Sunday, December 12, 2010

Don't Miss the Forest for the Trees

The recent forest fire in northern Israel brought to mind a saying that can provide perspective to many different areas of life: "Don't miss the forest for the trees." In other words, don't get so caught up in the details of something that you miss the big picture. Just to be clear, this blog post has nothing to do with trying to figure out why God allowed the fire to occur; it just happens to be that it reminded me of this saying. In fact, this adage might bode well for those searching for answers. While it's understandable to desire divine explanations for tragedies, there are more pressing matters at the moment. For the sake of those who were killed (including Rabbi Uriel Malka, who had strong ties to Denver) or otherwise affected by the fire, our primary concern should be with helping them and their families.

Unfortunately, what often happens in religious life is that ritual observance can go awry. To counter such a phenomenon, Hillel provides probably the most succinct analysis of what Judaism is all about when he said, "What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole Torah! The rest is commentary. Now, go and study" (Shabbat 31a). This was not merely a sweet line to divert attention away from the more difficult aspects of Judaism. He was expressing that Judaism's ethical laws are actually foremost in significance. Ethical behavior is not an extracurricular activity; it is God's primary demand. Obviously, this is not to say that we shouldn't be holy as well. It simply means that unless we're good to other people first, our holy activities (i.e. ritual observance) will lack the proper perspective.

Of course, we are supposed to do mitzvot simply because God commanded us to do so - regardless of any human understanding for why. But this shouldn't undermine an ethical mindset. For example, take one of the most important mitzvot in the Torah: kashrut. Aside from its intrinsic spiritual value, kashrut is designed to keep us together. For instance, if someone happens to be traveling to a city where there is a small Jewish community and is looking for a kosher place to eat, they are compelled to contact fellow Jews who might be able to accommodate their visit. This should foster a sense of goodwill and brotherhood. Instead, what sometimes occurs is an intense inquiry into every technical detail of the host's level of kashrut, which can completely humiliate the people trying to meet the needs of the visitor. Sadly, there are those who are more concerned with the food that goes into their mouths than the words that come out of their mouths.

Whenever something becomes an end in itself rather than a means to goodness, unfortunate consequences can arise. Hopefully, Jews who are ritually observant understand that these prescribed laws exist to enhance the lives of those who follow them. However, there are times when it's easy to get caught up in all the details of living a religious life that one's concern for other people takes a back seat. That is why it is so beneficial to hearken back to the Golden Rule articulated by Hillel. As long as we maintain a keen awareness of the highest ethical standard God wants from us, we can still each follow our own ritual customs and not have them adversely affect our interpersonal conduct.

To maintain this perspective, whenever there is a conflict between technical differences and overall goodness, it might help to remember seven simple words: "Don't miss the forest for the trees."

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