We all strive to do the right thing, to live meaningful lives that make a difference. The Torah gives us the “do’s and dont’s” of day-to-day life, and this often makes decision-making much easier. Have a hankering for some shellfish? Sorry, it’s not kosher. Looking for a tale of suspense and intrigue? Purim
is just around the corner. Not sure what to do this Friday night? May I suggest a Shabbat dinner with the fam?
But what about the grey areas of life? What about those situations that fall somewhere in between the clear directives of the Torah?
In this week’s Torah portion, Yitro (Exodus 18:1-20:23), we read of the watershed experience of the Jewish people, the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. Let’s take a look at three letters in the Ten Commandments, as viewed by the Chassidic Rebbe, Rabbi Yisrael of Ruzhin (1796-1850).
There was once a group of Chassidim sitting around the table discussing whatever was on their mind. As with any worthy Chassidic gathering, the table was adorned with some light refreshments and a little schnapps with which to say L’chaim.
Without notice, their Rebbe, Rabbi Yisrael, entered the room. They gathered from the look on his face that he did not approve of the gathering. One of them mustered up the courage to declare that Rabbi Pinchas had stated that such camaraderie could be equated with the greatness of Torah study.
“I will certainly not contradict the words of the righteous Rabbi Pinchas… but it all depends on how something is done.
“In the Torah, we find precedent for this idea. There is a word which, while appearing in one context, has holy connotations, while when appearing in a different context, is rather profane. When Moses is instructed to carve the Second Tablets, the verse states, ‘Engrave for yourself — פסל לך.’ The Hebrew word for engrave is comprised of three letters: pey, samech and lamed. Now this exact same root word appears in the Ten Commandments, ‘You shall not make for yourself a graven image — לא תעשה לך פסל.’ In this context, those same three letters refer to an idol.
“How could the very same letters mean completely opposite things? In the first verse, the word refers to the holy Tablets, while in the second verse they refer to idols! What is the difference between them?” asked Rabbi Yisrael.
Without waiting for a response, he continued, “I will tell you the difference between them. When those three letters signify something holy, then the word ‘yourself’ comes after it; but when when the word ‘yourself’ comes before it, then not only is it profane, but it is prohibited by the Second Commandment of ‘You shall not make for yourself a graven image!'”
Friends, the guide to those grey areas of our lives is “yourself.” When we do something positive without thinking first and foremost about our own self-interest, then this can be likened to “carving the Tablets,” a most holy activity. On the other hand, if we perform the very same action, but put ourselves first, then we transgress, so to speak, the commandment of not making a graven image.
These sharp words of the holy Rabbi Yisrael of Ruzhin are certainly still pertinent, and can help us in navigating the grey areas of life. It’s not enough what you do, but we also must be mindful of how we do it.