really is a Master of the Universe who dictated His morality to us, that our personal perfection is measured by our ethical attainments in relation to our fellow man, and that there is reward and punishment for same.

Have we become too “sophisticated” to think in those terms? Is the awareness that “Hashem is here, Hashem is there, Hashem is truly everywhere” relegated only to songs for children? We might struggle to sense God’s presence during tefillah, but too many of us leave any consciousness of God in shul or the bet midrash, and His reality is missing from our workplaces and in our dealings with money.

Perhaps we were better off when we were less sophisticated and just lived with emunah peshutah.

An elderly Chofetz Chaim was once noticeably apprehensive, and when questioned he explained he was worried about his Final Judgment. He noted that having published and sold many books in his lifetime, perhaps he was culpable for mistakes that he or the proofreader had not caught. Or that the binding on some of the volumes was inferior.

“And in Heaven I will be asked how this can possibly be justified. Those book sales were a mikach ta’ut, and I will owe money to people whom I cannot repay. Surely I must recognize that these concerns are not simply scholarly musings about civil law and liabilities, but whether I will have to walk through the fires of Gehinnom because I stole money from another person.”

It is helpful, although not essential, to anticipate our eventual punishment for sin in such a graphic way. But even short of that, it suffices to recognize the grave harm caused to our quest for moral perfection by our indifference to theft or our lust for other people’s property. For many of us, challenges to our integrity would be rectified upon internalizing the words of Tehillim 16:8 – “I have set God before me always” – and the application of that formula to our daily lives.

One who is constantly aware of God’s presence cannot sin. Utilizing tefillah, especially Minchah in the middle of the work day, as a vehicle to reconnect with God and His moral code instead of just perceiving the act of prayer as the fulfillment of an obligation – a verbal quota that must be satisfied daily – could help in this regard.

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3 COMMENTS

  1. I agree with the general message of the article.
    But "simple faith" today is not enough. Human evolution is about the constant, irrepressible growth of our selfish ego, the unstoppable development of our self-serving, self-justifying nature.

    Simple faith was enough for our forefathers with their pure soul but for a modern human being a different method is necessity.
    This is why the only people who were ready to listen, to accept such a method the Torah was given.
    As our sages said about the Creator, "…I created the evil inclination and I created the Torah as a spice as the Light in it reforms…"

    Even then at the foot of the Mountain of Hate the new Nation needed "faith above reason" in order to achieve the all important unity and mutual guarantee, to be able to practice the fundamental natural principles of "Love your neighbor as yourself".

    Without it no balance, life, survival is possible.
    Today when the whole of humanity is sleepwalking towards self-destruction the Nation of the Book has to teach this method to everybody else as "Light onto the nations" through their own positive example.

  2. This is indeed true, and the need for something more was understood by both the Baal Shem Tov in introducing Chassidus in his generation, and Rav Yisroel Salanter in introducing the Mussar movement in his. By the late 19th century, the Chofetz Chaim with his emphasis on speech that destroys relationships, livelihoods and reputations; as well as his emphasis on Ahavas Yisroel.

    But today we see that the fall of generations has reached new depths (or using Mr. Hermann's equivalent language, ego has reached such heights) since the passing of the Chofetz Chaim in 1933, than in the time from the Chuban Bias Sheini till 1933. Maybe we do need something far stronger, more fundamental—maybe we need to understand what Ahavas Yisroel is all about.

    What could Hillel possibly have meant by, “What you hate, do not do to your friend, that is the whole of Torah, the rest is details, (go out and learn).” And Rabbi Akiva by, “Love your fellow as yourself; this is the general principle of the Torah.” Well simply if Hash-m is One, and we are to love Him with all our heart, soul and might—then we must so love Unity.

    What it meant to the Chofetz Chaim, according to one story, that as much or more than his concern over the possibility that he committed theft and would suffer, that when a man once stole his purse, he ran after him—not shouting for police, but rather shouting, “I give it to you as a gift! I give it to you as a gift!”

    But can an average Jew be expected to reach that saintly level? No of course not—only G-d can provide that level to him. Just like he turns to G-d for parnasa, health, shidduchim, etc. While we cannot be like this, even have the strength to pray for this consciously (for love, bestowal, to want to be a giver…)—we know it is a good thing and it will save us all. We can start wanting it for the wrong reason, for lo lisma. Not only is this acceptable, it is the only path that we can go in—the divinely designated path. And there is no shame in it any more than for a toddler acting good to receive a toy or treat. The child might well grow up to be the Gadol HaDor.

