be still


parshat Shemini

What’s the original sin? Eating fruit of the forbidden tree… Well not exactly. The first sin was that Eve fell for the oldest trick in the book.. adding, embellishing, improving on God’s laws.

You know the joke:

Said God to Moses: “Don’t boil a kid in its mother’s milk!” Moses replied, “You mean you don’t want us to make cheeseburgers? “Said God, mildly shocked and bewildered, “I just said — not a kid in the milk of its mother!” Moses frowned, twirled his beard, and responded, “You mean, don’t even use the same plates for cheese & meat?” God’s face reddened. “Just don’t boil a kid in the milk of its mother”! Said Moses, “My God! You mean we have to wait six whole hours after eating meat before we can have some milk?” God threw the Divine Arms wide into the Cosmos: “Have it your own way, Moses!” And so we do. (quoted in Rabbi Arthur Waskow’s Down to Earth Judaism)

Well that was Eve’s sin… no joke. God told Adam and Eve not to eat from the fruit but when the snake tempted her she said to the snake:

But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said: Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.’ (Genesis 3:3)

According to the tradition, Eve unconsciously added a chumra (a stringency): “neither shall ye touch it” and when the snake pushed her against the tree and nothing happened she succumbed. Or as Rashi comments: “She added to the command [of God], therefore she ended up by reducing it, that is what is meant (Proverbs 30:6) “Add thou not unto His words.””

Moral of the story: If Eve had not been such a “frummer” we could still be in Paradise..

Typically, the overly zealous put up multiple “fences around the Torah” in order to assure that they not be tempted to sin. But there are incidents when in our excitement and adulation of the holy, we gets carried away and add to a mitzvah.. a positive commandment.

Maimonides writes in the Guide for the Perplexed:

You also know their famous dictum would that all dicta were like it. …. They have said: (Babylonian Talmud Berakhoth, 33b) Someone who came into the presence of Rabbi Haninah said [in leading the Silent Prayer – Shemona Esrei prayer]: God the Great, the Valiant, the Terrible, the Mighty, the Strong, the Tremendous, the Powerful. Thereupon [Rabbi Haninah] said to him: Have you finished all the praises of your Master? Even as regards the first three epithets [used by all Jews at the beginning of the Silent Prayer]

we could not have uttered them if Moses our Master had not pronounced them in the Law’ and if the men of the Great Synagogue had not [subsequently] come and established [their use] in prayer. And you come and say all this. What does this resemble? It is as if a mortal king who had millions of gold pieces were praised for possessing silver. Would this not be an offense to him? Here ends the dictum of this perfect one.

… Consider also that he has stated clearly that if we were left only to our intellects we should never have mentioned these attributes or stated a thing appertaining to them. Yet the necessity to address men in such terms as would make them achieve some representation – in accordance with the dictum of the sages: The Torah speaks in the language of the sons of man (Babylonian Talmud Yevamoth, 71a Baba Metziah 31b), obliged resort to predicating of God their own perfections when speaking to them. It must then be our purpose to draw a line at using these expressions and not to apply them to Him except only in reading the Torah. However, as the men of the Great Synagogue, who were prophets, appeared in their turn and inserted the mention of these attributes in the prayer, it is our purpose to pronounce only those attributes when saying our prayers. …

Thus what we do is not like what is done by the truly ignorant who spoke at great length and spent great efforts on prayers that they composed and on sermons that they compiled and through which they, in their opinion, came nearer to God. …. This kind of license is frequently taken by poets and preachers or such as think that what they speak is poetry, so that the utterances of some of them constitute an absolute denial of faith, while other utterances contain such rubbish and such perverse imaginings as to make men laugh when they hear them, on account of the nature of these utterances, and to make them weep when they consider that these utterances are applied to God, may He be magnified and glorified. ….

