On Monday, I finished listening to an amazing shiur from Rabbi Michael Skobac, the Director of Education and Counselling for Jews for Judaism (Canada). The shiur, titled “THE FOREST BEYOND THE TREES: What is Judaism’s Bottom Line?” is available for streaming or downloading here.
As Jews, there are things we learn and things that our teachers view as “givens”. I remember going though my entire freshman year at Yeshiva University’s James Stiar School without being taught the importance of working on oneself (mussar, with a lower-case “m”). It wasn’t until my first night seder in a yeshiva in E’Y that I opened Mesillas Yesharim and realized there is a bigger picture than observing mitzvos. It wasn’t until I read about a started listening to shiurim on Bilvavi Miskhan Evneh by R Moshe Weinberger and learning the Bilvavi seforim that I understood the importance of building a relationship with our Creator. Unfortunately, I tend to over complicate things. Rabbi Skobac does not. In a clear, understandable way with examples that hit home, his shiur introduces the listeners to the real deal! The reason that Hashem created us and what the big picture is in life for each Jew. Some of the things discussed on the mp3 are based on teachings from the first chapter of Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh vol I and this shuir not only opens up one’s soul to those teachings, but allows you to listen to a master educator. Regardless of your affilation or observance, listening to this shiur is an excellent use of 53 minutes.
R Skobac has also authored the following Jews for Judaism publications, available for viewing downloading here:
Missionary Impossible: Counter-Missionary Survival Guide
The Da Vinci Code: A Jewish Perspective
For my Judaism (your mileage may vary) the bottom line of Judaism is in the opening sentences of the haqdamah to Shaarei Yosher. (I realize my host knows this, but others do read these comment chains.) To quote:
יתברך הבורא ויתעלה היוצר שבראנו בצלמו ובדמות תבניתו, וחיי עולם נטע בתוכנו שיהיה אדיר חפצנו, להיטיב עם זולתנו, ליחיד ולרבים בהוה ובעתיד בדמות הבורא כביכול, שכל מה שברא ויצר היה רצונו יתברך רק להיטיב עם הנבראים, כן רצונו ית׳ שנהלך בדרכיו כאמור “והלכת בדרכיו”, היינו שנהיה אנחנו בחירי יצוריו, מגמתנו תמיד להקדיש כוחותינו הגופניים והרוחניים לטובת הרבים, כפי ערכנו…
BLESSED SHALL BE the Creator, and exalted shall be the Maker , Who created us in His “Image” and in the likeness of His “Structure”, and planted eternal life within us, so that our greatest desire should be to do good to others, to individuals and to the masses, now and in the future, in imitation of the Creator (as it were). For everything He created and formed was according to His Will (may it be blessed) , [that is] only to be good to the creations. So too His Will is that we walk in His ways. As it says “and you shall walk in His Ways” – that we, the select of what He made – should constantly hold as our purpose to sanctify our physical and spiritual powers for the good of the many, according to our abilities.
Rav Shimon actually later says he is giving this as the bottom line: “לכן נראה לפי עניות דעתי, שבמצוה זו כלול כל יסוד ושורש מגמת תכלית חיינו, שיהיו כל עבודתנו ועמלנו תמיד מוקדשים לטובת הכלל — And so, it appears to my limited thought that this mitzvah includes the entire foundation and root of the purpose of our lives. All of our work and effort should constantly be sanctified to doing good for the community.”
And so Hillel told the conversion candidate.
I think there’s room to agree that והלכת בדרכיו, as taught by your Rebbe’s Rebbe is the bigger picture.
Bilvavi is the smaller picture. While we might be “walking in His ways”, some of us are too busy to actually see where we are headed and what is around us.
Bilvavi and RSS are both guiding you to self-perfection. Bilvavi does so by fusing in chassidus: the perfect person is one capable of having a relationship with the Creator. (Unlike Chassidus itself, where you just have a relationship and don’t spend so much time thinking about self-refinement.) RSS,’s definition of the perfect person is one who emulates His giving “nature”.
As for the ill of not thinking about the bottom line, I like two illustrations. Ask someone these two questions.
1- Where is G-d?
2- What is it He put people here to accomplish?
In both cases, the person is likely to give you one of a pair of answers. Sadly, they won’t even realize they harbor conflicting answers in their heads. Simply because the subject isn’t thought out the way we analyze a halachic discourse.
