Dedicated in memory of Jacob Israelstam by Nina Lewis.
In honour of my beloved father, translator of the Pirkei Avot for the Soncino Talmud over 50 years ago, and whose Yahrzeit falls on the first light of Chanucah as does that of my beloved brother Samuel Israelstam.
“He [Rabbi Chanina] used to say, anyone who is pleasing to his fellows is pleasing to G-d. Anyone who is not pleasing to his fellows is not pleasing to G-d.”
This week’s mishna tells us a simple but often forgotten principle of Judaism. Our goal is not only to please G-d. It is equally to please man. And if we do not, we fail in one of the major objectives of Judaism. Say a person is very holy and pious, so very “close” to G-d, but he somehow manages to get on everyone else’s nerves (and we all know people like this 😉 — somehow he’s just not doing it right.
Judaism requires us to fulfill a dual mission in this world: to sanctify ourselves, and to be a “light unto the nations” (Isaiah 42:6). And neither mission can exist without its counterpart. If we are not faithful to our G- d and our tradition, we will not correctly project holiness to mankind. We will become known as the Jews who agitate for all sorts of other social and political issues (and Jews are at the forefront of practically all of them today). Conversely, if we entirely isolate ourselves from the world at large — with a “who cares what the goyim say” attitude — we may well sanctify ourselves, but the rest of humanity will be left unmoved and uninspired (if not outright turned off).
We discussed a closely related issue in Chapter 2 (2:1). There we discussed Israel’s mission of being a light unto the nations, and the dilemma of maintaining absolute religious standards while somehow earning the approval and admiration of biased and imperfect man. In other words, is it fair of our mishna to state that one cannot be a good servant of G-d if he is not beloved to man? Please feel free to check out our discussion there. This week I’d like to discuss another fascinating dilemma which stems from our dual mission of pleasing both G-d and man.
The mitzvos (commandments) of the Torah may be divided into two basic types: those between man and G-d, and those between man and his fellow. The first category includes many of the more “religious” aspects of Judaism: kashrus (dietary laws), Sabbath, holidays, phylacteries, etc. The latter deals with a wide range of issues: charity, honesty in business and interpersonal relations, marriage, divorce, honoring our parents, returning lost items, theft and damages, civil law, etc. The subject matter may appear more worldly and mundane, but it emanate from Sinai and is the word of G-d all the same.
On one level, the intent of our mishna might be said to fall along the same lines. One cannot truly be a servant of G-d if he neglects his obligations towards man. Tragically, we have all seen or heard of such individuals — who are meticulous to the letter in their religious duties to G-d — in their worship, practice, eating habits, dress, etc. — but who are busy serving lengthy prison sentences for their devious, underhanded business practices — perpetrated in complete disregard of common decency and civil law. I needn’t cite any examples, but a few recent scandals immediately come to mind.
(A distinguished Jew was once asked to intervene on behalf of a Jewish criminal doing time in a U.S. prison who wanted to be allowed to spend the High Holidays with his family. Of course, the advocate’s sympathies were aroused: What kind of Rosh Hashanah would a fellow have wallowing in jail? In the process of attempting to help the fellow, however, he found to his horror that not only were religious High Holiday services being held in the prison compound, but there were two minyanim (versions of the service) — nusach Ashkenaz and nusach Sefard!) (Pardon me for those who didn’t catch that. As most Jewish jokes, it would lose far too much in the translation. 😉 )
Needless to say, such a person, regardless of the most scrupulous adherence to ritualistic code, is hardly pleasing to his G-d. And this of course is not limited to big-time white-collar criminals. Anyone who is meticulous (often pathologically so) about religious detail but yells at his wife, takes out his frustrations on his kids, is verbally abusive and domineering towards others, is no servant of G-d. And again tragically, highly respected Jewish community members — who seem to get along fine with people outside the home — sometimes fall under this category. And such religiosity is hardly pleasing to G-d; He might very well find it repulsive.
