Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk


            With the advent of this week's Torah reading the nature of the book of Deuteronomy changes dramatically.  Well, maybe not exactly dramatically, unless you're into nuance.  But anyway, at this point the style changes.  Until now Moshe has mostly been giving the Jews musar or chastisement for past indiscretions.  At this point, he begins clarifying the mitzvoth which the Jewish nation will require upon arrival in the Promised Land.  This week Moshe emphasizes three areas of Halacha.  They are the destruction of idolatrous influences, the rules of keeping kosher, and the pilgrimage festivals.  Moshe introduces this legal material with a philosophy of Jewish Law.  We have to see our adherence to the laws as a free choice, based upon a clarity that observing the laws is superior to the alternative.   Here's how Moshe lays it out:  Behold, I set before you today a blessing and a curse. The blessing, that you will heed the commandments of the Lord your God, which I command you today; and the curse, if you will not heed the commandments of the Lord your God (Deuteronomy 11:26-28).  That's pretty clear.  However, in real life not everything is so clear cut, so Moshe espoused another piece of advice back in parshat V'etchanan: And you shall do what is upright (yashar) and good in the eyes of the Lord, in order that it may be well with you (6:18).

            In this week's statement, it sounds pretty much black and white, either you do the mitzvoth and you will be blessed or you don't and will be cursed, but the earlier dictum is less obvious.  Our behavior must be perceived as good and upright.  Is that, perhaps, a call for a relativistic approach to our legal system?  I believe such a case could be made, but I want to present a different point of view I saw in a fascinating comment made by the Netivot Shalom (Reb Shalom Noach Barzovsky, the Slonimer Rebbe, 1911-2000), which, I hope, will give us a fresh way of looking at mitzvah performance.  The Rebbe made this observation based upon a comparison of two statements in Pirkei Avot.  At the beginning of the second chapter of Pirkei Avot, Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi (135-220 CE) says:  Which is the upright (yashar) path for man to choose for himself? Whatever is harmonious for the one who does it, and harmonious for mankind.  This beautiful dictum contains two difficulties in translation.  The first is how to translate the key word yashar.  I opted for upright, but 'straight' works just as well.  Rebbe Hakadosh is describing the difficult navigation of life's route.  We must continually adjust the course to stay on the high road.  The two major factors in this steering are how does it makes me feel, and how does it makes others feel.  The word for feeling good in this context is teferet, which Chabad.org translated as harmonious.  That's fine, but I would prefer splendid.  The word seems to connote a feeling of spiritual beauty achieved through carefully weighing many ethical factors.

            However, there's another Mishneh which I assumed was a conflicting approach, but the Netivot Shalom has taught is complementary.  Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai (30-90 CE) said to his five major disciples: Go out and see which is the good route to which a person should adhere (2:10).  This statement is usually understood to be asking about character traits as opposed to specific actions.  And the answers back up that contention.  Said Rabbi Eliezer: A good eye. Said Rabbi Joshua: A good friend. Said Rabbi Yossei: A good neighbor. Said Rabbi Shimon: To be aware of consequences.  Said Rabbi Elazar: A good heart.  According to the Netivot Shalom these two statements explain our original verse, and describe the goodness and the uprightness which mitzvah performance should engender in person. 

            The Slonimer Rebbe teaches us that Rebbe Yehudah Hanasi taught us how to actually behave according to the Halacha.  One must sift carefully among a number of options, choosing the action which will bring the most credit upon himself, and the most benefit to others.  Hopefully there is a cerebral selection process before every act.  Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai, on the other hand is searching for the method to achieve the sovereignty of goodness within the human soul.  I'm not concerned with which student's answer is best.  I'm interested in the objective of the question.  

            Now we can look back to the verse.  Mitzva performance demands that we are good within ourselves and straight in our actions.  Mitzvoth don't just inform our actions; they are an educational process for making me a good person.  The Netivot Shalom points out that humans are born with a tendency for negative behavior (for the inclination, yetzer, of man's heart is evil from his youth, Genesis 8:21).  Rabban Yochanan pointed out that through the mitzvah regimen we can attach ourselves to a positive path through life.  Rebbe Yehudah Hanasi taught that our mitzvah deeds must be chosen in such a way that we always make ourselves and others better through these acts.

            It's critical that we try to accomplish both.  It's so sad when mitzvoth become rote actions separate from our minds and with little impact upon our souls.  It's tragic when we observe ritually observant Jews who aren't ethical and kind.  That's not the intention of this system.  And that's what the verse meant when it said to be good and upright. And we have to believe that we can achieve these goals.  It's all about the impact.

            So, this week when the attention of the Torah turns to a long section teaching us many mitzvoth that we again consider the purpose of these demands on our bodies, minds and souls.  Please, never assume for a moment that the Torah's goal is to turn us into robots.  We must always carefully consider our actions.  The aim is to make us think about our actions, for the purpose of becoming both good and upright.




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