What Are You Going To Do, If You Don’t Know What To Do?

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A man once came into the synagogue, sat down near me, stretched his arms and legs out as far as they go, and let out a loud – and probably exaggerated – yawn.  It was pretty obvious that he was waiting for a comment about how he was very tired.

I didn’t want to disappoint him, so I acknowledged his apparent fatigue.

“Yeah, rabbi,” he said.  “Every night, I wake up in the middle of the night to recite tikkun hatzot,” referring to the midnight prayer bemoaning the exile, which is recited mainly by Kabbalists and especially devout individuals.  He then continued, “And then I go back to sleep and wake up early for Shaharit.”

It doesn’t take an advanced degree in psychiatry to understand what this fellow was doing.  He came into the synagogue looking for a way to publicize his noble practice of reciting tikkin hatzot.

This is an example of a phenomenon which I fear is becoming more common in today’s day and age – the tendency to “advertise” one’s piety and religious devotion, to not feel content with being devout, and to instead sense the need to make people aware of it.

A Different Kind of Tzeniut

This month, we read a portion from the Prophets that warns against this tendency.

The haftarah(section from the Prophets) read on Shabbat Parashat Balak comes from the Book of Michah, and speaks of our indebtedness to Gd, how kind He is and how grateful we must feel for all that He has done for us.  At one point in this prophecy, Michah brings as an example the story told in Parashat Balak – the story of the Moavite king who summoned the gentile prophet Bilaam to place a curse on Beneh Yisraeland annihilate them.  Gd foiled the plot, transforming Bilaam’s curses into beautiful blessings.  But what is of interest to us in this context is the final verse of this prophecy, in which Michah concludes by asking, and answering, the question that we should all be asking ourselves each and every day – and perhaps each and every moment! – of our lives: “What does Gd want from you?”  Considering all that Gd has done for us, the prophet tells us, He does not ask for very much.  All He demands is three things:

1) “asot mishpat” – “performing justice,” referring to honesty and integrity in all our affairs, and in all our dealings with people.

2) “ahavat hesed” – a love of kindness, that we actively look for opportunities to help people and to extend ourselves for those in need.

3) “hatzne’a lechet im Elokecha” – that we “walk modestly” with Gd.

Generally, when people hear a rabbi mention any form of the word “modesty,” they roll their eyes and say something to the effect of, “Here we go again – another lecture about modest dress!” or “Oh no, not another tirade about hemlines!” or “Do I have to hear again about the length of skirts!”

Certainly, the requirement of “hatzne’a lechet” – or, as it is more commonly known, “tzeniut” – includes appropriate attire, and certainly, this is an especially sensitive topic in modern times, for obvious reasons.  But readers of this article who have reached this far can relax and let out a sigh of relief – this is not our topic. 

The point we hope to make here is that tzeniutmeans so much more than appropriate dress, that modest attire is just one application – albeit a very important application – of the broader concept of tzeniut.

The value of tzeniut as it pertains to dress is that we are to look respectable without drawing attention to our bodies.  When we speak of modest dress, we refer to looking good, and making a positive impression, without trying to “turn heads,” to catch people’s attention so they look at how attractive one’s physical appearance is.

Just as the Torah teaches us not to advertise physical attractiveness, so does it teach us not to advertise one’s spiritual achievements.  Putting it a bit differently, our religious persona should resemble our clothing.  We should dress nicely without trying to draw attention to ourselves – and we should similarly conduct ourselves “nicely,” projecting the image of religious people, but without broadcasting our religiosity, without seeking recognition or acclaim for our good deeds.

This is the great challenge which the prophet presents to us.  After achieving “asot mishpat” and “ahavat hesed,” fulfilling our religious requirements, “hatzne’a lechet” – we need to keep these achievements to ourselves, without broadcasting them, without grandstanding, without looking for admiration and compliments.

Are We Sincere?

