Shaarei Yosher, sec. 4: Connecting – Conclusion

In my opinion, this idea is hinted at in Hillel’s words, as he used to say, “If I am [not] for me, who will be for me? And when I am for myself, what am I?” It is fitting for each person to strive to be concerned for himself. But with this, he must also strive to understand that “I for myself, what am I?” If he constricts his “I” to a narrow domain, limited to what the eye can see [is him], then his “I” – what is it? Vanity and ignorable. But if his feelings are broader and include [all of] creation, that he is a great person and also like a small limb in this great body, then he is lofty and of great worth. In a great engine even the smallest screw is important if it even serves the smallest role in the engine. For the whole is made of parts, and no more than the sum of its parts
ולדעתי מרומז ענין זה במאמרו של הלל ע״ה שהיה אומר “אם [אין] אני לי מי לי? וכשאני לעצמי מה אני?” היינו שראוי לכל אדם להתאמץ לדאוג תמיד בעד עצמו, אבל עם זה יתאמץ להבין שאני לעצמי מד, אני, שאם יצמצם את ה״אני״ שלו בחוג צר כפי מראית עין, אז ״אני״ זה מה הוא, הבל הוא ובאין נחשב, אבל אם תהיה הרגשתו מאומתת, שכללות הבריאה הוא האדם הגדול והוא ג״כ כאבר קטן בגוף הגדול הזה, אז רם ונשא גם ערכו הוא, שבמכונה גדולה גם מסמר היותר קטן אם רק משמש כלום להמכונה, הוא דבר חשוב מאד, שהכלל בגוי מפרטים ואין בכלל אלא מה שבפרט,

Rav Shimon’s take on this famous mishnah is striking.

We saw Rav Shimon pose a dialectic — on the one hand life is all about emulating Hashem’s middah of bestowing Good on others; on the other, in order to be active individuals (as He is), we need a healthy self-interest. This section is the synthesis. Self-interest can become the root of giving to others once we realize that our notion of “ani” only begins with my body and soul, and in reality reflects my being part of all of creation. Bestowing good therefore comes not from denying my self, but on my natural inclination to do good to myself. (Which sounds obscure until you think about parenting, and doing things for your children.)

In his eyes, the first two questions in the mishnah are the same dialectic. The first question, “If I am not for myself (li), who will be for me (li)?” refers to the need for self-interest. The second, “But when I am for me alone (le’atzmi), who am I?” speaks of the higher calling one has to invest in the whole. Note also Hillel’s shift in language, which supports Rav Shimon’s interpretation. In the first question, “for myself” is called “li“. Then he switches to le’atzmi” (which I translated “for myself alone”) is from the word “etzem“, bone, core, to describe the narrow “ani” of the courser individual.

This concept of Rav Shimon Shkop’s casts a new light on a number of middos:

Anavah: Anavah (humility) can be understood as stemming from a root related to anah, to answer. (R’ YG Bechhofer suggested this to me once.) An anav doesn’t make the world about himself, he understands that there is a bigger picture of which he is a part.

This could be why anavah, redemption, and making sure to repeat an idea in the name of the one who said it (Beraisa Avos 6:6) are interrelated. The anav has no problem sharing credit, doesn’t need to be the savior. Anavah brings redemption through the elimination of the “ani” which focuses only narrowly on the self.

The anav‘s self worth comes from knowing he is critical to the operation of the engine, even if that role is to be its littlest screw (as Rav Shimon) put it. The the engine won’t run without that screw either — it’s of no less value than the more-discussed parts like the spark plugs or pistons.

The anav therefore knows he has the same value as the “engine” as a whole which depends upon him.

Tzeni’us: Tzeni’us (modesty) is actually being happier being the screw. The anav gets value from his part within the whole, the tzanu’ah doesn’t want to lose his connection to others by having the limelight. As the Shunamit said to Elisha, “besoch ami anochi yoshaves — I dwell among my people.” (gemara holds up for us to follow. (Berakhos 49b)

Rachamim: similarly, the middah usually rendered mercy (most common), empathy (my preference), sympathy, or compassion, is also given a connectionist name. Rachamim is from the word rechem, womb, referring to the relationship between mother and unborn child.

