Saturday, December 22, 2007

Each of our actions is important

The other day I was reading one of Rabbi Gil Student's posts on his terrific blog -- Hirhurim Musings. It is about the halacha regarding brushing one's teeth on Shabbat, which was an issue raised when his young son had a friend spend the night on Shabbat. I will let you read it, but I have to admit that while I was reading all the detail that R' Student went into about the prohibition of causing bleeding and squeezing on Shabbat, I could not help but think "Unbelievable, this is legalism at its worst!"

BUT the next day as I was listening to a lecture by Hubert Dreyfus on Martin Heidegger's Being and Time, professor Dreyfus was describing sense of the worldhood of the world, but the important thing for this post, is that professor Dreyfus in discussing one of Heidegger's points (I can't even remember the exact point at this time), made the distinction that for the discussion Heidegger was really focusing only on the "important" types of actions that we perform (such as teaching or being a parent -- something that defines us), and not unimportant actions like washing our hands, etc.

On hearing him say this I couldn't help but think about how hard R' Student had worked to describe the issue of brushing one's teeth on Shabbat! Now that is an unimportant issue (except of course for the health of your teeth -- though one day probably doesn't hurt one's dental hygiene much), if I ever heard of one. However, instead of treating in as unimportant the halachic tradition took it very seriously and put much energy into understanding what Chazel and the tradition said on the topic.

A bit later in the day I was listening to Rav Soloveitchik's shiur "Al Hanisim Chanuka" from Boston 1971, which can be found on the website. In it Rav Soloveitchik discusses the dialectic between the importance of the individual and the community within Judaism and while I have yet to finish the shiur and probably couldn't summarize it, even if I did, the one message that came through clearly on it and through much of the other works I have listened to and read from the Rav, was how much and how deeply valued the individual is within the halacha.

The final piece of this puzzle, which brings together many strains of thought I have recently had, comes from Rav Michael Rosensweig's recently posted shiurim on the Pirkei Avos. In the first few shiurim Rav Rosensweig is discussing the first mishnah in the second parek, which reads:

Rebbe said: Which is the straight path that a person should choose for himself?

Whatever is honorable for him and gains him people's respect. Be as careful in performing a slight mitzvah as a weighty mitzvah--because you do not know the reward for mitzvos. Consider the loss caused by a mitzvah in contrast to its reward, and the gain of a sin in contrast to its loss.

Contemplate three things, and you will not come to sin. Know what is above you: An eye that sees, an ear that hears, and all of your actions are written in a book. (translation from Rav Lau on Pirkei Avos from Artscroll)

Again, there is no way for me to try to capture what Rav Rosensweig says, but at the heart of it seems to me the message that while there may truly be a hierarchy within the mitzvot, it is most important for a person to treat each mitzva with the same level of honor and respect. Or as Rav Rosensweig might say, even though I don't think he does in shiurim, a person should treat each mitzva with a "maximalist" level of love, respect and thoroughness.

While this mishnah in Pirkei Avos brings to mind images of God as a strict taskmaster watching and judging every one of our actions, on the other hand it also depicts Hashem as a listening and guarding parent who pays close attention to us and is fundamentally and profoundly concerned about our welfare.

In closing while I am sure that the Orthodox focus on strict interpretation of all mitzvot may at times be used as more of a badge of who is the most frum (most observant), what I do appreciate is that with all that R' Student writes about brushing (and there is a second part to come) at the end of the day, the two boys had different practices (one brushed and the other didn't)! For all the scrupulousness of the halacha this recognition that in some situations there can be differences and that one should respect the tradition that one is raised up in, seems to be an important, if not essential, counter weight to a overly legalistic view of the world.

For myself what I find most inspiring is that sense of importance that this discussion gives to my actions. While the world may be interested in the day-to-day activities of celebrities, politicians or reality show contestants, the message from the halacha seems to be "Everyone of us is important and essential, and each of our actions shapes us and our future and has seemingly infinite depth and significance."

This is a message that I think many, many people need these days. Since today it is easy to feel unimportant, to feel like a number or to define one's value only in what we consume. When I combine this vision regarding our actions with the importance of study, of Torah lishmah (studying Torah for its own sake), it helps see my life with a sense of depth and meaning that is difficult create on one's own within the often time's far too shallow, superficial and fast-paced world in which we live.

In closing, I am grateful to the Orthodox Jewish tradition for providing such an enormous array of online material and beautiful books in translation, like Artscroll's Schottenstein Babylonian Talmud, to help one become engaged in a conversation that began thousands of years ago and will continue for thousands of years in the future . . . What could be more important and exciting than that?

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