Chumros are not a simple matter at all. Rav Pinchas of Koretz, zt”l, points out that a person can easily get so wrapped up in chumros that he forgets about Hashem. His hyper-focus on the minutiae makes him forget the goal.
As the Sichos HaRan, zt”l, pointed out two hundred years ago, there are those who spend inordinate amounts of time in the bathroom to ensure that they are clean for davening. Meanwhile, they are obsessively pursuing a goal that wastes a great deal of time and risk missing the zeman tefilah. Is this to the purpose when the only halachic requirement is that one check himself for a short time in the bathroom to ensure basic cleanliness before prayer?
Although chumros can propel someone on a high spiritual level even higher, they can be counterproductive for someone not really on the level. The entire idea of “levels” can be confusing, though, since sometimes a person chooses the path of chumrah not from genuine piety, but because he wants others to see him as such.
The Chazon Ish, zt”l, was known for his chumros, yet he did not advocate taking on extra chumros unless one is on the level. Interestingly, he once illustrated this rather common imbalance of priorities with a statement on today’s daf. “How can one who is not holding by them assume extra chumros? This can be compared to the statement in the Mishnah in Bechoros 40. There we find that having one eye bigger than the other is a halachic blemish. Similarly, one who acts like someone of great spiritual stature in certain regards but is not in others has a skewed view of reality. It would be better if he were to act in accordance with his real level!”
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This sort of behavior may be difficult for many Christians to understand. I believe that the Catholic church has a tradition of taking on greater acts of penance to draw closer to Christ, but I don’t believe this is something common among mainstream Protestants except perhaps for fasting and offering additional prayers. However, as noted above, we can become so involved in our “religious practices” that we can forget all about actually serving God. This is a case when our actions take on a life of their own and become divorced from the underlying motivation. It would be as if you took it upon yourself to give to the needy, but your acts of charity became the driving force of your life, along with the thanks and praise of men, rather than the God who commands you to have compassion for the poor.
Of course, regardless of motivation or even if you consider God at all, the poor are fed and cared for by your charity, so it’s not a complete loss. But let’s look at something else for a moment that also isn’t clearly understood by many Christians.
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Israelites and say to them: If anyone, man or woman, explicitly utters a nazirite’s vow, to set himself apart for the Lord, he shall abstain from wine and any other intoxicant; he shall not drink vinegar of wine or of any other intoxicant, neither shall he drink anything in which grapes have been steeped, nor eat grapes fresh or dried. Throughout his term as nazirite, he may not eat anything that is obtained from the grapevine, even seeds or skin.
Throughout the term of his vow as nazirite, no razor shall touch his head; it shall remain consecrated until the completion of his term as nazirite of the Lord, the hair of his head being left to grow untrimmed. Throughout the term that he has set apart for the Lord, he shall not go in where there is a dead person. Even if his father or mother, or his brother or sister should die, he must not defile himself for them, since hair set apart for his God is upon his head: throughout his term as nazirite he is consecrated to the Lord. –Numbers 6:1-8 (JPS Tanakh)
This is the beginning of the conditions for an Israelite who has taken a Nazarite vow, the purpose of which was to bring the person closer to God. It’s an interesting condition at the end of the vow (which could last for several months) that the Nazir would bring a sin offering. One interpretation of this is that, since God had provided sufficient means in the Torah for any Jew to draw near to Him, there was an actual component of “sin” in becoming a Nazir, as if God’s Torah wasn’t good enough. And yet the Torah itself provides the conditions by which one may become a Nazir. Further, we know that both the Prophet Samuel and Samson the Judge were life-long Nazirs. We also know that the Apostle Paul took upon himself a Nazarite vow (Acts 18:18) and paid the price at the end of the Nazarite vows for four other Jews (Acts 21:20-26).
Today, it’s impossible for a Jew to take a Nazarite vow because there currently is no Temple in Jerusalem and no active Levitical priesthood. We see that taking such a vow has many benefits and perhaps a few liabilities, but one of the dangers of such a vow is that the conditions of the vow may become more important than God Himself. Again, Christianity doesn’t understand this, but maybe we can understand something else.
I remember being in Christian Bible studies. At some point during some of these studies at church, the teacher would ask the class to all close our eyes and to offer up prayers for one reason or another. Knowing that you’re going to speak your prayer to God out loud in front of a bunch of other Christians creates a strange situation. At least for me, I considered what sort of prayer would sound acceptable or even meritorious to the people around me. It was very hard to actually talk to God without worrying what my fellow believers might think. I can promise you that my public prayers were somewhat different and perhaps really different when spoken aloud in front of witnesses than they would have been if it were just God and me.
There are non-Jews who choose to take some of the Jewish mitzvot upon themselves and even a little halachah as they understand it. I’ve known many of these people and while most of them are sincere in their motivations and have hearts sincerely turned toward God, some of them have become diverted by their practice and have all but lost sight of why they are performing the various commandments. I’ve heard such people argue about the proper way to tie tzitzit, whether or not a blue cord should be included, the pronunciation of some of the Hebrew prayers, whether or not a minyan can include women, and on and on and on. The irony mixed in with this tragedy, is that these people who are so consumed with obeying what they see as their obligations to God, have no true understanding of how and why Jews perform these mitzvot. Further, they reject the Jewish traditions associated with the mitzvot and substitute their individual interpretations for the commandments. Somewhere in the shuffle, God becomes forgotten.
The Mishna Berura Yomi Digest for Siman 128 Seif 24 explains that drawing near to God doesn’t have to be all that complicated and that God desires both the scholar and the “simple” man of the earth to have the opportunity to come closer. Judaism provides a solution that might seem unusual to the Christian.
