Hug G-d? How is that even possible? Yet, in this week’s Torah reading[i], we are advised to cleave to G-d.
The Talmud[ii] takes up this question. It notes that the Bible[iii] describes G-d as a consuming fire. How then to cleave to G-d? The answer is that it is not physically possible to do so. Rather, the Talmud advises the commandment is deemed performed by forming a bond with a Torah Sage, by way of:
- Investing the Sage’s money so that he can derive an income therefrom[iv]; or
- Lending the Sage merchandise to sell and make a profit[v].
- Dining with Torah Sages; and
- Befriending Torah Sages.
Why only Sages, why not others? What quality makes them so admirable that G-d commands us, in effect, to establish attachments with them? The Talmud[viii] defines a Torah Sage as an accomplished scholar whose inside is like his outside. Academic proficiency and excellence are important. As the Talmud[ix] also points out, it is difficult to be a true saint, without having knowledge of Torah and what is appropriate conduct and not. But, Torah knowledge alone does not satisfy the test nor does dressing the part. Appearances can be deceiving. At the same time, some individuals may be born with very fine character traits and their natural inclination may inspire them to do good deeds. However, as Maimonides[x] explains, there is more to saintly behavior than just that.
As Maimonides observes[xi] being overly pious is not a virtue. There are also other character traits that may intervene to cause more harm than good. This includes anger, impatience and an unforgiving nature that does not pardon human frailty in others. Knowing how to act is a lifetime study. We are challenged to perfect ourselves and that is not easily accomplished. However, the burden might be eased by involvement with role models, who actually practice what they preach. We then might be able directly to observe how it’s done, properly and, hence, the Talmud’s advice to form attachments with Torah Sages, with this kind of refinement. But how is this kind of perfection achieved?
Maimonides, in his Guide for the Perplexed[xii], describes four kinds of perfection. His categorization and observations are most intriguing, because they are so real and relevant to our contemporary experience. Taken as a whole, they encompass the challenges of modern life. Generally, we seek some level of accomplishment in all four categories, although we may have a greater focus on some versus others.
Maimonides begins his analysis with our quest to attain perfection with regard to acquiring possessions, such as money, clothing, furniture, real estate and the like. It is all about who has the best and most toys. He views this pursuit as the most defective of the various types of perfection. The pleasure taken by a person in relation to his possessions is purely imaginary. While, a person may say it’s his house or it’s his money, those things can never be an actual part of the person himself. They will always be extraneous.
In recent times, we have witnessed how extreme weather conditions, like Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, unfortunately, can separate people from their possessions. Fortunately, though, we have also witnessed the nobility of people, who despite being bereft of their possessions helped others in need.
The second type of perfection involves our desire to perfect bodies’ physical appearance and function. It’s one thing to exercise to keep in good shape and health. However, as Maimonides quips, no amount of weight training will make a person as strong as a lion or an elephant. Beyond the requirements for vigorous exercise to maintain and improve our basic health, having the strongest and best-proportioned body does not do much for the soul.
The third type of perfection is directed at improving our moral virtues. Performance of the commandments of the Torah is directed towards achieving this end. It is a means by which we train ourselves through habitual good behavior. However, it is not an end in and to itself. It is a predicate to the next step of achieving genuine perfection.
The fourth type of perfection is the enlightenment, which leads to true human perfection. We are challenged to achieve a correct knowledge and understanding of G-d, his creations and man’s place in creation. This is not a purely academic exercise and the quest for perfection can’t stop there. It is about knowing all this in order to emulate G-d’s ways of loving kindness, justice and equity[xiii]. Just as G-d is compassionate, gracious, slow to anger and abundantly kind[xiv], so must we be, as well. Empathizing with others, sharing their burdens and knowing how to do so with grace is a skill that must be perfected.
I remember well the ritual of the family coming together every year just before Rosh Hashanah. My parents and aunts and uncles were all Holocaust survivors. They could quarrel with each other all year about important and unimportant matters. However, whatever views each may have had on politics, business, philosophy or social justice, once a year everyone had to make peace, hug and wish each other a good year. After the holidays, well, it was often back to the same old issues again. But, the lesson I learned was that even people with conflicting views could come together and hug it out, at least once a year.
It was the enlightened way of those who had lived a lifetime of experience in a few short years of intense suffering. They were the few who survived. They understood how important it was to empathize with each other and share each other’s burdens. There were other times when everyone came together this way. It was when there were family celebrations like weddings. It was also at times of tragedy or when anyone was suffering or in need. It was people at their best. Who cares what a person may think, this was about doing what was needed and genuinely caring for each other.
At this time of year, we must also rise above the discourse that sometimes separates us. We, as human beings, are all in this together. Hug a friend and wish them well. Don’t shrink from doing so with someone who disagrees with your worldview. So, what? It’s time to rise above the pettiness. Hug it out. My family did it and so can you.
May we all be blessed with a happy and healthy new year.
[i] Deuteronomy 30:20.
[ii] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Kesubot, at page 111b.
[iii] Deuteronomy 4: 24.
[iv] As per Rashi on the cited Kesubot text.
[v] As per Rashi on the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Pesachim, at page 53b.
[vi] Hilchot Deot 6:2.
[vii] See also Rambam, Sefer HaMitzvot No. 5.
[viii] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yoma, at page 72b.
[ix] Avot 2:5.
[x] In his commentary on the cited Mishna in Avot.
[xi] In his Mishne Torah, Hilchot Deot.
[xii] Part III, Chapter 54.
[xiii] See Jeremiah 9:23, cited by Maimonides to this effect.
[xiv] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Rosh Hashanah, at page 17b, which discusses the verse in Exodus 34:6 concerning G-d’s attributes and invoking them, as a part of our prayers for forgiveness.