I have then already made it known to you that everything in these attributes that you regard as a perfection is a deficiency with regard to Him, … Solomon, peace be on him, has rightly directed us with regard to this subject, in words that should be sufficient for us, when he said: For God is in heaven and thou upon the earth; therefore let thy words be few (Ecclesiasticus 5:1)

Silence: The most apt phrase concerning! this subject is the dictum occurring in the Psalms, Silence is praise to Thee (Psalms. 65:2) which interpreted signifies: silence with regard to You is praise. …. Accordingly, silence and limiting oneself to the apprehensions of the intellects are more appropriate – just as the perfect ones have enjoined when they said: Commune with your own heart upon your bed, and be still. Selah. (Psalms. 4:5)

(Guide for the Perplexed I 59)

Maimonides is clearly an early proponent of short Synagogue services … with an emphasis on silent meditation and concise sermons. Consistent with Maimonides’ belief that many laws (such as the Tabernacle) were commanded by God to accommodate our limited intellect (see previous post honor thy sources), so too are the theological references in our prayers and holy texts a necessary evil. Had they not been written we could not have written them. To Maimonides, all of religion and ritual is an unfortunate but necessary embellishment.

This critique of theology and ritual is actually a huge paradigm shift. It creates an entirely new way to look at God’s commandments. A commandment or Mitzvah is not so much an obligation imposed upon us by a divine decree as it is a permit by the divine to say or do something in the name of God. Just as… when we make a blessing before eating an apple.. we are actually getting permission to enjoy the fruits of God’s creation, so too, when we make a blessing on a mitzvah.. we are getting permission to indulge in a ritual.

By way of example, imagine if there was no command for tefillin and you saw an individual roll up a few scrolls, put them in little leather boxes and wrap them with straps around his or her arm and head… in the name of God Almighty. Such a person could be labeled a blasphemer, Idol Worshiper or just plain crazy. It is only because this very strange ritual is commanded in the Torah that we have the right to do such an act. With regard to prayer… had we not been commanded we would be forbidden to open our mouths… in other words… You literally can’t make this stuff up… you can only do it if you were commanded.

This bias explains the fate of Aaron’s sons:

And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took each of them his censer, and put fire therein, and laid incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the LORD, which He had not commanded them. And there came forth fire from before the LORD, and devoured them, and they died before the LORD. Then Moses said unto Aaron: ‘This is it that the LORD spoke, saying: Through them that are nigh unto Me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.’ And Aaron was still. (Leviticus 10: 1-2)

The key phrase is “which He had not commanded them”. To create one’s own rituals is not simply superfluous, it is blasphemy.

But it goes one step further. Embellishing ritual is also the ultimate hubris. According to the R. Samuel David Luzzatto the sin of Nadab and Abihu was pride.

According to Luzzatto, the “strange fire” (aish zara) was simply fire that Nadab and Abihu brought with them from outside (zara as-in “outsider”)… they wanted to prove, in front of the whole community, that their offering was accepted.. and just in case God did not choose to send down the fire… they brought their own.

Understand… at its core, observing a Divine command is the ultimate hubris.

There is a profound lesson here. When a human being presents him/herself as complying with a divine commandment or living in accordance with a religious practice.. if there was no divine commandment then it is heresy… but even if it was commanded.. there is an overwhelming temptation to indulge in pride. Ironically, religion, which values humility, is itself, probably the oldest and most powerful source of hubris, especially if combined with outward success…. If your sacrifice is accepted.

I studied at a Mussar Yeshiva called Beer Yaakov, and if a student who had previously shaved, grew a beard and/or payos the Mosgiach (spiritual guide.. as opposed to the Rosh HaYeshiva), R. Shlomo Wolbe z’l would call him over and ask why he had all of a sudden become a tzadik. The phrase used in the Yeshiva was al tihye tzadik harbe… “don’t be such a tzadik”.

Although Rav Wolbe did not follow this school, there was a large but nowadays, largely unknown radical school of mussar known as Nevardok whose followers are called Nevardokers. This school, novelized by the great Yiddish writer, Chaim Grade in his book The Yeshiva, had a unique outlook on humility, stressing the wearing of tattered clothing and total negation of ego and the physical world.

It is widely reported that students of Novardok participated in deliberately humiliating behavior, such as going to a bakery and asking for a box of nails, or wearing a tie made out of hay (?). (see wikipedia: Novardok Yeshiva).

