Rabbi Norman Schloss
In this week's second Torah portion, we are given the formula for being better people.
In this week's second Torah portion, we are given the formula for being better people. Most of the cardinal rules of conduct vis-à-vis Man and his fellow Man are enumerated: Be kind to the poor person; Don't lie, cheat or steal; Have a fair and just judicial system; Don't hate your neighbor; Don't be vengeful; Don't slander or speak of others badly; Love your neighbor as yourself, etc.
The Torah portion starts out by stating, "Speak unto the entire congregation of Israel. . . ." Rashi, the preeminent Torah commentator, explains that this means that these precepts were given to the Jewish people en masse. The simple explanation is that because of the importance of these laws, they had to be told to all of the Jewish people at one time so that there would be no misunderstanding.
The Shem Mishmuel, an early 20th century work on Jewish thought, provides us two other understandings on this. The first is that if this section had been handed down in the normal way (see Talmud Tractate Eruvin 54b), people might say, "This part doesn't really apply to me; Hashem was instructing another person." By addressing the Jewish people as a whole, the message, in fact, became more personal. Hashem was talking to and addressing each individual. No one has special status. You want to be holy? Look at yourself and adapt the precepts of holiness taught in this section of the Torah and apply them to yourselves. The laws remain the same, but the work that each individual has to do to raise his level of closeness to Hashem is personal.
Imagine if you had to pick the most ideal surroundings for being a better person. What would you select? Perhaps you would choose a cabin in the mountains, away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Or maybe you would pick an exotic island in the South Pacific. Surely, anything would be better than your present situation. In fact, if we look at the great non-Jewish thinkers of the past, that is exactly the settings that they chose. Thoreau at Walden Pond, the Dhali Lama in Tibet, the Christian saints and monks all attained the peek of their performance in seclusion.
This addresses the second explanation of the Shem Mishmuel. The only way to achieve holiness and closeness to Hashem is through interactiveness with our fellow Man. It would be very easy not to speak lashon hara (evil speech or slander) if you were to be secluded on a mountain in Tibet. Go to work everyday, go shopping, walk around with your friends and still don't speak lashon hara that's an accomplishment. That's a step up in holiness. If we look at the great Torah leaders in contrast to the spiritual seekers mentioned above, all were involved with the daily problems and failings of their fellow Man, but they overcame the adversities and achieved greatness.
Many communities study Pirkei Avot (Ethics of Our Fathers) during this time of year. Most of the sections in Pirkei Avot are lessons in interactivity with our fellow Man. The sun is shining, it is beautiful outside, we all would like to just get away. This is the time to remind ourselves of our responsibility to live as a community.
Rabbi Norman Schloss writes from Atlanta.
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