Is Hashem in heaven, or everywhere?
Are we here to perfect ourselves, or to come close to Him?
I’m not saying there is no resolution; although you might personally choose the non-resolution of declaring one or both questions a fundamental dialectic. I’m pointing out the fact that in both cases, the question is about as fundamental as you get, two answers seem true, seem to conflict, and few Jews have spent enough time thinking about the fundamentals to have noticed.
I was up for a few hours last night (I have a strand of the flu) and was thinking about your comments and the question:
Are we here to perfect ourselves, or to come close to Him?
As I have written before (I think on your blog), I feel that we get close to Him by perfecting ourselves (through helping others and “helping” ourselves-ie Torah u’Mitzvos.
Maybe this is why Torah, Avodah, and G’lemus Chassidim are so important.
The central importance of helping others and the community in RSS’s thought (based on what I’ve learned in your posts) seems to be lost in the seforim being written within the last 50 years (REED’s Kuntres HaChessed might be the acception, but I don’t recall exactly when it was written).
Why do you think the importance of the community (others) is not something we are learning about these days?
My only guess is that within the “yeshivish” world the views the yeshiva as THE community and if you are learning or your husband is learning then you are helping the community (not my place to say if this is true or not). Within the non-yeshivish community there is more involvement in the bigger frum community, but I don’t get the feeling that it’s looked upon as the “bottom line”.
PS- I am also thinking in line with my comments on this post:
My sympathies about your flu. Bakes be loog batetic bor complanig aboud by code.
“Are we here to perfect ourselves, or to come close to Him?”
I have an entire category on my blog about this. Litvaks would say the first, Chassidim the latter. The Ramchal said (MY ch. 1) we are here to perfect our ability to come close to Him in the World to Come.
Part of it is defining perfection. Rav Shimon says the perfect human is one who emulates G-d, the bestower of His Good on others. In his Qunterus haChesed, R’ Dessler says similar. Novhardok would say the perfect person is one who fully realizes his connection to Hashem (in this world). Chassidim would simply do things that foster emotions of closeness to G-d, experientially, and would consider focusing on being the kind of person who could be close to G-d to be a distraction. (By thinking about it too much, you cerebralize what should be a natural relationship.)
Deep down I think both are descriptions of the same ideal. But there are tactical differences based on which perspective one takes. Most chassidim choose kavanah over davening in the proper time. Litvaks would generally choose zerizus, seder the resulting attention timeliness.
I do not believe people today think that someone who keeps chalav Yisrael, only eats yashan grain, spends extra to get the perfect esrog, but engages in less than scrupulously honest business practices is non-Orthodox. This is why I regret the shift from 19th cent Yiddish, where “ehrlach” was the adjective used to mean one of us, to 21st cent Yiddish and Yinglish, where the word is “frum”.
(And they certainly wouldn’t view keeping chalav Yisrael as an excercise in developing the skills and values necessary to share Hashem’s good with others. Nor should they necessarily — that’s specific to R’ Shimon’s derekh.)
As for the Beyond BT post… you’re asking someone who is trying to develop a kiruv program for O people…
You know what, I’m cut-n-pasting the rest of this comment for there.
Thanks for the reply. So, why the shift in our times from Avodas Hashem via the “covenantal community” to just working on yourself?
Answer if you have time and meanwhile, I’ll see you at BeyondBT. BTW-the tread there has potential impact on kiruv for O people and how BTs might view it.
Beqitzur: America, and the culture it exported. Valuation of autonomy, the self-made man and the entrepreneurial spirit. The “Me Generation”.
Also, to some extent, the pleasure princple. It’s easy to tie in fixing one’s middos to be whom Hashem wants you to be with the built-in rewards of “… and then you’ll be happier, less frustrated, etc…”
I was thinking along those lines. This is probably why seforim like Bilvavi are popular (along with all self-help products, seforim, groups).
Even as early as pre-school, teachers are helping the kids make books, posters etc about themselves.
Our dayschool’s middah this past month was “vatranus” and the focus (no way around this) was on the self (instead of “the other”- a popular buzzword).
Shalom R’ Micha and refuah shleimah R’ Neil…
Interesting discussion. L’fi aniyus da’ati, it would seem from Sotah 14a, v’halachta b’drachav is a way (or maybe the way) of achieving d’vekus
I assume my comment there didn’t surprise you at all.