Rabbi Yisrael Rutman
The story is told of how the Chofetz Chaim, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan (d. 1933),1* was once stopping by a pharmacy, and told the pharmacist how much he envied him. The man was taken aback, and asked what there was to envy? The Chofetz Chaim explained he envied the pharmacist his many opportunities in the course of each day to sell medicines and save lives. The pharmacist responded that he did it to make a living, not out of any altruistic motive. Hearing that, the Chofetz Chaim said to him: "You have to have intention that 'I am coming to fulfill a mitzvah (Torah commandment) of chesed (kindness) to others and saving lives.' The profit-making side of it does not devalue the mitzvah, as long as you have the proper intention."
The pharmacist followed the sage's advice. In the course of time, the pharmacist, who until then had been somewhat distant from his faith, became fully observant. Eventually, he rose to become head of the chesed [charitable service] organizations in his city. 2*
This was a basic teaching of the Chofetz Chaim, that even the most mundane activities contain great spiritual potential, there to be exploited, if only we are aware of them. For example, paying the taxi driver at the end of a ride: it can be done merely to avoid being arrested for not paying, or it can be done with the intention of fulfilling the Torah injunction to pay promptly for services rendered. 3* And the taxi driver himself, like the pharmacist, can drive all day long to make money, but he can also have in mind that he is enabling others to reach their destinations. One does not have to be in one of "the caring professions" in order to care.
Indeed, there is hardly an occupation or activity that does not involve benefit for others in some way, directly or indirectly. Shoveling the snow from the sidewalk in front of the house: it can be done either to avoid being slapped with a lawsuit by a visitor falling and breaking a limb on your property, or in order to fulfill the mitzvah of watching out for the safety of yourself and others. Giving to charity: it can be done as a tax write-off or to get rid of the person asking for money; or the money can be given for the mitzvah of helping the poor and sick, the widow and the orphan. Smiling: it can be a matter of politeness; or a mitzvah of love thy neighbor.
It's so much the thought that counts. Even an act which is by definition a mitzvah, such as putting on tefilin [phylacteries] or sitting in a sukkah, can lose its meaning if done by rote. It's like a body without a soul. Whereas even in a situation that would seem to be devoid of any act of kindness and stripped of any spiritual content can, with the right approach, be transformed into a mitzvah.
Someone asked a distinguished rabbi that I know to meet with a non-religious friend of his, hoping that the rabbi could influence him to take an interest in Judaism. There was just one problem. His friend had stipulated that he would not be willing to discuss religion with the rabbi. Politics, sports, the weather, yes; religion, no. Nevertheless, the rabbi agreed to the condition. "For him, it'll be politics or sports or weather. For me, it'll be Torah." A friendly encounter with a rabbi who is capable of intelligently discussing things of interest to him might change his mind about rabbis, and the things that interest them.
The sage Shmuel said to Rabbi Yehudah: "Smart one! Grab and eat, grab and drink! The world that we are passing through is like a wedding." 4* It is highly unlikely that Shmuel was training his disciple Rabbi Yehudah for a career in gluttony. Rather, he was exhorting him to be a "smart one," and to grab all the Torah and mitzvot he can during his stay in this world, which is as fleeting as a wedding.
Life is like a wedding in another sense, too. A wedding is food and drink, music and dancing. But if you're a smart one, you'll be thinking of the mitzvah of rejoicing with the wedding couple, as well. Then, even the eating and drinking will be a mitzvah.
Special thanks to Rabbis Shabsy Black, Yechezkel Fox and Chaim Busch for their help in the preparation of this essay.
1* Known as the Chofetz Chaim, the title of his classic work on the laws of speech, Rabbi Kagen was the Torah luminary of pre-World War Two Europe. He was renowned not only for his vast scholarship, but even more so for his saintly character.
2* Kuntres Chaim V'Chesed, P. 9.
3* Late one Friday afternoon, the Chofetz Chaim was seen rushing down the street. Normally, he would be home, dressing and getting ready to greet the Sabbath. When asked about his unusual behavior, he explained that an employee at the shop where one of his books was being printed had not been paid yet. He hurried to the man's home at the time for candle lighting in order to fulfill the Torah commandment of paying one's worker promptly. (Chofetz Chaim Al Ha-Torah, Parshas Kedoshim, P. 162.)
4* Talmud Eruvin, 54a with Rashi. See also Rabbi Paysach J. Krohn, Along the Maggid's Journey, P. 216.
Reprinted with permission from e-geress.org