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Sukkot: Must morality and spirituality be in conflict?

Must morality and spirituality be in conflict?
Illustrative: An ultra-Orthodox man examines a citron (etrog) in Jerusalem (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Illustrative: An ultra-Orthodox man examines a citron (etrog) in Jerusalem (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In the Tzadik’s Etrog, Shai Agnon subversively retells a classic Chassidic story. Reb Mikheleh, the Holy Preacher of Zloczow was renowned for his piety and his willingness to forgo all material comforts in order to dedicate himself entirely to the service of God. He was supported in his efforts by his caring wife who did her best not to distract him from his holy pursuits. One year as Sukkot was fast approaching, Reb Mikheleh realized he was without an etrog for the holiday. Without any money, the only object of value in his possession that could be used to procure an etrog was his tefillin, and since they are not worn during the festival, he decided that it would be a worthy trade. The money from the sale of his tefillin was enough to purchase a beautiful etrog that had all the special qualities that are viewed as praiseworthy in an etrog.

Returning home, he was filled with joy knowing that he would be able to perform the mitzvah in an illustrious manner. Having heard that he had been to market, Reb Mikheleh’s wife naturally assumed that he would return with provisions for the holiday, and her heart nearly broke when she saw that all their money had been spent on the etrog. In a final moment of desperation, she asked her husband if she could hold the etrog so that at least she could appreciate its beauty. Clutching it in her hand, she finally realized that she and her children would have nothing to eat for the festival. Overwhelmed by grief, she lost her strength, and the etrog slipped from her fingers. The stem broke as it hit the ground invalidating the etrog nullifying its use during the holiday. After losing his precious tefillin and his magnificent etrog, the story concludes with the pious man desperately promising that he will not become angry.

Earlier versions of the same Chassidic story depict Reb Mikheleh’s wife destroying the etrog in an act of jealous rage, and venerate Reb Mikheleh’s refusal to succumb to anger. Agnon’s subtle retelling, however, demonstrates that an exclusive focus on piety is not without its costs. In pursuit of the etrog, Reb Mikheleh ignores his responsibilities to his family, and the story ends with him losing nearly everything. His wife is forlorn, and he will not be able to fulfill the mitzvah of taking up the lulav and etrog.

Through his deep insight into the religious personality, Agnon understood that the desire to serve God will inevitably come into conflict with our ethical responsibilities towards others. In these moments, the wrong decision can have tragic consequences. Great danger exists when passionate spirituality creates moral blindness. When we believe that God’s demands are all consuming, anything and everything may be sacrificed to achieve holiness.  The spiritual quest becomes perilously narcissistic if we show a willingness to sacrifice others’ needs in order to fulfill our own. Even though famous for its God-intoxicated spirituality, the Chassidic movement was aware of this potential danger. Reb Simcha Bunim of Peshischa insightfully explained:

Why don’t we recite a blessing over the mitzvah to give charity? Because if one had to make a blessing like any other positive mitzvah, it would require preparation, immersion in the mikvah with the proper mystical intentions or something similar, and in the meantime, the poor would starve to death.”[1]

The Tzadik’s Etrog concludes with the clear implication that those who prioritize spirituality over morality will soon find themselves with neither. The story is a cautionary tale of the ease at which morality can become sacrificed in the pursuit of serving God. In response to such a danger, modern Jewish thinkers have often chosen to privilege ethical responsibilities over the desire to fulfill God’s spiritual mandates. This approach is not without precedent, as a famous Talmudic statement seems to emphasize this exact point: “It is greater to receive guests than to receive the Divine presence.” (Shabbat 127a) Receiving guests is the quintessential act of chesed (compassion) in the Jewish tradition and it takes precedence over even the most profound spiritual moment of experiencing God’s presence.

From such a teaching, the conclusion appears clear. When faced with a conflict between spirituality and morality, we must prioritize the ethical. Such an approach, however, presents an impoverished perspective of religious life as if it is a zero-sum game, and we must continually choose one side or the other. This seems particularly strange when we recognize that the same God who commands us to love Him also commands us to love our neighbor. A closer examination of the Talmudic teaching and its possible connection to the holiday of Sukkot shows us that perhaps there is another way.

The Talmudic statement originates in an interpretation of Avraham’s decision to welcome three angelic guests into his desert tent. The story opens not long after Avraham has entered into a covenant with God through circumcising himself along with all the male members of his household.  God appears to Avraham as he dwells in his tent, but the Torah does not describe the specifics of God’s revelation. While still sitting in God’s presence, Avraham lifts his eyes and sees three men traveling in the distance. Without hesitation, he runs out to greet them and invite them into his home.

Despite the inherent kindness involved in the act, Avraham’s behavior is perplexing. How could he abandon the Divine presence in order to help a group of idolaters? This Biblical narrative seems to mandate the sacrificing of spiritual inspiration to attend to the needs of others. The truth, however, is more complicated. The Talmudic also explains that Avraham was acutely aware of the potential consequences of his actions. When he greets the guests and asks them to stay, he is, in fact, addressing his words to God, imploring that His presence must not depart, “My Lord, if I have found favor in your eyes, do not leave, I pray from your servant” (Genesis 18:3).

After welcoming the guests into his home and seeing to their departure, Avraham receives an answer to his request. The Torah states (Genesis 18:22), “and Avraham still stood before God.” Attending to the needs of his guests has not driven God away. Rather, God has remained present with Avraham the entire time. This key point demonstrates that fulfilling our ethical obligations towards others need not require us to give up our intimate connection with God. Spirituality and morality need not compete with each other. When approached with the correct awareness, we retain the ability to pursue both at the same time.

The Baal Shem Tov teaches that receiving guests is a form of receiving the Divine presence. He explains that the Hebrew word for guest, oreach, is to be understood as or chet, the light of the eight sefirah of binah (understanding).[2] Through turning our attention to the other who are in need, we can access a deeper Divine reality. In the act of receiving guests, spirituality and morality come together as one. The holiday of Sukkot offers a profound illustration of this truth when we welcome both Divine and human guests into our sukkah. During the nights of the holiday, there is a kabbalistic custom to invite one of the seven patriarchs into our sukkah. Better known as ushpizin, this ritual symbolizes our attempt to invite God into our sukkah as each patriarch represents a different aspect of the Divine. At the same time, it is not enough only to invite God to our sukkah. We must also reach out and invite the poor and marginalized in as well. The Zohar, which serves as the source for the kabbalistic custom of ushpizin, makes this eminently clear:

The portion for the ushpizin (heavenly guests) whom one invites to the sukkah must go to the poor. If a person sits in the shade of faith and invites these Heavenly guests and does not give the poor their portion, the heavenly guests will depart, saying, Eat not the bread of one that has an evil eye’ (Prov. 23:6). That table which such a person prepares is theirs and not God’s.”

If we neglect our ethical responsibilities, we will lose whatever spiritual connection that we had hoped to create. Here and elsewhere, the Zohar refers to the sukkah as tzela dnehemuta, the shade of faith. It requires an expansive sense of faith in order to recognize that morality and spirituality are not contradictory.[3] Inviting those in need to dwell with us in the sukkah under God’s presence offers us a profound opportunity to realize this truth. The Zohar further reminds us that constant vigilance may be necessary to prevent the selfish pursuit of spirituality, but the reward is it worthwhile.

A person should not say, I will first satisfy myself with food and drink, and what is left I shall give to the poor, but the first of everything must be for the guests. And if one gladdens the guests and satisfies them, God rejoices with the host and Abraham proclaims over that person, “Then shall you delight in the Lord (Isa. 58:14)”

[1] Siach Sarfei Kodesh 1:13

[2] Degel Machaneh Ephraim, Kuntros Devarim SheShamati

[3] This point is also articulated quite strongly by the Piasetzna Rebbe (A Student’s Obligation, Piasetzna Rebbe, p. 333) “If you want to check yourself to see if your spiritual awakening is real, that is, whether you have succeeded in revealing a bit of your soul and coming a little closer to Hashem, or whether you are just fooling yourself, do the following: Look at your character traits (midot) to see if they have become somewhat perfected.”

About the Author
Rabbi Zachary Truboff is the coordinator of the International Beit Din Institute, which seeks to educate rabbis about halakhic solutions to difficult cases of gett abuse. His writings on contemporary Jewish thought and Zionism have appeared in the Lehrhaus, Arutz Sheva, and Akdamot. His forthcoming book, Torah Goes Forth From Zion: Essays on the Thought of Rav Kook and Rav Shagar, will be published in the fall. Before making aliyah, he served as the rabbi of Cedar Sinai Synagogue in Cleveland, Ohio. He has taught in a variety of adult education settings such as the Wexner Heritage Program and the Hartman Institute. He received semikha from Rav Zalman Nechemia Goldberg and Yeshivat Chovevei Torah.
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