Que Sera Sera[i] was a popular song in the late 1950s that my mom and dad z”l would often sing to us when we were young, whenever we worried too much about some future test or event. The lyrics describe all manner of concerns of a young child and then as an adult about what the future might be. In response to all the questions, the parent answers with the same refrain of:
Que Sera Sera
Whatever will be, will be
The future’s not ours, to see
Que Sera, Sera
In the supercharged, hyper-partisan atmosphere of this presidential year, many are asking the same basic question of what will be; what does the future hold? Despite all the pious pronouncements of pundits and their prognostications, the answer is ultimately, Que Sera Sera, whatever will be, will be.
Yet, as we enter the holiest of days, Yom Kippur and pray that we are all inscribed and sealed with a good new year, it’s hard not to feel some trepidation. What does the future hold and is there anything, today, that we can do about it? The Nesaneh Tokef prayer we recited with such fervor on Rosh Hashanah and will do so again on Yom Kippur provides an answer. Loosely based on the Talmudic discussion of the matter[ii], it declares that repentance, prayer and charity can avert the severity of the decree. In essence we can transform ourselves into a different person from the one who was the subject of the original decree, by changing our actions and patterns of behavior through performing the Mitzvot.
One of the Mitzvot recorded in the Bible[iii] is the commandment that a person should be “Tamim” with G-d. But what does that mean and, furthermore, how does a person comply with the commandment? There are a number of different interpretations of the term and perspectives on how to fulfill this obligation.
The Talmud[iv] views the commandment in the context of the preceding Biblical verses prohibiting divination in order to predict the future. It records a person should have absolute faith in G-d and accept G-d’s justice. As the Rashbam[v] explains, this means being secure and trusting in G-d, no matter how unpredictable or uncertain the future may be.
Onkelos translates the verse as requiring that a person be wholeheartedly in fear of G-d. This interpretation is somewhat of an outlier, among the traditional Bible commentators. I can’t help but wonder is this what Onkelos actually intended to say? After all, fear is, generally, a poor motivator. It usually is best employed as a temporary means of stopping a person from doing something wrong. It typically does not have a lasting duration, because it wears off. In practice, it is not a reliable method for causing someone to do something positive, other than to escape the source of the fear. Is it any wonder that the Torah also speaks of the obligation to love G-d[vi]? Love is an extremely powerful motivator that is sustainable.
While the Bible speaks of “Yirah”[vii], which is sometimes translated as fear, a better translation might be awe of G-d. The root of the Hebrew word Yirah is “Re’eh”, meaning to see. According to Maimonides[viii], a person must reflect and come to realize (i.e.: see) how small he or she is in relation to the creator of the universe. It is a humbling experience. The acceptance of the absolute sovereignty of G-d and, therefore, by extension, God’s commandments, the Mitzvot, is the essence of Yirat HaShem (being in awe of G-d). We can then deepen our understanding and appreciation of G-d’s wondrous and great deeds, creations and infinite wisdom, which leads to love, praise, and glorification of G-d.
The Sifre[ix] interprets the Biblical verse to mean; whole shall you be with G-d. It notes when a person is whole, his or her lot will be with G-d; citing the example of King David, who asserted he was B’Tumi (whole) and, therefore, G-d should redeem him and be gracious to him[x]. However, how this state of wholeness is achieved, in practice, is not precisely explained.
Nachmanides[xi] posits a person must have absolute faith in G-d, because everything is in G-d’s hands. He views the Biblical commandment in the context of the prefatory commandment, not to consort with astrologers or participate in other abhorrent practices of divination, in order to predict the future. The Biblical text culminates in the positive Mitzvah to trust in G-d alone. The use of the term Tamim is intended to convey that state of simple, innocent faith in G-d. In this regard, he reinterprets Onkelos view, noted above, to express the notion that a person should not be deficient in awe (using the word “B’Yirato) of G-d; rather than being in fear of G-d. It is that deficiency which is the blemish that detracts from a person being Tamim (whole and perfect)[xii].
Maimonides[xiii] details another approach. He challenges a person to examine and know that astrology and divination, intended to predict the future, just don’t work. He views them as pure nonsense and that only a fool would believe in their efficacy. He concludes a person, perforce, should only rely on G-d and, therefore, as he interprets the Biblical verse, perfect shall you be with G-d.
