"Rabbi [Yehuda haNasi] said: What is the proper path a person should choose for himself? Whatever brings glory to himself [before G-d], and grants him glory before others. Be careful with a minor mitzvah (commandment) as with a major one, for you do not know the reward for the mitzvos. Consider the loss incurred for performing a mitzvah compared to its reward, and the 'reward' received for sinning compared to the loss. 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 are recorded in the Book."
The author of this mishna is Rabbi Yehuda the Nasi (lit., "the lifted or elevated one," usually translated as "prince"). R. Yehuda was the leading scholar of final generation of the Mishna. He lived in the 1st to 2nd centuries C.E. and was a seventh generation descendant of Hillel (of 1:12-14). He is known throughout the Mishna simply as Rabbi (pronounced "Rah-bee" in Hebrew -- and usually mispronounced "Rebbie") -- the teacher, par excellence. He was also a person of wealth and influence with the Roman government. Rabbi was the redactor of the Mishna, the one who collected the material of his time, reviewed it (together with his colleagues and students), and organized it into the Mishna we have today. His lifetime marked the end of the period of the Mishna. With the generation that followed him began the period of the Talmud.
Rabbi begins by providing us with the proper criteria for selecting a path in life. We are to act in a manner which brings "glory" to ourselves both in the eyes of G-d and in the eyes of man. (I couldn't find a good English equivalent of the Hebrew term here -- "tiferes". The meaning is glory, majesty, splendor.)
This statement presents us almost immediately with an obvious question. Behaving in a manner which earns G-d's admiration is certainly the correct idea. That is what we were created for. But the second criterion is more curious. Certainly we want to impress others and show them what true Judaism is about; it might even inspire them to become better people themselves. Yet how can this be placed on an equal footing with pleasing G-d? Our purpose in life is to serve G-d. If others admire us and are favorably impacted -- great. But if not, what are we to do? Should we start compromising our own beliefs just so as not to rub others the wrong way? Or should we spend a lot of time "marketing" ourselves, looking over our shoulders attempting to ensure others are favorably impressed? If they can appreciate truth, that would seem frosting on the cake. But shouldn't we care far more about what G-d thinks than what the neighbors say -- than if we've earned the approval of fallible and biased human beings?
In truth, however, Rabbi is telling us a profound insight, one which must fundamentally alter our own outlook in life. In a sense, we do have two masters when we observe our religion. Our success in fulfilling our purpose must not be gauged by how well we are performing the mitzvos (commandments) alone, but in how we are impacting upon the world around us. And it's exceedingly easy (and quite tempting) to fulfill our obligations to G-d to the detriment of our mission to man. If someone is very holy and pious but somehow manages to get on everyone else's nerves (yes, and we all know such people...) ;-), somehow he's not doing it right. Our purpose is not to dwell in our own little ivory towers consecrating ourselves to G-d alone -- and we must certainly not make our piety a weapon to distance ourselves from the world at large. Our mission is to transform the world around us into a reflection of G-dliness. We carry with us a message to the rest of the world. We must demonstrate through our deeds and behavior that G-d exists and His Presence can be felt within this world. We must raise families and build communities; we must interact with the world around us, transforming it into a sanctuary worthy of the Divine Presence. And then slowly, the world will grow to become a reflection of the G-d who created it.
The Talmud (Yoma 86a) derives from the verse "You shall love the L-rd your G-d..." (Deuteronomy 6:5) that each of us is obligated to make G-d beloved through his or her actions. One should study Torah and deal kindly with others, so that they say, "Fortunate is his father who taught him Torah! Fortunate is his rabbi who taught him Torah! Woe to those who do not study Torah! This one who has studied Torah, see how beautiful are his ways!"
It is often so very easy and tempting to fulfill G-d's commandments to the letter but by doing so estrange ourselves from others -- to exhibit a condescending, holier-than-thou attitude towards all we come in contact with -- especially those we know best. It is simply our "evil inclination's" way of attempting to frustrate our efforts after we have mastered the basics and have begun to serve G-d properly. We are tempted to use all of our good deeds and throw them in others' faces rather than using them to bring others closer to G-d. But Judaism asks of us something far greater.
The dilemma involved, however, is far deeper. The world for the most part is hardly up to the messages of truth and spirituality we have to share with it. How are we to go about fulfilling our mission to mankind while maintaining our own standards to G-d -- standards which appear archaic, old-fashioned, and anachronistic to the rest of the world? Can we really impress both G-d and man, or does it at times seem that we must simply decide between one or the other?
Allow me to ask this question on a more practical level. The following situation has repeated itself thousands of times in this and in past generations. A young man or woman discovers a little of the truth of religion and wants to become more observant than his or her parents. And guess what? The parents do not take it well. Their child is joining a cult, going off the deep end, rejecting our upbringing, showing little appreciation for all we've done for him, etc. etc. He is not going to go to the college of his choice (read: our choice) and living up to the image of success and achievement we have for him. Nothing new. It happens in almost every parent-child relationship -- whether the issue is religion or any other issue, serious or not.
But what is the obligation of this young adult? Does G-d really want him or her to hurt his parents? Is it really a choice -- either G-d or his parents -- with no middle ground?
It is clear that when push comes to shove, we must serve our G-d first. Our bond to our beliefs must be far stronger than any flesh-and-blood bond. (The Talmud teaches that if your parents asks you to transgress a Torah law, you must not listen, for both you and your parents are obligated to listen to G-d (Bava Metziah 32a).) If the world really couldn't care less about truth, we will just have to stand firm against an apathetic world (as did our forefather Abraham), preserve what we may, and hope for better times.
Nevertheless, it is my sincere belief that it is possible to do both. It is inconceivable to me that G-d would "force" us to hurt others. Let us return to that word above that we had trouble translating -- "tiferes" or glory. There is a distinction here between being an idol, a folk hero everyone is in love with, and being someone others can respect. If we present ourselves as sincere, as firm in our beliefs and willing to stand up for what we believe in, chances are others will respect us -- perhaps begrudgingly admire us -- for whom we are. We must not flaunt our differences or use them to distance ourselves from others. And we must certainly exhibit the Jewish values of concern and love for every human being. But regardless of our specific beliefs or practices, even the most stalwart parent or Gentile -- who may not admit it immediately -- will come to admire us for whom we are and what we stand for.
This is the tightrope we must often walk in life -- uncompromising rigidity yet friendliness, nonconformance yet love and concern. But it is possible to maintain differences between friends and relatives -- even fundamental ones -- and at the same time preserve a sense of love and mutual respect. Parents, of course, do have their own free will. They can be stubborn and refuse to come to terms with changes in their children no matter how well their children try. But there is a level on which they can respect and honor even if they do not agree.
Scripture sums up Torah observance as: "Its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace" (Proverbs 3:17). Our practices might not always be socially acceptable or in the political mainstream, and we must at times stand aloof and apart, but our deeds, our conduct and our demeanor must always radiate love and pleasantness to all.