In our quest to be spiritual entities it is incumbent on us to learn Judaism’s definition of a spiritual person.
Question: Two people are standing on a ladder. One is standing on the top rung, the other on the bottom rung. Which fellow is higher on the ladder?
It sounds like a trick question, but give it some thought anyway.
The great chassidic master the Rebbe of Kotzk gave a surprising answer.
The man standing on the bottom rung of the ladder is higher than the man standing on the top rung, because the man on the top rung has nowhere else to go but down, whereas the man standing on the bottom rung has nowhere else to go but up.
The same is true for becoming a better human. A person who seems to be spiritually impoverished may be on a higher plane than a very advanced personage because spirituality is assessed only by how much one is moving forward. A person born with refined character traits who never works to improve himself is inferior to a person born with crass traits who has moved from minus 2 to minus 1.
This lesson of spirituality was taught to the Jewish people the moment they were redeemed from Egyptian bondage. Upon emancipation, God gave them their first commandment: to sanctify the new moon. Isn’t that surprising? If someone were to ask you what you thought the first commandment should be to a newly formed religious nation, what would you say? Perhaps to be just, charitable, and holy. Maybe to honor parents, or not to steal, both of which are enumerated in the Ten Commandments. But why the sanctification of the new moon?
God was talking to a nation entrenched in slavery and servitude – neophytes to religiosity and spirituality – who were destined to become the spiritual beacons of the world. Their first instruction had to be a preliminary lesson on spirituality. That lesson was the moon. The moon is symbolic of life on earth. The moon, very much like one’s life, waxes and wanes.
Just as in life there are ups and downs, highs and lows, good days and bad days, the moon starts off small, ascends to brilliance, only to become small again. The sanctification of the moon happens not when the moon is at its peak, but when the moon has waned and is just a small sliver. This is to illustrate the amazing opportunity one has to achieve, accomplish, and grow just when one feels spiritually low. Just as the man standing on the bottom rung of the ladder may be spiritually higher than the fellow on top, the person who feels spiritually inept may be more spiritual than the person who feels spiritually proud.
Becoming a spiritual human being is not easy. Nobody is perfect. But while some people are more spiritual than others, no human being wholly lacks spirituality.
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In the Torah’s story of Abraham and the city of Sodom, God informs Abraham that He plans on destroying the city and its evil inhabitants. Abraham beseeches God to spare the city; he argues that there must be some righteous people there. God responds that there isn’t even one righteous person in the entire city.
This story always troubled me. After all, why would a righteous person live in such a wicked and depraved society? What was Abraham thinking? The answer may be that Abraham was conjecturing that there must be individuals who, despite all the seemingly insurmountable evil, tried to rise, even a bit, above the evil. Although they would not have stood out as shining examples of piety, their feeble efforts to rise above the evil surrounding them would have qualified them as righteous.
A person’s spiritual level is subjective. How a person behaves relative to his or her society and the challenges of that particular period of time determine his or her spiritual level.
John’s story can teach us a lot about the worth of every human being. John, a high-profile corporate attorney, owned a mansion in an exclusive Long Island suburb, a villa in the Bahamas, a Mercedes, a Jaguar, and a yacht. He considered himself a very important person.
One spring morning, John took a leisurely walk in New York’s Central Park. His case involving the Securities Exchange Commission and a major client was weighing heavily on his mind. He became lost in thought and didn’t realize he’d veered off from the walking lane into a dangerous trap. The butt of a revolver aroused him from his reverie.
John looked up to see a well-dressed man who looked like a corporate executive. With him was a man who gave the appearance of a vagabond. The executive had the one who looked like a vagabond in handcuffs. The executive spoke up. He told John that his hostage knew an incriminating secret that could damn him for life. He had to do away with his hostage if he was ever to live without fear. The executive demanded that John kill the secret-bearer. If John refused to squeeze the trigger, the executive would kill John and find somebody else to kill his hostage.
The executive figured that police investigators could trace him to the murder of the vagabond, whereas no one could trace him to the random murder of John.
John was in a complex quandary. What should he do? He stole a glance at the hostage and quickly surmised that the fellow was probably a homeless vagrant. Why should he give up his life for somebody so worthless? John thought of himself as a successful person and figured that this other fellow was a failure and loser. John deduced that his life was more important than the vagrant’s life, and he pulled the trigger.
The vagrant fell to the ground. The executive walked away. John fled the scene with little remorse. After all, it was crystal clear that he was a more worthy human being than the man he killed.
According to the Talmud, what John did was patently wrong. The Talmud teaches that God doesn’t measure a person’s worth by money or possessions. The idea that somebody could be “worth five million dollars” is an abomination in Torah. Also, according to the Talmud, no human being is capable of measuring the value of another human life.
The reasoning behind this is simple. The human being is set apart from the rest of the animal kingdom by the way he or she responds to complex challenges. If one confronts a challenge head-on and responds in a positive fashion, then one grows into a better human being. Because we can’t see into the deeper recesses of somebody else’s heart and mind to determine how much he has grown or what he has overcome, we cannot possibly determine that person’s worth.
In our story it turns out John’s now dead “lowlife vagrant” was once a successful businessman who lost everything because he didn’t want to get involved in certain scandalous business affairs he accidentally discovered.