The Chizkuni[xiv] understands the Biblical verse as requiring complete faith in G-d alone and not in G-d and some other source of providence. He provides the example of the Cuthites[xv], who were transplanted by the Assyrians to live in Israel. Faced with the problem of how to deal with the mountain lions, which harassed them in their new homes in Israel, they adopted the religion of the Jews. It was a counter-measure, intended to assure their survival in the Land, unmolested by the indigent lions. They were, thus, referred to in the Talmud, as the ‘lion converts’, because this was the precipitating cause of their conversion. However, they never gave up their prior pagan practices. They did not solely believe in G-d; they relied on G-d in addition to their pagan deities.
The Ohr HaChaim[xvi] adds that being wholly trusting in G-d is a threshold requirement for enjoying the benefit of Divine Providence. He cites, as an example, how Abraham was originally destined to be childless. By becoming Tamim[xvii], he merited G-d’s intervention to alter his fate, so that he had children.
The Midrash Tehillim provides a very practical approach to being Tamim that may be summarized with the slogan, just do it. It focuses on the unquestioning performance of commandments, as a matter of trust in G-d. It counsels not to ask why required to refrain from eating non-kosher foods. Similarly, questioning why, after initially planting a vineyard, it is required to lie fallow for three years in order to fulfill the Mitzva of Orlah or what reward is there in doing so. In essence, a person who is Tamim just does the Mitzvot and doesn’t complain.
The Pele Yoetz[xviii] describes the nature of being Tamim, as a person who is not anxious about the future and trusts in G-d, with the quiet confidence of a saint. He then goes on to provide a psychological approach to the practices he discusses for achieving this goal. Thus, he suggests a person should not seek to know what is in a friend’s heart nor deceive others or use guile to obtain money. He also counsels a person not to fret about world affairs or about earning a satisfactory income. In essence, anxiety is not a useful emotion and it does not serve to advance an agenda. Indeed, it is often a debilitating condition. Better, instead, to use that wasted time and energy thinking about the Torah and focusing on doing Mitzvot, as well as, actually working on the tasks undertaken and thereby meriting G-d’s assistance.
Rabbeinu Bachya[xix] further explores the psychological profile of a person who is Tamim and posits it refers to the perfect alignment of outward appearance and actions of the individual with the internal, otherwise invisible, virtues of the individual. He cautions against saying things that might be expected for appearances sake that are not genuinely felt. I can’t help but wonder how he might react to the modern affectation of virtue signaling. It’s about authenticity; but, that does not mean saying something awful just because it’s honestly felt. The key is reconciling the inner and outer so that they are more perfectly aligned with doing good deeds. This is no mean achievement. Imagine having less than adequate feelings, even as the person strives to do what is right. This is the essence of what it means wholeheartedly to perform the Mitzvot, which is one of the highest virtues. The effect is intended to be transformative. By continuing joyfully to do noble deeds, patterns of behavior are changed, which also impacts inner feelings. The good feelings engendered serve to reinforce the new good patterns of behavior. As the process continues, the person undergoes a metamorphosis into a more refined and perfected individual. As a person’s outward appearance and the inner feelings are both, so to speak, perfectly aligned and directed towards doing good deeds, he or she becomes Tamim[xx].
The term Tam as used in reference to Jacob[xxiii], is intended to distinguish him from his brother Esau. Esau was a hunter, who was expert in the art of deception. As Rav Abraham ibn Ezra[xxiv] notes, this is the way a predator catches prey. Jacob, on the other hand was not well practiced in artifice, he was a plainspoken individual. As Rashi[xxv] points out, Jacob said with his mouth what was in his heart and was not ingenious in deceiving people and, hence, the use of the term Tam.
Yet, Jacob was not by any means a pushover. When called upon by his mother, Rebecca[xxvi], to masquerade as his brother, in order to demonstrate to his father, Isaac, that he had the qualities needed to receive the blessings, not just for spiritual success, but also for material success, he did so with aplomb and succeeded marvelously.
Jacob was a complete person. He was a Torah scholar, astute businessman and capable warrior. In modern parlance, he was the whole package. When Eliphaz, Esau’s son, stole everything from him and, figuratively, left him for dead[xxvii], he didn’t complain. Rather, he pulled himself up by the bootstraps and went on. When confronted by the deceptive practices and unforgiving nature of his sojourn with Lavan, he triumphed magnificently. He didn’t display any anxiety about working seven years for Rachel. When Lavan cheated him, he didn’t give up. He worked another seven years. However, no fool; this time, he insisted on marrying Rachel first. He then worked another seven years to achieve wealth.
