By Rabbi Yonason Goldson
It is said that the great sage Rabbi Yisroel Salanter once found himself profoundly depressed over the spiritual shortcomings of his students and his community. As the High Holidays approached, Rabbi Yisroel left to search out the company of Jews more passionate about their own relationship with the Divine.
Traveling from village to village, Rabbi Yisroel prayed with one congregation and then another until finally, in a small synagogue in an unremarkable town, he found himself surrounded by individuals who seemed to take their prayers as seriously as he did. Rabbi Yisroel positioned himself directly behind one parishioner who seemed to pray with extraordinary devotion. Here, he thought, he would surely find his inspiration.
The High Holidays service began exactly as Rabbi Yisroel had hoped. The Jew in front of him swayed slowly as he prayed, the whispered words of the liturgy falling from his lips with a quiet intensity that made Rabbi Yisroel feel as if he were being drawn steadily upward on his neighbor’s coattails. When the man intoned, “I am mere dust and ashes before You,” Rabbi Yisroel experienced a profound sense of his own humility before G-d.
The time arrived for the reading of the Torah, and the gabbai of the congregation began distributing honors among the notables of the community. First he called up a Kohein, and then a Levi. Had the gabbai known that the great Rabbi Yisroel Salanter graced his shul, he would certainly have accorded him the prestigious third aliyah. But Rabbi Yisroel had chosen to remain anonymous and thought nothing of it when no honor was bestowed upon him. He assumed that the recipient called up for the third Torah reading must be one of the synagogue’s most prominent members.
For the fourth honor, the gabbai called the name of Rabbi Yisroel’s neighbor, from whom the sage had drawn such inspiration. Upon being called to the Torah, however, the man suddenly flew into a rage. “You called him third,” he cried, pointing to the previous honoree, “and you only called me fourth? Who is he that I should be second to him?”
Astonished and appalled, Rabbi Yisroel rushed forward. “My friend, I can’t believe my ears. Only a moment ago you were saying before the Almighty that you are only dust and ashes.”
The man turned to Rabbi Yisroel, still furious, and declared, “Before G-d I am dust and ashes; not before him!”
Even the great Rabbi Yisroel Salanter had to learn an unpleasant lesson that year about jumping to superficial conclusions. He returned to his community and reapplied himself to the business of spiritual growth.
TWO PATHS THAT ARE ONE
Rabbi Chanina used to say: If one is found pleasing by his fellows, then he is pleasing to the Almighty; but if one is not pleasing to his fellows, then he is not pleasing to the Almighty.
In this teaching (Pirkei Avos 3:13), Rabbi Chanina alludes to a basic principle of Torah observance: The commandments articulated in the Torah comprise two types of obligations — those between man and G-d, and those between man and man.
Many people neglect the first category, believing that as long as one is “a good person,” his relationship with the Almighty can be more casual and subjectively defined. In practice, however, with no absolute authority to define what is good, each person will inevitably judge himself “good” in his own eyes.
Others neglect the second category, believing that if they are ardent in their relationship with G-d, then it is of no consequence how they relate to their fellows. It is this second type of fallacy that Rabbi Chanina comes to refute.
The tablets received by Moses at Sinai are often depicted as heart-shaped, suggesting a deeply symbolic lesson: Just as our blood has to flow efficiently through both the right and the left chambers of the heart to maintain a healthy body, so too does a healthy soul depend upon an interdependence between the two categories of mitzvos.
THE SECRET OF THE TABLETS
Each of the two tablets contains five of the Ten Commandments. The first five are precepts between man and G-d; the second five are precepts between man and his fellow. And each pairing reflects the integral nature of the two categories:
I am the L-rd, your G-d — Do not commit murder
Have no other gods before Me — Do not commit adultery
Do not take G-d’s name in vain — Do not steal
Honor the Sabbath — Do not testify falsely
Honor your father and mother — Do not covet what belongs to your neighbor
The first commandment is I am the L-rd, your G-d; the sixth (which is the first on the second tablet’s group of five) is the prohibition against Murder. Only by acknowledging that there is a Creator who fashioned every human being in His image can one rationally explain why eating steak and swatting flies is any different from shedding human blood. Without such a distinction, we should all be either Vegans or serial killers.
The second commandment is the prohibition against Idolatry; the seventh is the prohibition against Adultery. The former is faithlessness in one’s relationship with the Almighty; the latter faithlessness in the sacred vow of marriage.
The third commandment is the prohibition against Taking G-d’s Name in Vain; the eighth is the prohibition against Stealing. The Almighty placed everything in this world for our use, conditional only upon recognizing that everything comes from Him. To misuse His name is to fail in that recognition, rendering all benefit from the material world the equivalent of theft.
The fourth pair of commandments includes the requirement to honor and keep the Sabbath, and the prohibition against Bearing False Witness. Since the Sabbath testifies to the creation of the world, one who violates it is in effect testifying falsely against the Creator.
The final pair includes Honoring Parents and the prohibition against Coveting, or seeking to acquire what belongs to one’s fellow through manipulation. Although the former appears to belong in the category between man and man, it teaches us to appreciate that our parents are the connection between us and our Creator. Just as parents withhold from their child that which they believe is not good for the child, similarly will G-d withhold from each of His children that which may not serve their spiritual best interests. One who internalizes this will never feel envy toward his neighbor.
The Torah commands us to serve the Almighty “with all your heart,” suggesting that our service of G-d is imperfect as long as our relationship with others is incomplete. Rabbi Chanina does not mean that we should curry favor with our neighbors through flattery or bribery. Rather, he comes to teach us that through genuine concern for our fellows we will transform ourselves into G-dly human beings.
Adapted from an article originally published at Aish.com