(Even with the remoteness of the Internet, I’ve had readers write to me complaining about the horrible upbringings they’ve had — under abusive and tyrannical fathers, and the scars it left behind on the children. One can hardly be a servant of G-d without while being his own deity within.)
When Israel at the time of the First Temple was hopelessly morally corrupt — but the people were all the while meticulously performing the Temple service, G-d retorted: “Why do I need your many sacrifices, says the L-rd… For when you come to appear before My Presence [at the Temple], who asked this of your hands, [you] who trample My courtyard?” (Isaiah 1:11-12).
The Temple service was commanded by G-d; it was obligatory. Yet people who saw that as the sum-total of religious observance were unwanted trespassers in G-d’s Temple. What are you doing here? Why waste your time? Is that all you think there is to religion — incense, ritual and priestly garments? Sacrifices which are supposed to appease an angry G-d — so you can behave any way you please the rest of the time? Is there no true meaning to Judaism?No self-improvement, character development, growing to become beings in the image of G-d? Ritual was all those people saw in Judaism, and G-d threw it back in their faces. The same sacrifices which G- d ordinarily refers to as a “sweet-smelling savor” became noxious fumes. And the destruction of the First Temple — together with all their cockamamie notions of religious devotion — was not long in following.
I believe, however, there is a much deeper message in the words of our mishna. R. Chanina stated that we must be pleasing not only to G-d, but to man as well. And it’s not only a matter of having healthy interpersonal relationships. Our entire fates depend on our fellow’s approval. Let us explain.
The Mishna (Yoma 8:9) states that if a person sins to G-d, he or she needs to ask forgiveness from G-d alone. (In the language of the mishna, “Yom Kippur effects atonement.”) If, however, he sins to his fellow man, not only must he ask G-d for forgiveness, but he must also appease the person he has hurt (in addition to compensating any monetary damages). If not, no matter how hard he prays and repents to G-d, he cannot be fully absolved on the heavenly scales.
Now let us say the other person is intransigent. He or she refuses to forgive you, even though you really are sorry. Say G-d Himself sees your regret and for His part would be willing to forgive you. But G-d is helpless, so to speak, because the offended party is unyielding. Are we really bound to the obstinacy and stubbornness of imperfect and small- minded man — to be judged by a jury of our peers? Wouldn’t we expect G- d’s infinite wisdom and objectivity to be a far truer and fairer judge of our fates?
We now arrive at a truly profound insight into Judaism (perhaps the most important one we’ve discussed in an entire week :-). Our fates must be dependent, to some degree, on our fellow man. If not, we would never realize the potential G-d intends for us. We cannot serve G-d through our own eyes alone. If we have any real understanding of who G-d is — He loves us, He values us, He understands us, He knows that our faults are external and not really how we want to act — we will never grow out of our own shells. We know that G-d loves us for all our faults and just the way we are — and we might never become anything greater. We will view G-d in our own image — living comfortably with the smug feeling that G-d loves us just the way we are.
On the one hand, that is a very accurate picture of the G-d of Israel. G-d does love and understand us — far more so in fact than we love and understand ourselves. In fact, that might even be the truest statement we can confidently make about our infinite and unknowable Creator. But with that image in mind, we will never be forced to grow, and more importantly, we will never have to view ourselves from without. If another stubborn and shortsighted human being doesn’t like me, I can either forever bear my grudge, or I can begin to introspect, to consider why others don’t always see things the way I do.
And this is the true challenge of man. We must be at the mercy of our fellows. We must first convince them to forgive us — because G-d cannot save us from ourselves. If we attempt to understand how others tick, we might just begin to realize that we are not always right and that there are other, equally-valid ways of viewing life. Most people are neither completely right nor utterly crazy. And so we can and must learn from them — and see the world from their perspectives. And at that point, rather than seeing and fashioning G-d in our own image, we will be forced to see ourselves — as well as all mankind — as beings in the image of G- d.
Based in part on a lecture heard from R. Yitzchak Berkovitz of Jerusalem, Israel aish.com.
Text Copyright © 2004 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org.