“Rabbi Elazar of Moda said: One who desecrates sacred objects, one who disgraces the festivals, one who shames his fellow in public, one who annuls the covenant of our forefather Abraham, or one who interprets the Torah not according to Jewish law — even if he has Torah [study] and good deeds, he has no share in the World to Come.”
Last week we discussed the five shortcomings listed in our mishna and the severity of each one. This week I would like to penetrate beneath the surface — to examine the common thread running through these five concepts and the true significance of each. We will then hopefully begin to appreciate the justness of R. Elazar’s condemnation.
In truth, there is a deep philosophical difficulty with our mishna. R. Elazar states that even if such a person has studied Torah and performed good deeds, he has no share in the World to Come. But where is the justice in this? What about all the good deeds this person *has* performed? No matter how terrible desecrating sacred Temple objects is, isn’t it possible that this fellow’s good deeds outweigh his evil? Isn’t the 11th of Maimonides’ 13 Principles of Faith that G-d rewards and punishes for each and every one of man’s actions? If so, how can our mishna so unequivocally state that such a person receives no share of Eternity? Will his good deeds simply be cast aside, not even considered on the heavenly scales?
To answer I would like to note a profound truth in R. Elazar’s words — one we can appreciate with a deeper understanding of the cases of our mishna. Four out of the five objects listed in our mishna have one dilemma: they are beautiful. The Temple was a magnificent structure — architecturally and aesthetically pleasing with marble pillars, golden ornaments, and royal tapestries. The Talmud states: “Whoever has not see Herod’s Temple has not seen a beautiful building in his life” (Bava Basra 4a). (Solomon’s Temple was not exactly a 7-11 either; see I Kings 6.)
The festivals are likewise joyous events of feasting and celebrating the Holy Land’s agricultural cycle. Torah study is an inspiring and intellectually-gratifying masterpiece of prose, laws, history, philosophy, and anecdotes. As a work of literary art it has literally not been matched since in wisdom and awe-inspiring marvel. Lastly, human beings are both physically and intellectually impressive creations. We contain the skills, stamina and know-how to inhabit a world, to house and feed billions of people, and to accomplish stunning achievements in the fields of art, science, literature, architecture, medicine, communications, athletics, etc.
Precisely because of this, however, there is a very real danger we will fail to appreciate the above items for their true worth. We may see the Temple in all its beauty and see Judaism as an aesthetic religion of golden ornaments and priestly robes. There are many religions whose adherents have built themselves exotic and picturesque places of worship. (Some even charge visitors, pocketing the income for their sacred cause…) 😉 (Herod’s Temple too had points of approach designated for Gentile sightseers.) We may likewise see the Torah’s wisdom as inspiring and heart-warming, as Shakespeare, Aristotle, and Aesop’s Fables all rolled into one. Or we may see the festivals as joyous times of folk and national celebration, or human beings as wise and versatile homo sapiens, the crown of the animal kingdom.
But if we would, we would be selling all these items woefully short. The Temple was a structure which housed G-d’s Divine Presence. The Torah is the sacred word of G-d. The festivals are a time of closeness to G-d. And man is (potentially) a sacred being, fashioned in the image of G-d. All of these items carry with them enormous external beauty, to be sure, but it merely alludes to a far more profound spiritual beauty within. Physical beauty is at best a reflection, an intimation of spiritual beauty and potential within.
King Solomon wrote: “Charm is false and beauty is vain. A woman who fears the L-rd — she is praiseworthy” (Proverbs 31:30). And conversely, “As a golden ring in a swine’s snout, so is a beautiful woman who has turned away from good judgment” (ibid., 11:22). The beauty of the physical world is illusory. On its own it is nothing more than a facade. As above, Scripture refers to it as “vain” (“hevel” in Hebrew). “Hevel” means emptiness; it is used in the Talmud to refer to hot stale air. Like air, it has no tangible substance; it has appearance but no content. If, however, there is something beneath it, something it can build upon, it can project spiritual beauty onto the world of the physical, causing it to shine on all planes of existence. Physical beauty could alternatively be viewed as a mirror, one which beckons us to look beneath the surface and to view the sanctity it covers — it masks — underneath.
(As a quick aside, this is why Judaism places more emphasis on modesty for women than men. Where the physical beauty is greater on the outside, there is an even greater need to conceal it — lest anyone think the value of women is in the external trappings. (As heard from R. Zev Leff.))
And this too is the message of circumcision, the final case of our mishna. As we discussed last week, circumcision implies that we are not fully creatures of this world. We are obligated to take the physical bodies G-d gave us — as just another member of the animal kingdom — and “improve” upon it. As we enter our covenant with our G-d, we are no longer fully creatures of this world. We live for something beyond — and our very bodies reflect this.
Thus, circumcision tells us we are not at home in the physical world: we must look beyond. Never see living in this world, with all its beauty, as the end-goal of existence. We must live as spiritual people; we must see beyond the confines of the physical realm. We must seek out and uncover the spirituality concealed in the world of man.
We finally return to the theme of our mishna. The person of our mishna sees only the external; he mistakes the glitter for the gold. He admires the Temple, the Torah and humanity, but he sees no sanctity in them. And so, he does not truly respect them. He insults others: There is no reason to respect a person’s *feelings*. He desecrates Temple items; he disgraces the festivals: To admire their beauty? Yes. But to treat them as sacred and godly? No. They are beautiful, inspiring and enjoyable, but they are not holy. Likewise, he says any interpretation in the Torah he pleases. Torah study is stimulating and challenging, but it is not the sacred and unalterable word of G-d. And finally, he does not see circumcision as that special mitzvah (commandment) which directs us to look beyond this world and the superficial. To him it is an inconvenience — to be discarded for social prestige (as we discussed last week).
And to such a person G-d says as follows: “If nothing is sacred, if you see only this world, then you have no place in the next. Even the mitzvos you do perform are not spiritual encounters; they are finite and dead acts. They will earn you no eternity.”
If I do not truly respect Judaism, but keep a few observances because they are “beautiful” and make me feel good in the here and now, then my acts are finite and physical in nature. I am not serving G-d because I want a connection with the infinite. I do so because I enjoy the heartwarming family gatherings of Passover (much like Thanksgiving), or I enjoy the intellectual stimulation of Torah study. And the reward for such deeds is equally finite. G-d certainly does reward man for every act, but He rewards according to the level of devotion. A good deed so insincere as to be devoid of spiritual worth is paid back in material currency alone; that is all it is truly worth. For such a person deserves this world alone. The next world is reserved for the true servants of G-d — for those of heart, those of spirit, and those of beauty… and those of the covenant of our forefather Abraham.
Text Copyright © 2004 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org.