Monday, August 8, 2011
The "Altar" Ego
There is a famous Talmudic excerpt that powerfully illustrates the importance of God-based ethics. The Talmud (Yoma 9b) explains that the destruction of the second Beit Hamikdash (Holy Temple), which we mourn on and around Tisha B'Av, occurred because of sinat chinam (for further analysis of this concept, click here). On the surface, this type of interpersonal hatred was the cause. However, other ideas mentioned on the very same page provide a clearer insight into the root of the problem.
Rabbi Yochanan states, "Better were the fingernails of earlier generations than the intestines of our own generation . . . the Beit Hamikdash was rebuilt for them, and it has not been rebuilt for us." The Vilna Gaon explains that the "fingernails" refer to the external sins of earlier generations, and the "intestines" refer to the internal sins of later generations (including our own). As bad as the sins of the earlier generations may have been, their wrongdoings were transparent and they still acknowledged God's providence. Therefore, when their outward behavior began to go awry, they knew that if they eliminated the specific sins, all would be rectified.
On the other hand, our sins are hidden (i.e. we put our egos first), so there is something deeper we need to correct. While we may express outward displays of holiness, there is still an inward denial of God's omnipotence. In other words, we can make it appear as though we are worshiping God, when in reality we are worshiping ourselves. For example, when we study Torah or pray in synagogue, are these simply acts of self-aggrandizement to show off our intellect and protect our image? Oftentimes, there is something missing for which even a Beit Hamikdash cannot help.
When the Talmud describes that Jews would be "eating and drinking together and piercing each other with swords," it means that although they had meals together, they hated each other in their hearts. As soon as they left a social function, they would speak ill of one another. It was this kind of mentality that led to the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash. All the sacrifices in the world do no good unless they are accompanied by a change of heart. Here is a small sampling of biblical passages, along with brief summaries, addressing this problem of the "altar" ego:
Amos 4:4 - God speaks sarcastically about bringing sacrifices, admonishing people who enjoy doing rituals for their own sake; He only cares for sacrifices if it helps change the person.
Hosea 6:6 - what matters most to God is ethical behavior, not sacrificial offerings.
Isaiah 1:11 - God poses a rhetorical question; He does not need our sacrifices, but rather wants justice and goodness based on faith in God.
Jeremiah 7:21-23 - to "listen to God's voice" means heeding the words of the prophets, who warn us not to rely exclusively on ritual activity to gain God's forgiveness; we will be forgiven only if we mend our ways and act decently.
Micah 6:6-8 - God's primary demands are not about fancy sacrifices, and it can all be summed up succinctly: do what's right, be kind and remain humble.
The rebuilding of the Beit Hamikdash is indeed a worthy goal, but there's something that needs to be corrected first: our hearts. God desires an internal change of self even more than the external rituals of the Temple. This all ties in to the goal of Jewish unity. Forcing others to think a certain way, dress a certain way and observe Judaism a certain way is not real unity - it's our individual egos talking. Instead, each one of us should turn our own hearts toward God and strive for what He truly wants: less ego and more goodness. Then, Jewish unity will take care of itself, as it will be the natural result of heeding this divine call.