“What made Novardok unique in the yeshiva world was the emphasis on ‘working on values’ – not merely studying Torah but correcting imperfections of the soul. Pride was considered to be the worst imperfection, and our goal was a state of ‘indifference’ – remaining completely unmoved in the face of both praise and criticism.” (See Novarodok: A Movement That Lived in Struggle and Its Unique Approach to the Problem of Man, by Meir Levin (Sara Netanyahu’s father) and review in Haaretz)

Although I could not find a source… I recollect being told that some extreme Nevardokers would try to further embarrass and humble themselves by appearing to break a commandment… such as appearing to desecrate the Shabbat by stepping onto a street trolley (only to surreptitiously exit from the other side before the trolley moved). If this is true (reader: I’d be grateful for a source)… then the Nevardokers truly understood and attempted to neutralize the inherent hubris contained in living a Holy (let alone holier-then-thou) life.

We are reminded of all the great Hasidic stories that celebrate the simple, unlearned and many times, unobservant Jew for the purity of a simple moment of faith or action. We are reminded of stories of great Tzadikim such as Yisrael Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Hasidic movement… who temporarily went under-cover to explore the world as a simple Jew. The Nevardokers went one step further…and followed in the footsteps of their founder, Yisrael Salanter (the other Yisrael), by living, on a day to day basis… an observant life… unobserved.

Nadab and Avihu and possibly Adam and Eve sinned and perished doing what most of us involved in religion, spirituality and anything ending in “ism” are guilty of…. Embellishing the ideal and succumbing to thoughts of enlightened superiority. The Nevardokers suggested an examined life with a goal of achieving true humility. Maimonides, and Aaron tragically got it right:

be still


Filed under Bible, Judaism, Religion, social commentary, Torah

8 responses to “be still

  1. Ronnie Stern

    Love the Joke! TOOO many fences in our practices.

  2. The Meir Levin who wrote Novardok: A Movement That Lived in Struggle and Its Unique Approach to the Problem of Man is a rabbi and oncologist from Monsey NY. You’re confusing his book with Shmuel Ben-Artzi’s Novardok, which is indeed the topic of the Haaeretz review.

    • Thanks for the correction… glad to have such a leaned mussarnik visit my humble blog! btw… i wanted to get a confirmation on something i heard about the Novardokers… in addition to doing silly (self-depreciating) things like asking to buy nails in a grocery store, they would also do things to make onlookers believe that they were sinning… such as getting onto a trolley on shabbat (only to surreptitiously get off on the other side) just to make others think less of them… is there any truth or source for this?

      • I never heard anything like that, and I went through R’ Dov Katz’s Tenu’as haMussar (where almost all the Mussar stories we hear today were repeated from) and R Meir Levin’s book.

        But I’m disinclined to believe it for two other reasons:

        1- Novardok was like boot camp. They tore you down for two reasons:
        a- to rebuild you as a more staunch believer. And
        b- Novardok wasn’t really about “ich bin gornisht” (I am nothing), as is usually retold, but about the need for bitachon, to create a feeling of dependency on G-d — and also the ability to do anything WITH that dependency.

        The second goal wouldn’t fit leading people to think you aren’t on G-d’s side.

        2- It’s outright halachically prohibited to do anything that will look like you’re sinning. If they believe that you know what you’re doing, you might lead them to sin — “mar’is ayin”. And if they think you don’t and think less of you, it’s still prohibited under “mishum cheshash”.

      • Thanks! If i ever get a confirmation.. i’ll let you know. I guess what intrigues me with this is the inherent conflict between the pride that comes with fulfilling a commandment of the Master of the Universe, and the humility necessary to be a tzadik… certainly there is no paucity of stories of tzadikim who concealed their good deeds. The only story that is published about a tzadik/scholar wishing to mislead others into thinking that he was sinning, was the story regarding Maimonides and the delegation sent to check his credentials… certainly the intent was not humility… but if it is true, it does raise the question or maris ayin and mishum Cheshash…..

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