Of Empty Cups

In the past couple of weeks, I posted a number of essays about the causal nature of reward and punishment. In short, that sin causes a change in the self, which in turn causes punishment as the world proceeds along the path to Hashem’s desired final state for history.

In Mesukim MiDevash for parashas Haazinu, I relate this thought to Yishma’el being judged “as he is there”. Not for what he did or will do, but the state of his soul at the moment. Thus, teshuvah, by healing the soul, can make the person one who no longer deserves the punishment in question.

Now I would like to look more closely at exactly how sin effects the soul, such that the soul no longer receives maximal Divine Good.

If one puts a cup in the sink, and the cup doesn’t fill as it ought, it could be fore at least one of two basic reasons.

The first is that the cup’s mouth isn’t properly in the stream; this is the assumption that the utensil is fine, but not properly connected to the Source. Taking this approach to the human condition is suggested by the notion of the Ran (Derashos haRan ch. 10) and his student R’ Yosef Albo (Seifer haIkarim 4:13), who hold that the effects of sin are to dirty the soul and that the punishment of sin is that barrier blocking the soul’s access to Divine Good.

The implication is that the sinful soul itself is fine, but it made for itself a layer blocking it from the Light. And in fact, the Ramchal (in the opening paragraphs of Mesilas Yesharim), among many others, articulates this as the goal we seek to accomplish with mitzvos, that they are acts that bring us closer to G d. In contemporary terminology, we would call this a deveiqus (/dbq/ = attach) approach.

The other approach would be to assume the cup is flawed, perhaps its mouth could be widened, or there is a hole to repair. In this opinion, the purpose of life is to give us opportunities to perfect the self. Apparently this is the position of Rabbeinu Yona (Shaarei Teshuvah 4:1), who compares the soul of a sinner to someone who is sick. Just as a sick person suffers from his disease, so does a sinner feel the effects his deeds had on his soul. Teshuvah is a repairing or healing process. This leads to an approach to mitzvos, equally well represented (by R’ Yehudah haLevi in the beginning of the Kuzari as just one example) as the previous, the idea of man’s quest as temimus, or “sheleimus ha’adam”, the completion of man. Man’s goal in life is to strive for self-perfection.

Note that the rishonim cited, the Ran, R’ Yosef Albo and Rabbeinu Yona, all define punishment as a consequence of the imperfection or barrier created by sin. Both sides of this machlokes are within the context of a “following doctor’s orders” or “preparing on erev Shabbos so that one may enjoy Shabbos” understanding of the mitzvos described in the above mentioned Mesukim article.

The mitzvah of beris milah, the first mitzvah given to us as a people, is introduced with the words, “Ani E-l Shad-ai, his-halekh lifanai v’heyei tamim — I am E-l Shad-ai, walk yourself before Me, and be whole.” (Bereishis 17:1) How are we supposed to read this quote? Is the walking before G-d, deveiqus, that is primary, and being whole a side effect? Or, is being whole the focus of the pasuq, and walking before G d is a means to reach that temimus?

Similarly, we say in the Amidah for Shabbos and Yom Tov, “vetaheir libeinu le’avdecha be’emes – purify our souls to serve You in truth.” One can see this in two ways: We request from Hashem that He purify us, so that we may reach that deveiqus to serve Him truthfully and reliably. Alternatively, we could be requesting temimus, that purity which we are describing by its enabling us to serve Him.

On another level, these two approaches are different aspects of the same idea. To achieve wholeness, so that the entire person is working harmoniously, he would necessarily be walking in Hashem’s path. The converse is equally true. If one strives for deveiqus to a singular G-d who has a single goal, how could he be a chaotic battleground of warring urges? Cleaving to G-d forces His priorities to be yours, thereby causing temimus, a wholeness and harmony of self.

This is not to say that there is no distinction in approach. By stressing different elements, there are profound practical implications. For example, consider the debate between Chassidim and non-Chassidim on the importance of davening in the appointed times. (We should be clear that the Chassidic position is that one must invest time to prepare for davening, even if this is at the expense of timeliness — it is not blanket permission to ignore the clock.) Chassidus is a deveiqus-based hashkafah. Therefore, when weighing the relative merits, it is more important to be able to invest time to prepare one’s mind and heart for the act of tephillah, for relating to Hashem, than when the tephillah actually begins. To someone with a temimus orientation, however, zehirus, meticulousness, care in how each facet of the mitzvah is done, is the more important consideration. Zerizus, haste to do what’s right, is an important middah (personality trait). Both come into play when considering the timeliness of tephillah.

Contemporary Orthodox Jewish thought embraces a number of variants of these two basic approaches.

Most forms of Chassidus consider the route to deveiqus to be the experience of each act, with the focus on having one’s feelings in line with those we can perceive in the Creator. The Ba’al HaTanya, on the other hand, focused on Chaba”d (insight, comprehension and knowledge), to make one’s thoughts G-dly. In this he follows the Rambam, (Moreh Nevuchim III ch. 51) who writes that one’s connection to Hashem is strictly determined by the extent of one’s knowledge of Him.

Similarly, there has been variation in the understanding of temimus. The Vilna Gaon writes, “the whole purpose of the Torah is to shatter the [evil] middos.” (Even Sheleimah, title, ch. 1) The Ba’alei Mussar took the idea further, and committed themselves to character improvement through means beyond halakhah as well. In Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch’s Neo-Orthodoxy, temimus translates to a well-rounded individual, using derekh eretz in service of Torah. To Rav Yosef-Ber Solovetichik zt”l, the goal of man is to maximize his creativity, to be in the image of the Creator (this is a major part of the thesis of Halachic Man; c.f. pg. 109)

Perhaps this plurality is the whole point of the Torah’s doubled phraseology. Because there many approaches to accomplishing the same end, Hashem didn’t specify one to the exclusion of the other. “Derakheha darchei no’am, its ways are ways of pleasantness” (Mishlei 3:17) – ways, in the plural. Each community or person can pick out a derech that best suits him — as long as the goal is “his-halech lifanai v’heyei tamim”.

What we see is that our basic lifestyles can be understood in terms of a causal nature of reward and punishment. We may have different approaches, but we share a common theme. Hashem tells us which acts keep “dirt” from blocking His Light from reaching us and cause disease to the soul. Someone who violates the “Doctor’s orders” is simply incapable of receiving Hashem’s Good.

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