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Prayer Part XIV : Living In Harmony With The World (Edited Transcript)

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This is part fourteen in a series of discussions on prayer.

Last week we discussed the importance of taking pleasure in the mitzvot. In particular, we discussed the advice of the Alter of Kelm, Rav Simcha Zissel Ziv, who says that the best way to be transformed and uplifted through davening is by enjoying it. We mentioned that we need to focus on ways we can derive pleasure from prayer and our bond with Hashem, and that real enjoyment requires commitment and effort. Investing time and energy into what we are doing will bring us true fulfilment and enjoyment. This, in turn, will open up our hearts and transform and uplift us and the world around us.

This touches on a very important philosophy of the Alter of Kelm regarding our approach to mitzvot in general. There is a well-known passage in the Gemara which describes how someone came to the Talmudic Sage, Hillel, and said he wants to convert to Judaism, on condition that Hillel teach him the whole Torah on one leg. Hillel said to him, “Whatever is hateful to you do not do unto your friend. That is the Torah, the rest is commentary.”

What is the meaning of this passage?

The essence of the Torah

In answering this question, the Alter of Kelm asks, was this person who came to Hillel serious or not? This question is important to our understanding of the Gemara: oftentimes the Gemara conveys philosophical insights in parables or very short references, and we have to extract the philosophy behind it and understand it fully and not on a simplistic level. Was this person who came to Hillel serious? If he was not serious, why did Hillel bother answering him? And if he was serious, how do we understand Hillel’s answer?

Furthermore, Hillel’s answer does not even correlate with what it says in the Torah itself (Vayikra 19:18): Ve’ahavta l’reiacha kamocha, “Love your neighbour as yourself.” Hillel’s adage, “What is hateful to you do not do onto others,” is a very low level of morality, according to which one need not help anyone but simply refrain from causing harm. 

What, then, was Hillel really telling this potential convert?

Based on these questions, the Alter of Kelm articulates a philosophy of life which relates to the beginning of our discussion. He says that the entire Torah is founded on an understanding of society whereby we are all partners with each other in this world. Think for a moment: anything we enjoy or derive benefit from, by necessity had others involved in its doing or making. We get dressed in the morning and put on a shirt; someone had to make that shirt. There was a factory worker involved, and a factory owner. There were people on the farms who grew the cotton to produce the fabric. Think about what goes into that shirt, or the shoes that we put on our feet. We cannot take one step in this world without deriving benefit from the interconnectedness and networking of thousands of people. An apple we eat involves farmers, the manufacturers of the farming tools, and the scientists who made the insecticides and the irrigation systems. Thousands of people go into producing one apple.

Of course, we are grateful to Hashem Himself; as we say in the blessing, Boreh pri ha’etz – “Blessed are You, Hashem, who created the fruit of the tree.” But, says the Alter, we must also be aware of how interconnected we are with each other. This awareness of the interconnectedness of human beings needs to transform the way we view the world. To illustrate this, the Alter quotes the Gemara which says that Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai was first to greet every person, even a pagan in the marketplace, because he had an understanding and appreciation of how interconnected and interdependent we all are.

The interconnectedness of human beings

The Alter takes this one step further. We know the Torah is filled with mitzvot – don’t steal, don’t tell a lie, don’t take revenge, don’t speak lashon hara. A person might think the correct approach is that although he could take revenge or steal, he won’t because the Torah says he mustn’t; he will conquer his selfish inclination and do the right thing – not because he really wants to, but because the Torah says so. However, says the Alter, one should not view the Torah as a system at a remove from human beings. Rather, one must realise that the Torah’s laws are premised by the fact that G-d made human beings interconnected to each other. We are all interconnected, and so if you take revenge on someone today, as sweet as that revenge may be, tomorrow someone is going to take revenge on you; if you steal someone’s things today, tomorrow someone is going to steal from you; if you speak lashon hara about someone today, tomorrow someone will speak about you, and we will end up in a world of terrible pain.

This idea is similar to what one of the great English philosophers, Thomas Hobbes, described as the “state of nature” – i.e. the natural state of humanity in the absence of laws. He said that essentially man’s life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” The Alter of Kelm says, realise that if you take the mitzvot – G-d’s blueprint for morality – out of the world, there is nothing left; society disintegrates. We should not have an attitude of, well, I will do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do, even though it’s not in my best interest. Rather, we should understand that not stealing, not taking revenge, not speaking lashon hara and all of the mitzvot are actually about creating a better world – not just for others but for ourselves, because human relationships are reciprocal.

