Monday, September 10, 2007

Messilas Yesharim (Mon. Sept. 10th)


The second aspect of piety involves how actions are performed. This too can be divided into two aspects, which can themselves be further subdivided into many, many subsections. But the primary subsections would be reverence and love, the two pillars of true Divine service, without which there can be no content to the matter whatsoever. Under the heading of reverence we find the subcategories of submission to G-d, humility upon coming to serve Him, and the honor accorded His mitzvot, Name and Torah. And under the heading of love are the subcategories of happiness, attachment to Him, and obsession with Him. We will now explain them one by one.

The main aspect of reverence is reverence for G-d's grandeur. While you are praying or performing a mitzvah you are to consider the fact that you are praying and standing before the King of kings. This is what the Talmud was referring to when it said, "Know before Whom you are praying when you pray" (Berachot 28b). To obtain this sort of reverence you will have to consider and reflect upon three things: that you are quite literally standing before G-d and involved in a give-and-take with Him, even though you cannot see Him. While this may be too difficult to fathom because your senses can do nothing to help you in it, with just a little reflection and contemplation, however, most anyone will be able to realize that he is actually involved in a give-and-take with G-d, that he is imploring and pleading before G-d Himself, and that G-d is listening to and hearing him as a person would while carrying on a conversation with a friend.

After you will have set this in your mind, you should reflect upon G-d's grandeur-- how He is so elevated and above all the blessings and praises of the world and all concepts of perfection you could possibly imagine. You must also reflect upon the low state of mankind, with its imperfections, brought on by corporeality and materiality (not to mention all our transgressions). Taking all this into consideration, it would be impossible for your heart to not tremble or be moved when you speak to G-d, mention His name, or attempt to please Him. This is what was referred to by, "Serve G-d with reverence and rejoice in trembling" (Psalms 2:11) as well as, "(G-d is) a G-d dreaded in the great council of the holy ones and held in reverence by all those round about Him" (Psalms 89:8) (referring to the angels who can more easily imagine His grandeur and have more reverence for Him than humans because they are closer to G-d than mortals can ever be). David used to say, "I will prostrate myself towards Your holy Courtyard in reverence" (Psalms 5:8). It is written, "because he was afraid of My name" (Malachi 2:5), as well as, "My G-d, I am abashed and embarrassed to lift my face, my G-d, towards You" (Ezra 9:6). However, this sort of reverence must be instigated in the heart before it can be manifested in the limbs in the form of a bent head, a prostrated body, lowered eyes, and hands folded like a lowly servant before a great master, referred to in the Talmud with, "Rava would fold his hands and pray, saying, 'I am like a servant before his master'" (Shabbat 10a).

We have spoken thus far in terms of submission and humility. We will now speak about the matter of honor. Our sages have already spoken of honoring mitzvot and considering them precious. They said, "It is written, 'This is my G-d and I shall praise (or beautify) Him' (Exodus 15:2). That means to say you should praise Him with mitzvot-- by using beautiful tzitzit, t'phillin, Torah scrolls, lulav, and so forth (Shabbat 133b). Our sages said, "For the sake of the beautification of a mitzvah you are allowed to increase what you will pay by one third. What you pay to that point is your expense; anything past that is paid for by G-d" (Baba Kamma 9:2). They are clearly saying that it is not enough to simply perform a mitzvah; you should honor and glorify it.

There are those who would ease their burdens by reasoning that honor may be necessary for humans, who are seduced by such vanity, but not for G-d who does not care for such things because He is above them all and transcends them. Certainly, they would reason, if the mitzvah is done faithfully, that would be enough for Him. But the truth of the matter is G-d is referred to as the "L-rd of Honor" (Psalms 29:3). It is incumbent upon us to honor Him even though He does not require it, and though our honor is not of great importance or consequence to Him. And whoever diminishes in it when he is capable of increasing it is a sinner. This is what the prophet Malachi was protesting about in the name of G-d when he said, "And if you offer the blind for sacrifice, is it not evil? And if you offer a lame or sick animal, is that not evil? Offer it now to your governor. Would he be pleased with you or would he show you favor? says the L-rd of Hosts" (Malachi 1:8). Our sages told us to act in just the opposite manner. They said (Succah 50a) that water that was left exposed and rendered unfit should not be put through a sieve to make it minimally usable. While you might offer it like that to a commoner, you certainly would not offer it to a nobleman. As the Torah puts it, "offer it now to your governor...." That is to say, though water that has been filtered can be used in an ordinary situation, it may not be used for sacred purposes, because that is not the honorable thing to do. It is said further in the Sifre on the verse, "and (you shall offer) all your choice vows" (Deuteronomy 12:11), that means to say you are only to offer the best of what you have. We find in the case of Cain and Abel that Abel made an offering from the first-born of his sheep along with their fat, and Cain only offered from the remnant of his fruits, as our sages said (Breishit Rabbah 22:5). And what happened? -- "G-d regarded Abel and his offering, but did not regard Cain or his offering" (Genesis 4:4). It is said as well, "Cursed be the deceiver who has in his flock a male and yet vows and sacrifices to the L-rd what is blemished, for I am a great king, says the L-rd of Hosts" (Malachi 1:14).

Our sages warned us in many ways about denigrating mitzvot. They said, "Whoever grabs hold of an unadorned Torah scroll (which would indicate a contempt for the mitzvah) shall be buried unadorned" (Shabbat 14a). The procession for the offering of the first fruits to the Temple was an example of beautifying mitzvot. We learn that "an ox would precede them with gold-covered horns and a crown of olive branches..." (Bikurim 3:3), and "the wealthy would bring their offerings in gold baskets, and the poor in wicker" (Bikurim 3:8). We also learn there that there are three categories of first fruit offerings: standard first fruits, special first fruits, and decorative first fruits (3:10). So we find it here explicitly stated, and we can extrapolate it to all other mitzvot, that adding on to a mitzvah so as to adorn it is the correct thing to do. It is said, "Rava would put on ornate shoes to pray, basing his actions upon the verse, 'Prepare yourselves to call upon your G-d, O Israel' (Amos 4:12)" (Shabbat 10a). Our sages said about the verse, "And Rebecca gave the clothes of her elder son, Esau" (Genesis 27:15) -- "Rabbi Shimon Ben Gamliel said: I serve my father... but when Esau would serve his father, he would do so in regal clothing" (Breishit Rabbah 65:16). If someone were to act that way for flesh and blood, how much more so should he do so before the King of kings, the Holy One (Blessed be He). So, it is only fitting that when you stand before Him to pray, you should dress regally and sit before him as you would sit before a great king.

Included within this category is honoring the Sabbath and Holy Days. Whoever increases in the honor of them certainly gratifies the Creator, for He has commanded us to "honor it" (Isaiah 58:13).

© 1996 Rabbi Yaakov Feldman