Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Understanding what's important

Reb Zusia of Anipoli and Reb Boruch of Medzhiboz were once traveling together, and called upon a wealthy chassid at his home. Wishing to properly accommodate them, their host brought them to a table set with food and drink, and asked them to partake. The host personally served them, catering to their every need while they ate.
At one point, the chassid asked Reb Zusia if he would like some pepper to go with his food. Reb Zusia politely declined; he didn't care for pepper. The chassid persisted, offering the pepper to Reb Zusia until he explained to his host that he didn't like pepper. The host relented, but not before commenting that he "loved pepper".

Reb Zusia stopped what he was doing. "What did you say?" he asked the host. Nervously, the host replied: "I was just musing that it's interesting that the rebbe doesn't like pepper; I love pepper!"

Reb Zusia turned to Reb Boruch. "Did you hear that?" he asked his companion, "he says he 'loves' pepper!" Reb Boruch nodded; he had heard it as well. Reb Zusia began to rock back and forth, chuckling and repeating the host's words to himself: "He loves pepper, he loves pepper, he loves it! He says so!" Gaining momentum, Reb Zusia began whispering "...but what does Zusia love? He loves pepper, but what do I love? What does Zusia love? I love HaShem. He loves pepper...and I love HaShem. I love HaShem! I love HaShem!"

Reb Zusia's eyes rolled up into the back of his head as he leaped up and began dancing around the table, in utter joy. "I love HaShem! Reb Boruch, do you hear? He loves pepper, and I love HaShem! I love Him!" Ecstatic, Reb Zusia jumped onto the table and started jumping up and down in fervor, all the while shouting for all to hear about the profound love he had for his Creator. As Reb Zusia danced, he knocked over everything on the table; the drinks, the food, and the pepper all went spilling over, much of it splashing onto Reb Boruch's coat.

Reb Boruch was more of the strong, silent type, not one for scenes of exuberance like his friend Reb Zusia. But after that event, the only times he ever wore that coat again was on Yom Kippur, and he asked to be buried in it.

Love is such a strong word, it can conjure up very strong feelings and should be used sparingly. Too often we belittle that special word when we associate it with things that are so very unimportant. "I love that food," "I love sleeping," "I loved that movie," etc.

One of the biggest problems that we face today is the skewing of our priorities, and our confusion concerning what is really important. This issue manifests itself in so many circumstances that we have all dealt with it at one point or another in our lives, and the situation is worsening. We place emphasis on the peripheral matters and lose focus of the main goals and ideals. It affects our approach to everything, especially when it comes to religious matters. Maybe it would be a good idea to clarify a few things:

When someone spends the majority of time during the prayers shmoozing in the back and sneaking out during kriyat haTorah to drink some schnapps, something is very wrong. The same can be said for those who believe that kedusha of Mussaf is the end of the session and begin folding their talleisim and setting up for kiddush. And you can't say anything because people will stare at you as if you've told them to renounce Judaism and covert to another religion, God forbid. Apparently, having one shot too many is the fourteenth principle of faith, followed by getting 12 hours-plus of sleep on the winter Friday nights (number fifteen).

When someone spends the majority of time during the prayers with his nose stuck in a sefer, something is very wrong. There is a time and place for everything; Torah learning is meant for any and all available time - but the time when we are in shul for prayers does not necessarily count as that. The chazzan's repetition is not designed as catch-up time for the Daf Yomi, daily Tehillim, or anything else (certainly not to go through the e-mails in your 'bulk' folder). We are supposed to participate fully in the services, with the attention and respect that it warrants as part of our service of God. I'm not saying that there is a violation of any halacha, per se (although the Mishna Berura does comment on the Chazarat HaSHaTZ issue), but this is a display of insensitivity toward one of the most important institutions of our faith. If the sages of previous generations felt that something was important and worthy enough of being incorporated universally into the structure of our tefillot, then it would behoove us to take it very seriously; I know that I wouldn't want Reb Shlomo Alkabetz to be waiting for me after 120 with complaints (in case you didn't know what I was referring to).

Reb Shlomo Freifeld was once asked about the significance of the "hat and jacket". He replied that "the look" meant nothing so long as the Jew underneath it didn't live up to the standards set forth by the Torah. While there is a lot of merit to the aspect of uniformity within our communities, that doesn't preclude the most important criteria of middot and adherence to halacha (there is also a strong basis for the hat and jacket concerning appropriate attire for tefilla, but this goes beyond that).

When it comes to learning, it's imperative to remember that quality is key, not quantity. Bekiyus is integral, of course, as we are enjoined to learn as much of God's Torah as possible (see Nefesh HaChaim) - but it must be really learned. We have such a lazy generation where we have study aids, super-super commentaries to the super commentaries that are on the commentaries that explain what the original meforshim were trying to point out - how are we ever expected to really learn how to learn properly? Our grandparents, indeed, the gedolim themselves didn't have all of the wonderful seforim that we have at our fingertips. They can learn because they worked at it with nothing but the original folio of gemara with RaSHI and Tosafos; the lucky ones had a RaMBaM or Maharsha to refer to. We're crippling ourselves and we don't even realize it.

Moreover, we must always keep in sight why we are learning. Regardless of one's affiliation (i.e. the students of the Ba'al Shem Tov or the Gaon of Vilna), we are learning the Torah to know God, to draw closer to Him, to glorify Him, and to obey His commandments. We are not learning Torah for the intellectual stimulation, or the egocentric feeling of accomplishment. Nor are we engaging in learning to obliterate our study partners in dialectics with sharp rejoinders that show off our breadth and depth of Torah knowledge while simultaneously shredding their arguments and therefore their esteem.

Segulot are wonderful things, but they can never, ever replace the power of heartfelt tefillah.

Tzedakah is a tremendous mitzvah that can even save people from death. That should be sufficient motivation without the various chinese auctions.

There is so much more, but I'm not the one to list them exhaustively, at least not yet. Of course, everything mentioned above applies to myself as well; I am not any less guilty (or more innocent) than the next person, and my words are self directed; the rest of you happen to be reading over my shoulder.

I believe that we can all take stock and reorganize our priorities, but it means taking honest looks at the way we're living and appraising it with a critical eye. It's hard, painful work, but if I've learned anything about my brethren, though, it's that we are capable of it, and we will do it.

With love to all...


Anonymous said...

Kind of loses something in translation. (in "Hashem" and "Pepper" does not have the same ring as the Yiddish "Feffer" and "Basheffer").

Shmuel said...

Yeah, but the point is still pretty clear.