This, says the Alter of Kelm, is the message Hillel was conveying to the potential convert. The potential convert’s question was not frivolous. What he was really asking was, tell me what the essence of Judaism is. And so, Hillel answered him that if he really wants to understand what Judaism is about, if he really wants to grasp the essence of the Torah, he must understand that Hashem does not ask us to do anything which is not in our best interest.

The world is modelled on the principles of the Torah. If we live a life of Torah, we will be able to maximise who we are. That is how the world and human beings were designed, and so we function best when we live in accordance with these principles. This is encapsulated in Hillel’s adage, “That which is hated to you, do not do unto others.” Why? Because what you do to others will get done to you as well.

To use an analogy from the business world, Hillel’s response was like an “elevator pitch” – tell me about your plan or your business in one sentence while we are in the lift together. This potential convert was asking Hillel, what is the Torah’s elevator pitch? Tell me the essence, and how I can keep the whole system. There seems to be so much to keep. How can I keep all of it? So Hillel replied that there are indeed many mitzvot. There are 613 commandments, there is the Shulchan Aruch – the Code of Jewish Law – with so many details; but all of it is rooted in the fact that there is a giant partnership in humanity and we are all interconnected. By doing the right thing, you are helping yourself because this is how the world operates: that which is hateful to you, you must not do unto others because ultimately it’s going to come back to you.

The Alter says this applies not only to the commandments bein adam lachaveiro, between man and his fellow man, but also to the commandments bein adam laMakom, between us and G-d. These commandments as well are ultimately for our benefit because they refine and uplift us. We come into this world as physical, raw material, and we need to refine and uplift ourselves. The purpose of life is to spend our 120 years on earth perfecting ourselves so that we can return to G-d as refined souls. Only by living in accordance with the mitzvot of Hashem can we refine ourselves and become better people, because that is how He designed us and the world around us.

Living in accordance with G-d’s “user manual”

The Alter of Kelm is emphasising that we need to feel the benefit of the entire system and that it is ultimately for our own good. He is not just articulating a “utilitarian philosophy,” where we do something because it’s beneficial to us. He is saying something far more profound about the nature of Judaism. The conventional understanding of the mitzvot is that we have to do them and if we don’t, Hashem will punish us in the next world. But the Alter of Kelm explains that the Torah – our system of laws and morals – is the blueprint of the world, and when we live in accordance with this blueprint, we are living in harmony with how the world and we as its inhabitants were intended to function.

The analogy that can be given is that of an electrical appliance, with its instruction manual. We are meant to follow those instructions, and if we don’t, the machine is not going to work. This is not a punishment; this is just how the machine was designed to function. So, too, the Torah is the instruction manual of the world. We are meant live a life of sensitivity, care and respect for other people. That is the way the world was designed to run, and if everybody would do that the world would function at its best. We were designed to function in accordance with the mitzvot, whether it’s the mitzvah of prayer, learning Torah, Shabbat, kashrut, or any other mitzvah. That is how we were designed to function spiritually, and so there is a harmony between the values and the life principles of the Torah and the very makeup of human nature.

This idea, which we began discussing last week and concluded this week, conveys a life philosophy of enjoying our service of Hashem, our Torah learning, our davening, our Shabbos and all aspects of Judaism and being connected to the Torah. That is, in fact, why we were created. There is a link between enjoyment and the basic structure of the world and the basic nature of human beings. Since “G-d looked into the Torah and created the world,” things work in sync and there is harmony in what we do, and from that harmony flows a natural love for and enjoyment of what we do. Only when there is a natural enjoyment in what we are doing can we do it to the best of our abilities and really be transformed.

This relates to the beginning of our discussion, regarding the mitzvah of prayer. As we said in the name of the Alter, if we want to pray properly, we have to enjoy it. If prayer feels foreign, as though it is imposed upon us and we would rather not do it, then something is wrong. That is not the prayer G-d intended; prayer is meant to be a natural part of us. The human being is spiritual. We all have a natural need to communicate with Hashem and to bond with Him, and that is what prayer is about – facilitating our connection with Hashem. It is a natural part of who we are, and when our prayer gives expression to this basic human need to connect with Hashem, we can truly enjoy it. When we are not enjoying it, this indicates that we are not in harmony with our core essence. 

Posted on 22 August 2013 in Text, Transcript