The Talmud teaches that there is no way possible to judge another person, to know the real value of another human being. It is not possible to know what hurdles someone has overcome, or the nature and magnitude of the tests that confront someone. Yet this is the true measure of a person.
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Hopefully you won’t have to encounter such a test in Central Park. But what about people you engage with in the street, in the mall, at work, or even at home? You thought you knew who they were, but do you really know their worth according to the measures we’ve been discussing?
Do you know the magnitude of the tests they have faced and passed? Perhaps you will now view them in a different light. If other human beings start becoming greater in your eyes, it means that you’ve conquered a challenge, and you yourself have become a greater human being.
In Hebrew, the word for human being is made up of the same letters as the Hebrew word for “very,” meod. This is because the essence of being human is to achieve superlative status. A human being must never stagnate or become complacent. A human being must be a “very,” constantly striving to become better and greater. Being a human being means going beyond innate limitations. As the Victorian poet Robert Browning wrote, “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for.”
One of my favorite writers, the late Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, wrote:
We are living now in a time of breaking barriers. Everything that people always assumed to be impossible is becoming possible in our time. God may be teaching us a very important lesson with this: we are capable of doing things that we never thought possible. The paradigm of this is running a marathon race. If you ask anybody, “Can you run twenty-six miles?” most people will give you an emphatic “No!” The truth is, however, that if we would spend enough time and really take it seriously, we could do it.
The point is that the average person is capable of training himself to do something that is presently completely beyond his capacity. Furthermore, this is not limited to physical accomplishments. It is also true on an intellectual and spiritual level. Many people say, “I can’t understand this; I will never be able to master this subject. This is too hard for me.” If a person would really work at it, however, he or she could do anything… By becoming a spiritual marathoner, a person could accomplish things that he would not dream possible. [Inner Space, Moznaim Publishing, 1990]
If you are not in tip-top physical shape, the prospect of running a marathon can be daunting. All the effort, time, and sweat required to build up your endurance may not seem worth it. Similarly, although you may endorse the concept of a moral society, the prospect of adopting a higher moral standard for yourself may be daunting. “Let others actualize the ideal,” you may say. “Society will not suffer from my one little indulgence.”
A college fraternity once embarked on a fund-raising scheme. All 200 members of the fraternity were asked to contribute a cup of whiskey. The cups of whiskey would be poured into a vat. The full vat of whiskey would then be raffled off for five dollars a ticket. The lucky winner would be awarded the entire vat.
One member of the fraternity calculated that it really would not make a difference if he filled his cup with water and poured it into the vat. “After all,” he rationalized, “there will be 199 other guys filling it with whiskey. No one will be able to detect my cupful of water.” So this fraternity member poured a cup of water instead of whiskey into the vat.
The raffle took place with great fanfare. The winner was overjoyed. With the entire fraternity assembled, the president of the fraternity filled a shot glass from the vat and handed it to the winner, who downed it in one gulp. Everyone stood by, expecting him to grin with pleasure. Instead, he looked first surprised, then irate. “This is nothing but a vat of water!” he exclaimed angrily. All 199 other fraternity members had had the same idea of contributing water instead of whiskey, sure that it wouldn’t make a difference.
What each individual in a society does makes a difference. “In the grand scheme of things,” you may think, “my actions don’t really count. I will leave it up to the rest of the citizens to maintain a high moral standard.” The result is that too many people fill the vat of life with baseness instead of value. It is up to you to save the world.
It is an axiom of Judaism that the entire universe was created for the sake of man. All stars, angels, animals, and protozoa exist for the sake of man. Judaism charges every person to say to himself: “For me the world was created.” This empowers, but also obligates.
It is your world. It is yours to keep sane. It is yours to keep safe. It is yours to keep clean. It is yours to keep holy. Don’t leave this task up to others. Just as everyone’s contribution builds the whole, so everyone’s dereliction of duty destroys the whole.
A passenger on board a world-class cruise ship had a cabin on the bottom level. One day, he took out a drill from his valise and started drilling away at the wall of his cabin. His neighbor heard the noise and immediately reported it to the crew. In moments, the security officials charged into the cabin and demanded that he stop endangering the ship. The passenger responded that it was nobody’s business but his own. It was his cabin, which he paid for, and he was entitled to do with it whatever he wished.
In reality, each and every one of us is a passenger on the great ship called this world. Like the above passenger, we settle into our own cabins – our own independent existences. We too make decisions, which satisfy our own desires and drives, heedless of the effect of our actions on society as a whole.
We know that ecologically one miscreant can ruin an entire environment. One manufacturer who does not properly dispose of his toxic waste or one magnate in the Amazon region who decides to clear a few thousand acres of forest will negatively impact thousands of other people – for generations. The same is true morally. One person who acts in a debased manner negatively impacts the whole of society. Decide right now that that person won’t be you.
Rabbi Yitzchok Fingerer, a popular educator and lecturer, was a student of the legendary rosh yeshiva Rabbi Avraham Pam, zt”l, and served as rav at Aish HaTorah on the Upper West Side. This essay is excerpted from “Search Judaism: Judaism’s Answers to a Changing World” (Targum, 2009), available at www.SearchJudaism.com.