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Religious and Cruel?
By Dov Greenberg
 


Shmuel Yosef Agnon

There is a moving story about the holiday of Sukkot, the festival of the Tabernacles, authored by Israeli Nobel Prize laureate and novelist, S. Y. Agnon.

Jewish law ordains that a Jew acquire an etrog, or citron, before the holiday of Sukkot, and recite a blessing over it each day of the festival (except on the Sabbath).

Agnon relates that shortly before Sukkot in his Jerusalem neighborhood of Talpiot, he ran into one of his neighbors, an elderly rabbi from ­Russia, at a store selling etrogim. The rabbi told Agnon that since Jewish law regards it as uniquely special to acquire a very beautiful, aesthetically perfect etrog, he was willing to spend a large sum to acquire this ritual object, notwithstanding his limited means.

Agnon was surprised, a day later, when the holiday ­began and the rabbi did not take out his etrog during the synagogue ser­vice. Perplexed, he asked the man where the beautiful etrog was. The rabbi told him the following story:

I awoke early, as is my habit, and prepared to recite the blessing over the etrog in my Sukkah [the special outdoor hut Jews build during this holiday] on my balcony. As you know, we have a neighbor with a large family, and our balconies adjoin. As you also know very well, our neighbor, the father of all these children next door, is unfortunately a man of short temper. Many times he shouts at them. I have spoken to him many times about his harshness but to little avail.

As I stood in the Sukkah on my balcony, about to recite the blessing for the etrog, I heard a child weeping. It was a little girl crying, one of the children of our neighbor. I walked over to find out what was wrong. She told me that she, too, had awakened early and had gone out on her balcony to examine her father's etrog, whose esthetical appearance and delightful fragrance fascinated her. Against her father's instructions, she removed the etrog from its protective box to look at it. She unfortu­nately dropped the etrog on the stone floor, irreparably damaging it and rendering it unacceptable for ritual use. She knew that her father would be enraged and would punish her severely. Hence the frightened tears and wails of apprehension.

I comforted her, and I then took my etrog and placed it in her father's box, taking the damaged etrog to my premises. I told her to tell her father that his neighbor insisted that he accept the gift of the beautiful etrog, and that he would be honoring me and the hol­iday by so doing.

Agnon concludes: "My rabbinic neighbor's damaged, bruised, ritually unusable etrog was the most beautiful etrog I have ever seen in my lifetime.”

I love this story because, in its gentle way, it reminds us of how a Jew should behave. We are summoned to build a society out of holy lives and generous deeds. Sensitivity, along with kindness, stands at the very core of Jewish values. Judaism is not just a faith of sacred moments set apart from daily living. It is a religion that should infuse the texture of everyday life, of daily deeds, words and relationships.

In the blazing first chapter of Isaiah, the prophet denounces those who are scrupulous in offering sacrifices, yet who neglect the poor, or abuse the weak. Judaism is not Judaism if we disconnect our duties to G-d from our duties to our fellow human beings. To be a Jew is to be alert to the suffering of others. This is beautifully expressed in a famous line in Psalms (37:25,):  “I was young and now am old, yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken or his children begging for bread.”

The question is obvious: Surely throughout history there were times when the righteous were forsaken? One beautiful explanation can be found in the key words of the verse: lo ra'iti, normally translated as “I have not seen.” The verb ra'iti, though, occurs twice in the Book of Esther with a quite different meaning. “How can I bear to watch (eichachah uchal vera'iti) the disaster which will befall my people?” And “how can I bear to watch the destruction of my family?” (Esther 8:6). The verb here does not merely mean “to see”. It means “to stand by and watch, to be a passive witness, a disengaged spectator.” Ra'iti in this sense means to see and do nothing to help. That, for Esther, as for the Psalmist, is a moral impossibility. A Jew may never be indifferent to the needs of others.

Read this way, the verse states: “I was young and now am old and I have not merely stood still and watched when the righteous was forsaken and his children forced to beg for bread.” I extended a helping hand and a loving heart to the person in need.

The world is overwhelmingly rich. Human imagination is incapable of paying attention to all its facets. The artist sees the world in color, the sculptor in form, the musician perceives the world in sounds, and the industrialist in commodities. The Psalmist sees the whole world in terms of an arena for kindness, compassion, and righteousness. To be a Jew is to be sensitive to the poverty, the distress and the loneliness of others.

A story: The renowned philosopher, Bertrand Russell, was in the habit of punctuating his lectures with ironic and sarcastic remarks. This practice, of­fended a student in his class on ethics, who wanted to know how a teacher of ethics could be so cynical.

Russell asked the student, "What else are you studying?" The student replied, “I'm studying mathematics." Said Russell, "Then why don't you ask your mathematics professor why he is not a triangle or a trapezoid.”  The professor shrewdly illustrated that if ethics obliges the ethicist to be an ethical per­son, mathematics should oblige the mathematician to be a geometric fig­ure.

By sharp contrast, Jewish thought insists that G-dly truths are embodied precisely in what kind of person we become. The Talmud asks which is greater, talmud or maaseh, learning or deed? It answers: learning is greater because it leads to deed (Kiddushin 40b.). Knowledge, then, is not an end in itself but a path to transformation of character. Jewishly, learning is tested not by passing exams but by how I live. If I become a great scholar but I do not live morally, then my education may have been an academic success but a Jewish failure.

When the Torah speaks about education it does so in a striking way. It does not speak -as do the great Greek thinkers, Plato and Aristotle – of the search for knowledge and the quest for truth. It speaks of teaching children how to behave ethically and spiritually. Abraham is chosen “so that he will instruct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the G-d, by doing righteousness and justice.” The Shema commands us to love G-d, cherish goodness, and to “Teach these things diligently to your children, speaking of them when you sit at home and when you journey on the way, when you lie down and when you rise up.” Jewish education is not about the abstract contemplation of truth. It is about moral and holy living. 

Indeed, Maimonides explains that gracious and holy living is a general theme in Judaism. Thus in his commentary to the verse: “walk in G-d’s ways” (Deut. 28: 9) Maimonides states:  we are commanded to develop certain traits of character - to be gracious, merciful, and holy, as G-d is gracious, merciful and holy. Meaning, in addition to prescribing or forbidding specific actions, Judaism requires us to develop certain virtues of the heart. Judaism is more than choreography of behavior. The Torah is concerned not only with conduct but also with character; not just with Mitzvoth we do but also the kind of person we become. (Hilkhot Deot, ch.1)

There are people who are successful, intelligent or influential, but there are also people who Torah has transformed, and you can tell it by their demeanor, their way of relating to people. They bring pride and honor to Judaism.  Like the rabbi who gave his etrog away to a vulnerable child. For the goal of Judaism is for man to be an embodiment of the torah, for Torah to be in man, in his soul and in his deeds.

~~~~~

Rabbi Dov Greenberg is the executive director of Chabad at Stanford University and a sought after speaker on Jewish philosophy and spirituality. You can e-mail him at: Info@chabadstanford.org

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Posted on May 30, 2007
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