On today’s amud we find that even those simple people who are not present during birchas kohanim are also included in the blessing. Perhaps one of the most important contributions of the Baal Shem Tov was to build up the downtrodden masses. The simple folk who couldn’t learn much are also an integral part of the chosen people. They, too, have a spiritual mission here on earth.
During one of the many times that Rav Meir Arak, zt”l, met with the Imrei Emes, zt”l, of Gur, he asked the rebbe a question that was troubling him. “I do not understand why our sages draw a distinction between the wine libations and other sacrifices. Regarding other sacrifices our sages teach that anyone who learns the laws of the sin or guilt offering is considered to have brought that sacrifice. Clearly the same is true regarding other sacrifices. And presumably, this is also the case regarding one who learns the laws of the libations.
“Strangely, when the sages mention a person who wishes to bring nesachim they do not recommend studying the halachos.
“Instead, they say that one who wishes to pour libations on the altar should fill the throats of Torah scholars with wine. Why is this second point necessary?”
The Imrei Emes replied in an inspiring manner. “Telling people that learning the laws of sacrifices is likened to bringing a sacrifice is only helpful to those who can learn. What about the simple folk who are unable to delve into the complexities of kodshim? It was for them that our sages said that one who supports Torah scholars by providing them with wine is considered to have poured libations on the altar. Doesn’t a simple person also need a way to draw near to Hashem while there is no beis hamikdash?”
Again, the solution presented here probably seems unnecessarily complicated to most Christians, but in a religious world that’s driven by tradition and specific acts crafted to comply with what is believed to be the desires of God, this process works quite well. A man who is no scholar and whose Hebrew is just so-so can still fulfill the mitzvot equivalent to offering the sacrifices and learned study of Torah. Please keep in mind though that any religious activity that involves a sufficient amount of complexity can, if allowed to do so, become more important than the reason for performing it. The solution for the church is to do away with this danger by doing away with the Law. No Torah, no halachah, no complexity equals just you and God, right?
Maybe. Maybe not. It all goes too far in the opposite direction if you believe God does not expect you to change anything in what you do and how you do it in daily and religious living. On the other hand, with the Law completely absent, Christians have found other ways to stray.
I’ve seen Christians focused intently on pleasing God who completely lost their path and who became enamoured with things such as how to teach the best Bible study, how to offer the best public prayers, how to dress with just the right amount of modesty for church services, and just how often to invite the Pastor over for dinner. The activities themselves aren’t bad, but when they take the place of a simple desire to connect to God through behavior, then these acts become almost meaningless. If God is not there in what you do, what’s the point?
The Mishna Berura Yomi Digest for Siman 128 Seif 26-29 provides a different point of view of drawing nearer to God, this time, not from the perspective of the less learned Jew, but from the position of exalted Torah scholars.
We find on today’s daf that sometimes it is preferable to refrain even from saying pesukim.
When the Imrei Emes of Ger, zt”l, returned from his first voyage to Eretz Yisroel, the Rav of Kalish, zt”l, tried to elicit some details about his journey. The Imrei Emes, however, did not seem to be willing to engage in conversation.
“Nu?” prodded the Kalisher Rav. “How does the rebbe feel after his visit to the holy land? Don’t chazal say that even the air of Eretz Yisroel makes one wise?”
The Imrei Emes nodded. “Yes, it’s true,” he answered. “And chazal also said: the protective fence for wisdom is…silence!”
This can also mean that silence is sometimes the best defense, because with it, one can avoid an argument altogether.
A delegation of sefardic rabbis once came to visit the Maharil Diskin, zt”l, the illustrious Rav of Brisk.
As soon as they arrived, the group of sages began to weave a number of intricate arguments about certain Torah subjects, while the Maharil simply sat quietly and did not participate.
Eventually they tired of this, and decided to take their leave. As they left, the members of the delegation shook their heads in dismay and lamented to one another, “What a pity—to see such a great scholar who has gotten old and forgotten his learning!”
What the group didn’t realize was that the gaon of Brisk was just as much a master of silence as he was a master of Torah!
Maybe your religious study and practice is devoted solely to the glory of God or maybe you have accidentally strayed into an area where you glorify yourself above your Master. It’s all too easy to wander away from the true path in the face of fulfilling the minutiae of the various commandments and obligations you believe are important to you. However, if you realize one day in the middle of your prayers, or while reading a Bible commentary, or in the process of delivering a devastating retort to someone’s argument on religious blog comment, that what you are doing is more important to you than to God, please stop. This is like driving your car down the freeway at 80 mph and suddenly realizing you’ve forgotten how to operate a motor vehicle. Under such circumstances, the safest thing to do is to slow down, pull over, come to a stop, and exit the vehicle.
Then wait for help, because you really need it.
It’s like a man who wakes up one morning and discovers that he’s forgotten how to read. He feels fine otherwise, but books, magazines, and newspapers now contain only these cryptic markings that yesterday were words, sentences, and paragraphs. What can be done? In this person’s case, he can go back to the basics of learning his ABCs, then learning to read from a simple primer, and then working up from there. What do we do when our religion has become more important than God? We can stop our religious practice temporarily, return to a simple reading of the Bible and extemporaneous prayer, and learn to love God all over again. I’ve heard many Christians in public prayer saying, “We give you all the glory, Jesus.” I don’t doubt that most of these people are sincere, but if they were to stop suddenly and listen to their own voice, would any of them realize that they were giving more glory to how they sounded in front of a group?
Take time occasionally to unplug from the way you try to connect to God and just connect to God.
If you play for your own glory and not for God’s you have no place here. -A Maggid