The Role of Ritual in Other-Focused Orthodoxy

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Rav Shimon Shkop gives a very inter-personal view of Judaism, writing that the we were made “וְחַיֵּי עולָם נָטַע בְּתוכֵנוּ — and eternal life was planted among us” (quoting the berakhah‘s description of the giving of the Torah) is entirely ” להיטיב עם זולתנו — to be of benefit to others, in imitation of the Creator. Rav Shimon even defines qedushah as a consecration to the mission of benefiting others.

What then is the role of mitzvos bein adam laMaqom, that mediate between me and the Creator?

Rav Shimon is quite terse:

והנה כשהאדם מישר הליכותיו ושואף שתמיד יהיו דרכי חייו מוקדשים להכלל ,אז כל מה שעושה גם לעצמו להבראת גופו ונפשו הוא מתיחס גם כן אל מצות קדושה, שעל ידי זה יטיב גם לרבים, שבטובתו לעצמו הוא מטיב עם הרבים הצריכים לו, …
… ברעיון ושאיפת הרוח מתרחבת מצוה, זו גם על כל מפעליו ומעשיו של האדם גם בינו לבין המקום,

Behold, when a person straightens his path and strives constantly to make his lifestyle dedicated to the community, then anything he does even for himself, for the health of his body and soul, he also associates to the mitzvah of being holy. For through this he can also benefit the masses. Through the good he does for himself he can benefit the many who rely on him….
… [W]ith insight and the calling of spirituality, this mitzvah broadens to include everything a person causes or does even between him and the Omnipresent. 

Mitzvos between man & G-d are an essential part of “caring for the goose”. R Shimon says this outright, if only in a single phrase in a paragraph that is otherwise about how one’s own rest and enjoyment can also be holy when they are for the sake of a healthy part of a life consecrated to benefiting others. Prayer is holy the same way someone can make their vacation holy — because it can help you be there for others. Wow!

How are the mitzos that mediate our relationship to Hashem, all those rituals, part of caring for the goose? For that I can only propose my own extrapolations:

1- You can’t bring G-d’s good to others without yourself being a conduit connected to the Source. If you are not well cared for, you don’t have what it takes to help them. Thus, “In the case of a sudden reduction of cabin pressure, put your own mask on before helping the person sitting next to you.” Without spiritual grounding, you’re too busy dealing with your own needs to help someone else.

2- We need to know what the right choice is. We also need to make decisions based on the Maker’s knowledge of how people work, rather than only relying on our instincts about what is helpful. I can’t distinguish between helping others and enabling them in something the two of us only think is beneficial without being attuned to the Divine Will. So, the more I have a relationship with G-d and with His Torah, the more I can actually help rather than be well intended but wrong.

3- We need to develop the character such that we can make the right choices when in the moment. When being there for someone else conflicts with tiredness, or having to choose who to benefit. Getting beyond ego and ingratitude, laziness. recklessness or stinginess.

In addition, these last two steps can be inculcated in two different ways.

A- Educational. This is Rav Samson Rafael Hirsch’s approach to mitzvos. Mitzvos are a means of not only relaying truths that one needs to be a good Jew, but to inculcate those truths on a core level. People learn at a greater depth through metaphors and symbols, especially hands-on objects and practices, compared to just teaching ideas.

We can adapt this idea to our framing of the Torah’s goals. The notion of truths passed as symbols more naturally speaks to learning values, becoming in tune with what will truly help others in the long run and avoiding helping someone make self-destructive decisions. But you are also working with a symbol system about what it takes to be a fully contributing human being, whose “greatest desire is to be of benefit to others, to individuals and to the masses, now and in the future, in imitation of the Creator (so to speak)“. Not just knowing what it is G-d wants of me, but doing so in a way that makes that truth a motivator. Something that can overcome desire, laziness, anger or ego.

B- Practice. Halakhah as a set of mussar exercises to make people more capable of giving, of internalizing the right priorities. Also about internalizing the ideal. But not through ideas, though exercises that have us constantly practicing the right values.

Each of these modes — education vs practice, is easier to apply to different kinds of mitzvos. Rav Hirsch would write about which mitzvos involve symbols that emphasize the importance of remembering one is a free-willed human being, and not merely an intelligent mammal. Rav Yisrael Salanter would write about those mitzvos that have us exercising perishus, separation from those temptations that lead us down a more crass path.

I don’t know if Rav Shimon spent much time contemplating Rav Hirsch’s approach. But we know that he consciously tried to follow Rav Yisrael’s path in general, so presumably this would be his approach here too.

And Rav Yisrael’s approach doesn’t need Hirschian symbology. It could well be that a mitzvah works as a practice in ways we don’t understand. Try it, it works. I found this a weakness in Rav Hirsch’s approach, in that I cannot believe that for centuries or even millennia, from sometime after prophecy or after Chazal until Rav Hirsch’s day, even our greatest rabbonim missed out on the keys to get the primary benefit from their observance of mitzvos.

Still, Rav Hirsch’s Horeb is an effective way to add meaning to the observance of ritual mitzvos. It can imbue meaning into every detail, such as Hashem’s choice of esrog for the mitzvah. I find it a useful second layer. A second level of meaning beyond the practice approach, that allows one to have kavvanah about aspects of observance rather than taking it on faith that somehow this practice is character- or value-shaping. So why not lean on both?

This ended up touching on the primary topic of Rav Hirsch, Rav Yisrael and Me, but coming up with more of a synthesis solution. Different days, different moods.

4- One last possible approach to the role of mitzvos in an Other-Focused Orthodoxy is the mystical one of Rav Chaim Volozhiner.

Three of the she’arim of Nefesh haChaim discuss how action in the form of mitzvos, speach – tefillah, and thought – Torah study, impact the world; repairing it, making the spiritual worlds more manifest in it, and giving it “energy” and existence.

But in the introduction, Rav Yitzchak Volozhiner recalls that his father, Rav Chaim, didn’t see the work of mitzvos in those terms! Rather,

He would routinely rebuke me because he was that I do not share in the pain of others. This is what he would constantly tell me: that the entire person was not created for himself, but to be of assistance to others, whatever he finds to be in his ability to do.

Rav Chaim Volozhiner saw the purpose of the Torah as being Other-Focused, and yet the role of mitzvos bein adam laMaqom to be about repairing the world.

Perhaps in his view, the goal of a spiritual repair, connection and empowerment of this world is only holy if done for the sake of others being able to benefit from it!

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