Divre Harav – November/2017

[Rabban Gamliel says,], “Make God’s will into your will, so that God will make your will into his will. Nullify your will on account of his will, so that he will nullify the will of others for you.” Pirke Avot 2:4

Rabban Gamliel may be responding to the teaching of a sage from generations earlier, Antigonus of Sokho, who said, “Do not be like servants who serve the master in order to get a reward, but rather be like servants who serve the master with no expectation of reward.” [Pirke Avot 1:3] One proposes altruism as the guiding value, and the other proposes utilitarianism as the guiding value.

Although both sages are speaking of our relationship with God and attitude towards doing mitzvot, I suggest that part of the purpose of mitzvot bein adam la’Makom, mitzvot directed towards God, is to teach us the best way to behave towards our fellow human beings, other creatures, and the environment in which we live. Therefore, the ideal that Antigonus presents, that of a life of pure altruism, could also apply to doing acts of love for other people without expectation of reward. While a beautiful philosophy, it is not realistic. Most of us, much of the time, expect that when we do something for someone, that we will get something out of it. Perhaps it makes us feel good to help others. Perhaps we hope that we’ll get a favor back in return someday. Perhaps we hope that going above and beyond and treating customers well will result in more business in the future.

So Rabban Gamliel responds with his instructions for how to behave towards someone you love. If they have a desire, you should have the same desire. And there is nothing wrong with hoping that when you want something, that the person you love will want the same thing. The same thing applies to things that we don’t want – we want the person we love not to want them either. He suggests a very practical, utilitarian, philosophy. I’ll scratch your back because I want you to scratch mine.

There are problems with both philosophies. As I suggested, it is very difficult to maintain pure altruism, and holding this as an ideal discourages expressing of gratitude. By this, I mean that if I believe that your motivation ought to be pure, then I also might believe that you neither want nor need thanks or recognition for what you do for me. And regarding Rabban Gamliel’s approach, it is unreasonable to expect that two individuals (or a human being and God) can ever be so closely aligned that we get everything we want from the other.

The teaching texts of Judaism include both sages because life is a mixture of both philosophies. Sometimes, we do things for others because we know it is the right thing to do or because we love them, and sometimes we do things because we want or expect something in return. As in so many other areas of ethics, the goal is to find balance in the golden mean.

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • Makom – place. Also, a name for God, probably derived from the association of God with a sacred place like the Temple.
  • Ha-Kadosh, barukh hu – “The blessed Holiness,” more often translated as “the blessed Holy One.” Some scholars believe that the original form of this appellation for God was Ha-Kodesh, barukh hu. Kodesh is a participial noun, referring to the place of holiness, the Temple.
  • Ratzon – will or desire.
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Psalm 91

“I will rescue him and honor him.” (91:15)

Psalm 91 is commonly read as part of the Jewish funeral liturgy. In that context, it suggests that one who has faith and fidelity in God’s sheltering presence will be protected from harm and live to a ripe old age. To my mind, however, there is an implied promise of salvation beyond the grave that is more important than the immediate promise of long life. The person who embraces a life of mitzvah will be honored during his or her lifetime to be sure, but beyond as well.

Psalm 81

“For it is a law for Israel.” (81:5)

What makes us Israel is a shared sense of law, of obligation. We are Israel when we clean our homes and celebrate Passover. We are Israel when we are conscious of the contents of the food which we put into our bodies. We are Israel when we rest from creative acts on Shabbat. We are Israel when we join a Jewish community for prayer. We are Israel when we celebrate a boy’s birth with circumcision, celebrate puberty with bar or bat mitzvah, celebrate marriage with a huppah, and commemorate a death with Shiva.

Psalm 79

“… with none to bury them.” (79:3)

Burial is a fundamental Jewish mitzvah (God-commanded obligation). Along with procreation, brit milah (circumcision), and refraining from eating the sciatic nerve of a kosher animal, it is one of a small handful of mitzvot one can learn from the book of Genesis (from Abraham’s burial of Sarah in Genesis 23, although normally derived from Deuteronomy 21:23). Many Jewish communities, in fact, began with the formation of burial societies and the purchase of land for a cemetery. Planning for one’s burial in a Jewish cemetery is a basic Jewish behavior.

Psalm 70

“As for me, I am afflicted and poor.” (70:6)

This verse reminds me of the teaching of Rabbi Simha of Bunem, that a person should carry a slip of paper in his left pocket reading, “You are dust and ashes” (Genesis 18:27); and in his right pocket reading, “For my sake, the world was created” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5). No matter how materially blessed we may (or may not) be, the left pocket reminds us that whatever we have is an undeserved gift that we should share with those less fortunate than ourselves. Even those who receive support from communal tzedakah funds have the obligation to give tzedakah.