Wednesday, August 22, 2012

"You Could Have Been Nicer!"

Some years ago I saw the film "Mr. Saturday Night". The main character was a Jewish comedian and the film told the story of his life which included a significant rise and fall. This comedian had a brother,Stan, who was not particularly talented. Stan spent all his working life as his older brother's manager, go'fer, and emotional support. Near the movie's close, Stan, who had been quiet all his life in the face of his older brother's tediousness and tantrums, displayed some well earned resentment. Seeing his disgust the older brother said "I didn't take your life Stan. I gave you one!" Stan repied, "Yeah but you could have been nicer."

This Shabbat in the parsha of Shoftim we find many fascinating laws. One that intrigued me this year is the prohibition of 'baal tashchit', which forbids us from destroying things that might otherwise have benifit. In example, if I have a piece of clothing that is wearable but I am no longer interested in it, it is forbidden for me to rip it up. I need to make effort to give it to others who might have use from it. The same is true of trashing food that could otherwise be eaten.

We derive the law of 'baal tashchit' from the Torah's law of conduct in the event of a seige. The Torah teaches that if the nation makes war on a city and lays seige to it, we are forbidden from cutting down trees that bear fruit to use the wood in the service of our military agenda. We may only cut down trees that are not fruit bearing for these purposes. The reason being that the fruit tree serves a larger purpose than to aid us in our current conflict. It would be 'baal tashchit', an act of destruction to cut it down, even though its for a worthwhille purpose, that is to defeat an enemy, if we have an alternative source for the wood.

On reflection, the context in which the Torah provides the law of 'baal taschit' is as compelling as the law itself. Think about it. Here we are speaking of war, a city under seige. A whole world is about to be put to ruin, homes sacked, institutions laid waste, a society demolished. And we have not yet talked about the human life that will be lost through hunger, disease and the sword. In the context of so much destruction, "hashchata', what sense does it make to talk about preserving a fruit tree? What meaning can the saving of a fruit tree have in the face of so much loss?

The answer is that the Torah is teaching us a powerful idea. Yes, we are going to war. Yes, it may be justified and in the national interest. And yes, we will cause huge havoc for a people in the service of our agenda. But how we do something is as important as what we do. And even if we need to destroy we need to do so in such a way as minimize the damage. That which must be demolished indeed must. But that gives us no excuse to be callous regards to even the smallest thing that has use and can be spared.

The value that the Torah is imparting to us is that the way we do something matters as much as what we do and maybe more. So often we judge ourselves and others, the worthiness of our lives, on the basis of what we have done. Have we accomplished? Are we successful? When we measure ourselves it is by the yardstick of achievement. And even in the spiritual realm typically our religiosity is determined by the observances we take on. How 'frume' we are is a product of how much of our hair is covered or what level of supervision we require for the kashrut of our meat. When we feel we need to improve what do we do? Typically we take on a new 'Ƨhumra', an added stringency. We forbid to ourselves something we previously allowed or commit to a new act of observance.

But all that misses the point. The measure of our life needs to be in terms of the quality of what we do not the quantity. Focusing on the "what" rather than the "how" only gets us to entrench the mediocrity rather than move us to excellence! On the contrary, focusing on the what allows us to stay the same with a new behavior! We don't have to do the hard work of change.

The Talmud already taught us long ago that one can do the act of honoring his/her parent, provide them with the finest, and yet do it in a way that belittles the parent and is in effect disrespect!
Alternatively one can provide little for his/her parent and yet do it in such a way as to show them honor so as to earn him/her the highest reward in the world everlasting.

Quality of our deeds matters in many ways more than quantity. Yet most of us spend our lives focused on the form. Like the protagonist in Mr Saturday Night, indeed we do so much...but we could have been nicer! And, in the end, if we could have been nicer we ruin so much of the good we do!

This is the month of Elul. We are called to reflect on our lives.I suggest that its a mistake to simply make a balance sheet and tally up the good versus the bad, mitzvah over aveira. We need to look at the quality of our actions, how we do the things we do.

In the end I can always find excuses for why I did not get something done in the course of my life.
But I will have little means to explain why I was not more loving to my wife, family, friends, community, and G-d in the things I did do!

My fear is not that I will not have done enough. Rather my fear is that someone who matters to me will say of me, "Yeah, but you could have been nicer".

Shabbat Shalom

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