Will a Soul Cry Out Against You?

On today’s amud we see that one should have pleasure on Shabbos. A close student once invited Rav Yisrael Salanter, zt”l, join him leil Shabbos.

“I never go to anyone for Shabbos until I find out their custom during the meal I shall be attending,” answered Rav Yisrael Salanter.

This student very proudly recounted that his table was filled with both physical and spiritual oneg shabbos of the very best kind. “We only procure our meats b’tachlis ha’hidur. The cook in our house is a G-dfearing woman, the widow of a renowned talmid chacham. Our table is resplendent with the best foods, yet we are very careful to sing and say an abundance of Torah between each course. We even have a regular seder in Shulchan Aruch. Understandably, our table ends only very late into the night.”

Rav Yisrael accepted his student’s invitation, but with a surprising condition. “I will come, but only if you cut two hours off the meal.”

The student complied with his mentor’s strange request and the meal from start to finish took slightly under an hour. At the very end, right when they were preparing to wash mayim achronim, the student could not contain his curiosity, “Please teach me what is wrong with my regular meal that the Rav would not come until I cut it to such an extent.”

Instead of replying, Rav Yisrael merely asked that the cook be brought the table. When the modest woman arrived, Rav Yisrael apologized to her. “Please forgive me for rushing you this evening since on my account you were forced to serve course after course with no break between them.”

“Hashem should bless the Rav with all the brochos!” replied the gratified widow. “I only wish that he came to us every Friday night. My boss usually has a very lengthy meal, and after a hard day working on my feet in the kitchen, I am so weak that I can hardly stand. But, thanks to the Rav, I can get some much needed rest.”

Rav Yisrael turned his student and said, “In this poor widow’s reply you have an answer to your question. It is true that the way you set up your table is very meritorious…but only if your tzidkus isn’t attained at the expense of another!”

from Mishna Berura Yomi Digest
Stories to Share
“Oneg Shabbos”
Shabbos, June 2, 12 Sivan
Siman 167 Seif 16-20

This lesson needs virtually no commentary and its meaning should be plain, so I have very little to add. In many religious traditions including Christianity and Judaism, there is a tendency to want to impress others with our level of sanctity and holiness. Nevermind that the Bible speaks against such personal arrogance, it is human nature to want to look good in front of others, especially others who hold a higher social rank or who we otherwise feel are our superiors. That’s what we see here in our “story to share.” We also see an example of people who should know better, trying to convince “the masses” of their holiness.

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others. –Matthew 23:1-7 (ESV)

This verse is usually cited by Christians to pound on Jewish tradition including the modern halachah of Jews wearing tallitot and tefillin, but I don’t believe that was the Master’s intent. He had no problem with that the Pharisses taught (see verse 3 above), only the bad motivations for their behavior. In our story from the beginning of this blog post, the student didn’t necessarily have bad motivations for demonstrating such a high level of observance, but he was careless. He put form before substance. He attained his tzidkus at the expense of another.

Ultimately, everything we do, we do for the sake of Heaven, but as human beings, it is extremely easy to mess up our priorities. This isn’t something you only find in Judaism, it’s also equally likely to happen in Christianity. That’s because I’m describing a trait of the all too frail human heart. On some level, we all desire to do what is right, but our personalities get in the way. It’s even worse when, like the student in our example above, we don’t even realize it. Heaven forbid it should be pointed out to us in such a public way and in front of the person we have been inadvertantly victimizing.

All I’m asking of anyone reading this is that you stop and look in a mirror. Who are you and what are you doing? Could you be serving God better? Could you be serving other people better? Have you, even without realizing it, been exploiting, injuring, or insulting someone else while believing you’re doing good for God? If the answer to any of the last three questions is “yes,” then what do you need to change?

Final question: is it worse to be a hypocrite and know you’re screwing up, or to be clueless about how you’re hurting others?

You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child. If you do mistreat them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry, and my wrath will burn… –Exodus 22:22-24 (ESV)

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