Hodaah this word for thankfulness is from the same root as vidui (confession) and the rabbinic Hebrew usage of “modim” — to agree. (See my earlier entry, Gratitude, in particular section V.) What all three meanings have in common is that they focus on the I-Thou relationship: thankfulness is acknowledging I received from another, vidui is admitting I gave someone else a pain or problem, and to agree is to acknoeldge a shared position, one in which neither side is particularly giving to another.

The other two possibilities — my giving to you and you wronging me — are forms of connection that don’t require my dwelling upon. But they are in themselves the next two middos I believe are recast by Rav Shimon’s perspective.

Chesed: Lovingkindness is the dropping of barriers between myself and the other. Thus, there can be chesed which is good, as in the “chasadim tovim — good instances of chesed” we praise Hashem for sustaining us with when we say the first berakhah of Shemoneh Esrei. But there is also a lack of appropriate barriers, chesed that is not good.

Maavir al Midosav: Allowing his limits to be crossed. This is the person willing to forgo being slighted if it means someone else gains far more than his loss. “Rava said: Whomever is maavir al midosav, they [the heavenly court] passes [ma’avirin] over all his sins for him.” – Shabbos 17b. See my post on this middah.

With the conclusion of this section, I want to share some other ways in which connectionism / holism play into Rav Shimon Shkop’s general worldview.


I posted on the central difference between Brisker Derekh, the mode of analyzing halakhah developed by Rav Chaim Brisker, and his student, Rav Shimon Shkop’s, derekh. Rav Chaim analyzes halakhah on the level of “what”, of the law in legal terms. Rav Shimon added the level of “why”, grounding the analysis in philosophy, the psychology of those commanded, and the world around us.

But there is a second distinction… Rav Chaim would explain an apparent contradiction by finding “the chiluq“, the distinction between two cases that we initially thought ought to be the same, or the distinction between the viewpoints in two sides of a dispute. Rav Shimon also invokes hitztarfus, fusion or connectedness.

Rarely does an event only have one cause. Similarly, there is no reason to assume that it takes one cause to create an obligation or prohibition rather than a combination of them. From the Greeks until the 20th century, science focused on explaining things by explaining their parts. In the mid-20th century started the development of studying how things are connected. It turns out that networks of many sorts share the same math, whether we’re talking real communities, Facebook ones, links between web pages, neurons, etc… This is the notion of emergent properties, studying features that come from how parts are combined rather than being attributable to the parts themselves.

So the emphasis here on trying to become a critical part of the engine, to be indispensable in the interaction of parts while preferably avoiding standing out from the whole, fits Rav Shimon’s general worldview in other ways.



I took this holistic – connectionist approach even further in an early essay on this blog.

Another difference can be seen by contrasting the style of Aristotle with that of Rav Yehudah haNasi. Aristotle catalogues. He divides a subject into subtopics, and those subtopics even further, until one is down to the individual fact. Greek thought was focused on reductionism. To understand a phenomenon, break it down into smaller pieces, and try to understand each piece. This is typical of the Yefetic perspective….

As opposed to the way Rav Yehudah haNasi redacted the first mishnah. The beginning of the mishnah could have said that the time for evening shema is from sunset until 1/3 the night. But instead it uses referents involving kehunah, taharah and ashmores. This is not to confuse the issue, but because from the Semitic perspective the key to understanding one mitzvah is from its connections to everything else.

Yefes is reductionist, believing the world can be understood as the sum of its smallest pieces. Sheim is holistic, looking at the interconnections between those pieces, and the pieces only gaining meaning from the relationships in which they partake.

This is not only true statically, but also over the course of time. We get used to identifying “the cause” of something. Why did he hurt his foot? Because a can fell on it. Why did the can fall? Because someone else accidentally kicked it. And so on… However, it’s equally true that he hurt his foot because even though he usually wears iron toed hiking boot, he chose not to wear them that that day.

I would instead suggest that every event is like “the perfect storm”, every one has combinations of factors that come to a head at the same point….

Des Cartes famously said, “Cogito ergo sum — I think therefore I am.” A true skeptic can’t be sure of much. Even “1 + 1 = 2″ might be a delusion caused by insanity or a malevelent deity. The only thing one can be sure of is that there is an “I” doing the thinking, being sure. He then tried to prove the existence of other things, including G-d, with just this one given.