Jacob overcame every challenge Lavan threw his way, including changing his compensation formula, numerous times along the way. Lavan wanted Jacob to fail. However, Jacob did not allow this to daunt him. He combined the goodness of Abraham, his grandfather, with the strength of Isaac, his father. He was a complete man.
In a sense, being Tamim is also about mindfulness and living in the moment. Anxiety about the future is an extremely negative emotion. It is much more important to focus on the present and act, accordingly. Jacob didn’t worry about Lavan’s machinations, while he concentrated on building a family and his fortune. When he determined it was appropriate to leave, he consulted with his wives and obtained their sign-on. He then left Lavan to return home, taking his entire family and all his hard earned property with him.
I am reminded of what Curley, the grizzly old cowboy in the movie City Slickers, said to Billy Crystal’s character, when asked what was the secret of life. His answer was just one thing, pointing with his index finger upwards and making the sign for 1. It was a real insight into human nature. If a person focuses on one thing at a time, there is no room for anxiety. There’s just the present and what the person is doing in the moment. It is a mechanism for achieving whole-hearted and complete devotion to the task at hand. It allows a person to be wholly at peace.
The Talmud[xxviii] states if you do something whole-heartedly, then G-d will help you to succeed. It is truly one of the secrets of life. Be complete and whole-hearted (Tamim Tehiyu) with G-d.
As we approach Yom Kippur, the lesson of focusing on just one thing at a time is cogent. Let’s be mindful of our responsibilities today and what we should be doing now. Whether it is attending a healthy distanced Minyan and following the posted rules about wearing a mask or a virtual shiur, earning a living, giving charity or being home with the family and seeing to their needs, these are all Mitzvot. There is little time to waste and, as for anxiety and complaining, as the song says, Que Sera Sera.
Don’t worry about perfection; it’s about the journey. Our charge is joyfully and wholeheartedly to perform the commandments; one Mitzvah at a time. May we all be granted a wonderful new year, with health, happiness, success and all the best life has to offer.
[i] By Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, published in 1956.
[ii] BT Rosh Hashanah 16b.
[iii] Deuteronomy 18:13.
[iv] BT Pesachim 113b.
[v] Ibid, Rashbam commentary.
[vi] Deuteronomy 6:5.
[vii] Deuteronomy 6:13.
[viii] Rambam, Hichot Yesodei HaTorah 2:2.
[ix] Sifre, Deuteronomy, Piska 173:3.
[x] Psalms 26:11. See also Psalms 41:13, where King David said in his B’Tumi (wholeness), G-d supported him and placed him before G-d forever.
[xi] Ramban commentary on Deuteronomy 18:13.
[xii] See Exodus 12:5, where the words Tamim refers to being without blemish or other deficiency.
[xiii] Rambam, Mishne Torah, Hilchot Avodat Kochavim, 11:16.
[xiv] Rav Hezikiah ben Manoach, in his 13th Century commentary on Deuteronomy 18:13.
[xv] BT Kiddushin 75b.
[xvi] Rav Chaim ben Moshe ibn Attar, in his 18th Century commentary on Deuteronomy 18:13.
[xvii] Genesis 17:1 and see Rashi commentary thereon.
[xviii] A 19th Century book of Musar by Rav Eliezer Papo.
[xix] In his commentary on Genesis 17:1. See also Ramchal, Duties of the Heart, Introduction of the Author 70.
[xx] See BT Yoma 72, and Rava’s dictum regarding the requirement that a Talmud Chacham have Tocho K’Baro (a matching inner and outer self) that was authentically good, not just an assumed role for appearances sake. See also Rambam, Hilchot Deot 2:6 regarding not being guileful or a flatterer, where the mouth says one thing but the heart feels another thing.
[xxi] Genesis 25:27.
[xxii] The four sons referred to in the Haggadah are the Chocham (wise one), Rashah (evil one), Tam (simpleton) and Sheyno Yodeah Lishal (who doesn’t know enough to ask).
[xxiii] Genesis 25:27.
[xxiv] Ibid, Ibn Ezra commentary thereon.
[xxv] Ibid, Rashi commentary thereon.
[xxvi] See Genesis 27.
[xxvii] BT Avoda Zara 5a.
[xxviii] BT Nedarim 32a.