MEANING IN MITZVOT by Rabbi Asher Meir
Each week we discuss one familiar halakhic practice
and try to show its beauty and meaning. The columns are based on Rabbi
Meir's Meaning in Mitzvot on Kitzur Shulchan Arukh.
Shabbat Enjoyment and the
Limitations of Social Justice
If we read chapter 58 of Yishayahu in its
entirety, we encounter a surprising and even jarring juxtaposition. The
beginning of the chapter is a searing admonition not to be hypocritical in
serving G- d. The prophet laments how despicable it is that we act with
external piety while we oppress the unfortunate. Our fasts are of no
interest to HaShem if they are not accompanied by sincere repentance.
What HaShem really wants from us is to "untangle the snarls of wickedness,
and open the ties of perverted justice; to set free the oppressed and undo
the miscarriage of justice"; "to give food to the hungry, and bring the
impoverished into your home; if you see the naked then clothe him, and don't
neglect your kin".
The chapter then continues with a passage that commands honoring and
indulging the Shabbat! No mention whatsoever is made of helping the
unfortunate, yet the envisioned reward is similar to the one made in the
first part of the chapter!
It seems that our fasts are despicable to G-d if they are not accompanied by
social concern; but our "feasts" are acceptable to Him even without such
We find a parallel contrast implicit in a similar admonition of the prophet
Malachi. Malachi bewails the fact that the Kohanim in the Temple are
bringing the sacrifices in a perfunctory way, without proper awe towards the
One to Whom the offerings are brought. HaShem warns them, "Behold, I rebuke
you with [shortage of] seed, and I smear excrement on your faces - the
excrement of your holidays [Yom Tov offerings]; and it will draw you near to
it" (Malachi 2:3).
The Zohar (Yitro II:88b) points out that this exhortation refers
specifically to Yom Tov offerings, implying that lack of concern for others
is a much greater problem on Yom Tov than it is on Shabbat.
This doesn't mean that Shabbat observance is unrelated to social concern. On
the contrary, the Torah repeatedly connects the observance with Shabbat with
the message of equality and concern for the needy. For instance, in the
passage introducing the manna, which is the first place we encounter the
Shabbat, we learn that each person received an equal amount (Shemot 16:18).
And on Mount Sinai, HaShem commands us to give rest to our servants on
Shabbat "so that your manservant and maidservant should rest like you", so
that we should remember that we also were slaves in Egypt until HaShem freed
us (Devarim 5:14-15).
However, social concern as a monolithic religious ideal is inherently
limited. Consider the paradox of the man who has a respectable job and a
comfortable house. Yet despite the fact that he has "everything", he feels a
spiritual vacuum, because his life revolves around his own needs. He decides
to devote himself to others, and fights for social equality. His minor loss
of economic well-being is more than made up for by his newly-acquired sense
of mission. What will happen if his quest is successful? Everyone will
attain a respectable job and a comfortable house - and everyone will feel
the same spiritual emptiness he started with! We see that an exclusive focus
on social concern is just a more enlightened form of materialism.
Concern for others is certainly an essential value in Judaism. It is
despicable hypocrisy to fast in order to demonstrate that material
enjoyments are meaningless to us, if at the same time we rapaciously strive
to increase our material well-being at the expense of the downtrodden. This
is the theme of the first half of chapter 58 of Yishayahu.
But even after we feed the hungry and clothe the naked, after we free
ourselves from obsession with material gain, our material natures remain
with us. We cannot fast the year round! We have to find a way for rich and
poor alike to maintain their connection to material possessions, but to
enjoy these possessions in an elevated way - elevated in the sense of
"dignified", and elevated in the sense of "sanctified". This is accomplished
through the mitzva of honoring and enjoying Shabbat. In this way we bestow
an inner meaning on our accomplishments in social justice, as the prophet
Yishayahu concludes in the second half of the chapter.
“Meaning in Mitzvot” is undergoing
intensive editing; which will be followed IYH by printing. With the help of
loyal supporters, we hope to have the book on the shelves by Rosh HaShana.
If you would be interested in helping with publication, please contact Rabbi
Meir about making a dedication or subscription (advance purchase): E-mail
firstname.lastname@example.org, fax 02-642-3141.
Rabbi Meir authors a popular weekly on-line
Q&A column, "The Jewish Ethicist", which gives Jewish guidance on everyday
ethical dilemmas in the workplace. The column is a joint project of the JCT
Center for Business Ethics, Jerusalem College of Technology - Machon Lev;
and Aish HaTorah. You can see the Jewish Ethicist, and submit your own Qs —
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