But even the Cogito is subject to this distinction. Are we individuals who interact, or only defined as individuals by the set of interactions we have with others? Moshe Rabbeinu lacked his full prophetic gift from the time of the Golden Calf until the rise of the next generation. The Or haChaim explains that this is because “Kol Yisrael areivim zeh bazeh” (Shevu’os 39a), which is usually translated “All Jews are guarantors one for another”. That’s consistent with another version of the quote, which ends “lazeh” (for this). However, “ba-”, in, implies a different meaning of the word “areivim”, mixture. All Jews are mixed, one into the other. Moshe’s soul did not stand alone, it is connected and overlaps those of the rest of the nation. When they lowered themselves with the calf, Moshe’s soul was diminished.

Even the “I” is not reductionist, but defined by its connections.

From this relation-based orientation comes a second distinction, a basically different approach to logic. The West never formalized the notion of reality having gray areas…

Kol Yisrael areivim zeh bazeh”, the Jewish People are a unit.

Since the Babylonian exile, the remaining Children of Israel, the descendents of the Kingdom of Judea, have been called “Jews”, from “Yehudah”.

What does “todah” mean? As it stands, it means “thanks”. The same root conjugated as “vidui” means to “confess”. Last, when the mishnah wants to stress that something is outside of a dispute, “hakol modim” — “all agree”. What do thanks, confession and agreement have in common?

When I thank someone, I acknowledge his actions had an impact on me. When I confess, I am admitting that my actions had an impact on him. And when we are modim, we realize that an idea isn’t mine or yours, but ours. The point in common in the three uses of the root is a realization of connectedness. I wrote a few years ago:

Do roads exist to connect cities, or do cities exist to serve the roads? We naturally assume the former, that roads are built to allow people and goods to travel from one center to another.

However, historically speaking, it’s usually the reverse. Medina, in Saudi Arabia, grew from the crossroads of trading routes. Canaan was at the crossroads of three continents, and its very name comes from the word for “traders”. This is why the Israel of Na”kh was so often crossed by the soldiers of Assyria and Egypt, en route to the other to battle. And being at a traffic center placed us in the ideal situation to influence world thought. Because of the centrality of shipping, New York, Baltimore and Boston all grew around their harbors, and many European cities are on rivers — London, Paris, Budapest, Frankfurt, etc…

We are called Yehudim because only the descendants of the Kingdom of Judea returned after the Babylonian Exile, and of those tribes, Yehudah’s perspective dominated. We are Jews because, as Leah said upon naming her son, “Hapa’am odeh es Hashem — this time, I will thank G-d”. To be a Jew is to be a thanker, to acknowledge the connection.

Note that this implies a strong connection between Yom Kippur as a day of vidui, and Sukkos, the holiday of hoda’ah and consequent simchah

This is why the bareisa in Avos says that whomever says something in the name of the person who originally said it brings redemption to the world. By standing as part rather than being a whole.

Thus Rav Shimon’s notion of the greater “ani” is what being a Jew and Judaism are all about.

You may also like...

No Responses

  1. Bob Miller says:

    “This is the person willing to forgo being slighted if it means someone else gains far more than his loss.”

    What do we call this person if he forgoes even when there is no net gain? That is, is the net gain critically important here?

    • micha says:

      I think so. As is clear from the part of the introduction I called “Self Interest”, Rav Shimon doesn’t expect people to make themselves into doormats. (Although the “far more” is overkill.) A maavir al midosav is someone who does what’s right rather than standing on his rights. I stated it as net gain rather than “what’s right”, but that’s the idea I’m going for. As you notice, though, that comment is below the line, which by the convention for this series means it’s my own thought, not R’ Shimon’s. You are free to disagree.

  1. December 19, 2011 – כ״ג בכסלו תשע״ב

    […] those lines. Which would explain the value Rava ascribes to the middah of maavir al midosav (see the previous post). This is “keshe’ani le’atzmi, mah ani –When I am for myself alone, what am […]

  2. January 17, 2012 – כ״ב בטבת תשע״ב

    […] of which brings to mind Rav Shimon Shkop’s treatment of a different enigmatic statement by the self-same […]

  3. August 1, 2017 – ט׳ באב תשע״ז

    […] True anavah motivates a struggle to accomplish, which constantly brings more worth into one’s life. To be an anav is to realize that the story is about us, and isn’t my autobiography. After describing the measure of a person’s soul in terms of how many people, how much of creation, is included in his “ani“, his “I” of personal identity, Rav Shimon writes (tr. mine): […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *