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Who is pious?

When I was a kid, back in the 50s, aka the Dark Ages, we defined a religious person as one who kept Shabbat. As I grew older, the concept of ‘religious’ grew more complex. This week’s Torah reading adds to that discussion, because the parsha apparently moves seamlessly from very esoteric and spiritual issues like the epiphany at Sinai and altars for God to the very mundane material, like indentured slaves and personal injury cases. How are we to understand this abrupt shift in tenor? 

To help us get a handle on this issue let’s look at a famous Talmudic debate: Rav Yehuda says, ‘One who wants to be a CHASID should fulfill the laws of NEZIKIN (damages, which is the original name of the one tractate which now encompasses Baba Kama, Baba Metzia and Baba Batra). Opinion 2 (Rava), ‘He should fulfill the matters in Pirkei Avot’. Some say, he should fulfill the matters of tractate Berachot (Baba Kama 30a)’. 

The most important word in that material is CHASID, which has nothing to do with the modern Chasidic phenomenon. It can be translated ‘saintly’ or ‘devout’, but I prefer ‘pious’. Traditionally, there are two terms for the truly observant, ZADIK and CHASID. Normally, we think of the ZADIK as strictly observant, and is probably best translated as ‘righteous’. The CHASID, on the other hand, goes beyond normal observance to fulfill both the letter and spirit of the law. 

How does one achieve that lofty status? Well, our quote above declares that it’s an argument. These three positions, I believe, correspond to the famous dictum at the beginning of Pirkei Avot, that the stability of this world depends on three principles: Torah, AVODA (worship) and GEMILAT CHESED (kindness). The Maharal M’Prague explains, ‘The matter of being complete includes three parts. Being at one (peace) with God, being at one with one’s fellow human, and being at one with oneself. This is the whole concept of SHLEIMUT (being at peace and unity). 

So, it would seem that to be ZADIK, one must fulfill the basic requirements of all these areas. One learns how to worship and be at peace with God from tractate Berachot, one learns how to be kind and be at peace with others from laws of damages in the three Baba tractates, and one learns how to at peace with oneself from PIRKEI AVOT. 

The remarkable chapters 20 and 21 of Shmot give us the ground rules for all of these areas of Jewish tradition. Chapter 20 has the Ten Commandments which is the basis for the Torah which will guide a person into the paths of morality and personality development. Then that chapter ends with the rules for building an altar, preparing one to ritually worship God. Next comes our parsha and chapter 21, which seems so prosaic with its emphasis on rules of repaying another for damages done. But Rav Yehuda claims that this material is the basis for being a CHASID. 

  But that is a debatable point. Maybe I can be a Chasid of interpersonal relations. Perhaps, I can be a Chasid of davening, and relationship with our Creator. It’s also a possibility to be Chasid of personal tranquility and peace of mind. Even though the Zadik must follow through in all areas or fall short of true observance, the Chasid may major in one area only. This is because that individual is going beyond the strict requirements. The Chasid is already into extra credit territory. 

In the final analysis, I don’t think that there’s really a debate. I believe that each opinion states a different perspective. A Chasid achieves this spiritual greatness in the area in which that spiritual individual is drawn.  

I’ve had the privilege to meet some incredible individuals in my life. There is a tendency to attach the term GADOL or giant to the Torah scholars of the group, and I must admit that I used to feel that way, too. However, in retrospect, there were people whose kindness and concern for others was so prodigious that I feel compelled to declare them GADOLIM in GEMILAT CHASADIM. 

That second group is a more select group than the more popular category A, Torah giants. But the most exclusive group of all, at least in my personal experience, encompassed category C. There have only been a very few individuals whose davening and communion with God was so breathtaking that I was inspired to improve my own TEFILA experience as a result. There was a person whose intensity of prayer brought me to tears. The memory still resonates in my mind and soul. 

This week’s Torah reading has some passages which are truly breathtaking, especially towards the end of the parsha, as we hear more details about the experience at Sinai. But there are sections which make my eyes glaze over. I used to think that there was something wrong with me for not being moved by every verse in the Torah. That may be true. However, I’ve come to the conclusion that different verses speak to different souls. What bores me, may transport another to euphoria. And that’s wonderful for us both.   

About the Author
Born in Malden, MA, 1950. Graduate of YU, taught for Rabbi Riskin in Riverdale, NY, and then for 18 years in Efrat with R. Riskin and R. Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar. Spent 16 years as Educational Director, Cong. Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT. Now teach at OU Center and Yeshivat Orayta.
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