    The thing is play acting. Like a kid, we can already pretend to be in this mutual responsible state. Many of us do—we give money or time to help individuals or to communal organizations. Okay, but here’s the part we don’t do. Pretend we are not doing it for reward—in this world or the next, or out of habit or predisposition, or out of pride, nationalism, fear or the adrenaline rush of feeling like a good person. Imagine instead that you are doing it because the others are a greater you, and you are part of all of them. Pretend that you motivation is Unity itself. Imagine, taste—share with others what it would be like to be the GRA in the story told of his joy that he received and etrog on condition that the woman who owned it received the full reward for his performance of the mitzvah of Lulav. Or imagine the smiling explanation that the Baal Shem Tov is said to have given in performing a certain action of the practical Kabbalah to help a married couple have children (if I recall this correctly), even though it cost him—in some sense, I’m sure its deeper than that—his Olam HaBoh. Understand that these teachers are responsible and do not tell over fairy stories of impossible-to-reach levels to their students. And if these are just “stories” arisen among us—from where do such stories just “arise”?

    We might justly shake at the thought—totally lacking any comprehension of what could be greater than any form of receiving—what G-dly type of level is this?! But we are not even asking to want that, just to imagine what it is like to want that level of love—of Klal Yisroel, of Hash-m—ultimately the world with us, in total Unity. We would have to receive some inkling of what this truly meant, some hint of a flavor, before we could even subconsciously want it.

    Nonetheless, our obligation, and the troubles of not fulfilling them are before us—we certainly have the motivation to at least play at it.

    In the Amidah of Shabbat Mincha, talking to the holiness of the day, in that special closest moment of the week with the One above—what do we say? “You are One, and Your name is One, and who is like Your people Israel, one nation on earth?”

  3. There are Gentiles, as Winston Churchill, who saw in us this seed of eternal greatness. He said that what unity we do show was never “clannish,” but rather a crucial model of universal brotherhood for all humanity. He felt that for a Jew to be a good Englishman, first he needs to be a good Jew.
    But are we? And as a Light to the nations—their cohanim? Are we bringing them to unity and Bracha?

    They hold us responsible, you know—that is what the insanity about antisemitism is all about. It sounds insane because most Gentiles don’t understand what’s eating them about us, and the conscious rationalization for this gut understanding that they are not receiving blessing from us materializes in their minds through all sorts of mutually contradictory fantasies about Jewish world domination, vanity, and even eating their blood.

    On this dark side, we here the mocking words of Hitler, y’’sh, in Mein Kampf: "The Jew is only united when a common danger forces him to be or a common booty entices him; if these two grounds are lacking, the qualities of the crassest egoism come into their own, and in the twinkling of an eye the united people turns into a horde of rats, fighting bloodily among themselves.”

    Is he too not actually saying that to have been a good German, a Jew must first be a good Jew? – Yes, but while Churchill sees potential, Hitler sees impossibility. He claims that we Jews certainly don’t live by “Love your fellow as yourself,” accept hypocritically. This is why—behind all the other filth from his mouth and pen, and the horrors from his ascension to power—he really held that conscience and morality were “Jewish inventions” and the real “truth” (that the Jews in our weakness supposedly tried to suppress) was the rule that the strong eat the weak.

    We must fully understand the danger and opportunity here, even in a very worldly sense. We must understand how in a evermore interconnected world, with an ego strangling it in those connecting vines, how desperate for the world is for what only we can provide it. Not our modern technology toys, but our most ancient, precious and unique technology that no one else has to offer, is what they need, what they subliminally want, and where there anger against us—pure frustration—arises. They largely do not understand it, and deny it. And the more we simply cry about it, and put the statistics in their face—the more angry and aggressive they become. We are a nation of great psychologists, but here we seem to be blind to the obvious.

    But in proceeding, one may ask—what of those who have chosen separation and side with those who hate us—whether the ancient Hellenist Jews, the members of the Jewish section of the Communist party in the Soviet Union, or those Jews who support, directly or indirectly, BDS and join the one-sided condemnation of their people? This past week’s Parsha answers that. When Moses saw the one coming to hit his fellow, he spoke to this “wicked one.” So there is an objective labeling of such people who aren’t part of the internal round table, but seek out the enemy camp to get their agenda satisfied. Everybody has an obligation to strive for unity and invite all Jews in. But those who adamantly refuse—Providence will sooner or later take care of them, for they are already sheep in the jaws of the wolf pack and do not yet realize it. But if not before the inevitable charges of “back stabbers” and “secret Zionists”—because they will become the epicenter of remaining Jewish disunity, and the true ultimate flash point for antisemitism. If they do not realize the danger in time– then in another lifetime…

    Meanwhile, hard as it is, these we must pray for, and leave the door open till, G-d forbid, it is too late for them.

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