The reason why this is so important is alluded to in this phrase: “hatzne’a lechet im Elokecha – walking modestly with your Gd.”  The prophet urges us not just to “walk modestly,” but to walk modesty “with your Gd.”  What does this mean?

If we lead religious lives “with Gd,” out of a sincere, genuine desire to serve our Creator, fulfill His will, and forge a close relationship with Him, then we will naturally live with tzeniut, with humility, without seeking admiration or praise.  We will feel content knowing we are acting the right way, that we are living “with Your Gd,” without feeling a need to have other people know about it.  But if we need to flaunt our good deeds and religious devotion, then it is very likely that these good deeds and devotion are not purely sincere.  If we advertise our piety, then how pious can we really be?  If we need to tell people about our mitzvot, then for whom are we performing mitzvot – for Gd, or for ourselves? 

If we act religiously and turn it into a display, then are we serving Gd, or are we serving ourselves, our ego, our own self-interests?  How “religious” are we if we need people to respect us and compliment us for being religious???

We have all done things that we can legitimately feel proud of, and should feel proud of, but none of us have ever done anything nearly as great as what Avraham did at Mount Moriah after being commanded to sacrifice his only son.  Avraham faced an unfathomably difficult challenge, having been given a command that required acting against not only his deepest emotions and instincts, but also his most basic moral sense, and everything he represented and preached.  Few people in world history were given as difficult a test as that given to Avraham.  And yet, after the angel told Avraham to withdraw his sword, and he offered an animal sacrifice and was promised great reward for his faith, he returned to his two assistants who had accompanied him on his journey, and “they went together” back home (Beresheet 22:19).  The commentators explained that Avraham acted normally with his assistants, no differently than the way he conducted himself before this event of akedat Yitzhak.  He had just reached the greatest heights of spiritual achievement, but he felt no need to talk about it, to publicize what he did, to broadcast his greatness.  He simply continued along as usual.

I recall once walking into the Deal Synagogue early one morning with Hacham Yom Tov Yedid, zt”l.  As we were approaching the entrance, a man came walking towards the synagogue with a towel on his shoulder.  He had obviously just been in the mikveh.

Hacham Yom Tov turned to the fellow and said, “It’s wonderful you went to the mikveh, but why are you wearing the towel on your shoulder, if not to show everyone?  You should keep it to yourself.”

We should feel gratified over each and every mitzvahwe perform – and this gratification should suffice.  It should be enough that we know we did something worthwhile.  If it isn’t, then we need to ask ourselves how sincere we are.

I was once speaking with another rabbi at a wedding, and a certain fellow who had piled several huge portions of meat onto his plate brought it to us and asked if the meat is certified kosher Bet Yosef.  This man was so emphatic about appearing strictly religious, but felt no compunction about wantonly indulging in a wholly inappropriate manner.  If he was truly sincere about following the Torah, he would have taken food in a dignified manner the way the Torah teaches.  It came as no surprise to me that somebody with this lack of sincerity also made a point of displaying his “piety” to two community rabbis.

Some sages taught that if a person publicizes a mitzvah for the purpose of self-aggrandizement, he loses half the credit for the mitzvah.  It does not erase his reward altogether, but it diminishes it – because if a person feels the need to advertise his mitzvot, then they were not done with pure sincerity.

Knowing Who We Are – and Who We Aren’t

Besides calling our sincerity into question, broadcasting our good deeds is wrong also for another reason.

When Gd spoke to Moshe for the first time, in the vision of the burning bush, and appointed Moshe the role of leader who would bring Beneh Yisrael out of Egypt, Moshe initially refused, and he accepted the role only after Gd insisted.  According to one Midrashic text, Moshe asked Gd whether, if he accepted the position of leader, his children would inherit his position, and Gd informed him that they would not.  The Midrash relates that upon hearing this, Moshe refused to accept the appointment.  If his leadership role would not be bequeathed to his children, then he did not want it.

At first glance, this seems very difficult to understand.  The Torah later describes Moshe as the humblest man on the face of the earth.  Why would he hinge his acceptance of the role of leader on his children’s inheritance of this role?  Why did this matter so much?

Rav Chaim Zeitchik (1906-1989) explained that Moshe felt that if his children would not succeed him, this would reflect his failure to properly raise his children and prepare them to assume his role.  And if he failed in this regard, Moshe figured, then he was not worthy of leading the people.  If he could not raise his children to succeed him, then he could not be the leader of Beneh Yisrael.

This is true humility – acknowledging one’s shortcomings despite his great achievements. 

Moshe obviously could not deny that he was great.  After all, Gd chose him, and only him, to be the leader, the teacher, the rabbi and the guide of Beneh Yisrael.  But even after recognizing this, Moshe also recognized that he was not perfect, that there were things he could have done better, that as much as he achieved, he could have done even more.

This is another reason why the instruction of “hatzne’a lechet” is so crucial.  If we broadcast our achievements, it is likely we are taking too much pride in what we’ve done, that we feel a bit too good about ourselves.

Please don’t misunderstand.  This is not to say we are not supposed to feel proud or feel good about ourselves.  Of course, we are.  But we need to be honest with ourselves.  And if we are honest, we will proudly acknowledge what we’ve done right and humbly acknowledge what we haven’t.

Seeking recognition for our good deeds bespeaks a certain lack of proportion in our self-assessment.  If our legitimate feelings of pride and satisfaction over our mitzvotlead to too much celebration, to the point where we need to inform others, then we need to check and see if perhaps our pride is not sufficiently counterbalanced by an awareness of how much more we can and should be accomplishing.  If Moshe Rabbenu was able to balance his pride with a recognition of his shortcomings, then certainly we should be doing so, as well.

A Unique 21st-Century Challenge

The command of “hatzne’a lechet” poses an especially difficult challenge in contemporary society.  We might go so far as to say that never has this value been challenged by societal norms more than in the 21st century.

We might not always realize it, but self-promotion plays an enormous role in modern life.  In the professional world, it is expected that we put together impressive resumes and promote our credentials.  In the business world, marketing is everything; businesses spend huge amounts of time, money and manpower trying to catch as many people’s attention as possible.  But more significantly, social media encourages us to show the world everything.  Whether it’s vacations, life-cycle events, family celebrations and get-togethers, or just ordinary outings, it has become almost instinctive to take pictures and post them on social media for all to see.  And we eagerly await the “likes” that give us a false feeling of importance.

This tendency is so embedded in our culture that we immediately feel an impulse to go around sharing with people the news of our achievements, or of something new we’ve taken on.  Of course, we don’t have to keep everything a secret.  If somebody asks us about our day, we can certainly tell him or her that we attended a Torah class, did volunteer work, or whatever else happened that day.  But we should not feel an impulsive need to “post” – either literally or figuratively – about the admirable things we do, and look for “likes,” for approval, admiration and praise.

The great rabbis were experts in masquerading their greatness.  Our great rabbi, Hacham Baruch Ben-Haim, zt”l, was a public figure, which necessitated some degree of exposure.  His role did not allow him to conceal his great scholarship and piety.  But nevertheless, he did not go around broadcasting it.  And there was so much that he did not show.  We did not see the exceptional stringencies and measures of piety that he observed in private, or the full extent of his mastery of Torah.  He presented us with an awe-inspiring example of spiritual greatness – but stopped far short of showing us everything.  With outstanding wisdom and humility, the hacham knew what to display and what to conceal.

None of us are Hacham Baruch, but each and every one of us – without exception – is great in some way.  We all have some qualities that make us great, and we all do and have done things that can truly be described as “great.”  The prophet calls upon us to feel gratified over our personal greatness without promoting it, advertising it, or displaying it.  We are put in this world to call attention to Hashem and His Torah, not to ourselves.  Let us, then, focus more on doing the right thing, and less on letting people know about what we do.  We will then be living lives that bring glory to Gd, instead of living in the vain pursuit of glory for ourselves.