The Main thing and the Details – Yom Kippur Sermon for String of Pearls Congregation 2021/5782

Kol Nidrei sermon 2021 / 5782 – Rabbi Maurice Harris

In the Talmud there’s a well-known story. It’s one of countless Talmudic stories about two great early rabbinic sages, Hillel and Shammai, who debated hundreds of legal, ethical, and spiritual questions. Hillel was known for his flexibility, compassion, and humanity. Shammai was an engineer and a rigid thinker, and he was known for his insistence on detail and his strictness. In the Talmud, the rabbis as a whole almost always side with Hillel, though Shammai’s views win out in debate from time to time. 

This parable, which you may have heard before, goes like this: Once there was a non-Jewish person who came before Shammai, and said to him: “Convert me to Judaism on the condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot. Shammai pushed him aside with the measuring stick he was holding. The same fellow came before Hillel, and Hillel converted him, saying: That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow: this is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary. Go and learn it.” 

Elsewhere, the Talmud has another passage, not as well-known, that teaches, in brief simplicity, this: “In essence, God desires the heart.” In the original Aramic, it’s expressed in three short words: rachmana liba ba’ey. The Compassionate One wants the heart. 

That passage became one of the guiding spiritual principles of a charismatic 18th century rabbi who lived near the Ukranian-Polish border. He became known by his nickname, the Baal Shem Tov, which in Hebrew means “the master of the good name,” and he moved thousands of people with his simple folktales that offered spiritual insight and a subtle critique of other factions within the Jewish community that focused all of their energy on Talmud study and its endless details. The Baal Shem Tov founded the Jewish religious movement known as Hasidism, which emphasized the importance of simplicity, sincerity, and earnest devotion over and above great knowledge of all the intricacies of the Talmud. One of the Baal Shem Tov’s most famous parables goes like this:

“One year, on the holiest and most solemn day in the Jewish calendar – Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) – a poor Jewish boy, an illiterate shepherd, entered the synagogue where he was praying. Now on Yom Kippur the entire Jewish community adhered to a detailed set of practices with great rigor – including fasting and offering an incredibly lengthy set of prescribed liturgical prayers and rituals. The poor illiterate boy was deeply moved by the service, but frustrated that he could not read the prayers. Spontaneously, he started to whistle. It was the one thing he knew he could do beautifully; he wanted to offer his whistling as a gift to God. The congregation was horrified at the desecration of their service. Some people yelled at the boy, and others wanted to throw him out. The Ba’al Shem Tov immediately stopped them. “Until now,” he said, “I could feel our prayers being blocked as they tried to reach the heavenly court. This young shepherd’s whistling was so pure, however, that it broke through the blockage and brought all of our prayers straight up to God.”  

 The Hillel/Shammai story and the Ba’al Shem Tov parable both seem to be saying: remember to keep the main thing the main thing. Don’t let the details – the many prescribed rules and procedures, the advanced precision and minutia – obscure the main intention, the big picture. 

Hillel and the Ba’al Shem Tov both became renowned for pushing back against the impulse many other rabbis tended to have to make Judaism ever more detailed and complicated. In the Mishnah, the earliest known collection of rabbinic writing, a famous passage instructs us to “make a fence around the Torah,” which was understood to mean that rabbis should create many rules designed to steer the masses far away from sin. If the Torah commands that we not work on Shabbat and that Shabbat starts at sundown, the rabbis built a fence by saying that people have to stop working X number of minutes before sundown. If the Torah says don’t do business on Shabbat, the rabbis build a fence by saying don’t even physically touch or handle any kind of money on Shabbat.

And in this manner, Judaism – in particular rabbinic Judaism – became famous for having many, many rules. Instead of 613 commandments, it was like the rabbis decided to add a zero onto the end of that number, just to make sure the core 613 were never at risk of being violated. Judaism didn’t only become famous for developing such a complex and detail-oreinted pattern of observance – it also became ridiculed and criticized for it. Some of that critique came from within Judaism – from sages like Hillel and the Ba’al Shem Tov, and quite a few others as well. Some of it came from our sibling religions, Christianity and Islam, both of which include scriptrual stories that describe Jews as being so obsessed with following endless details and ritual minutiae that they often end up missing the main idea that God was trying to impart to them. It’s not an unreasonable critique, and in fact it would be wrong to say that Judaism is a religion that only cares about the details of law and ritual practice. The prophets in the Hebrew Bible are the first to push back against going too far in that direction, including Isaiah, whose words we read on Yom Kippur. Several of the great prophets of our tradition warn against ritual without love, against piety without working for social justice, and they sometimes go so far as to say that God would prefer it if people would transgress the detailed practices if they would simply get the big picture mitzvot right – you know, the love your neighbor one and the don’t trample on the poor and the stranger one. 

I guess what I’m trying to say is that Judaism – perhaps because it’s the oldest of the 3 Abrahamic religions – has the unusual feature of having elements within that are hyper-focused on rules and details, and having both internal and external critics of that aspect of Judaism. When you go for centuries criticizing yourself, while also being criticized by the two largest other religions in the world, you end up – well, perhaps this is one of the reasons why there are so many Jewish stand up comics. 

So, keep the main thing the main thing. Follow Hillel and the Ba’al Shem Tov’s example, and remember that God wants the heart. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Focus on the big picture. Do you best with the details of observance of the mitzvot and keep your eyes on the most important commandments. Is that the rabbi’s message? Well, yes, but I think it’s also more complicated. Here’s what I mean.

* * *

There’s a story in the Book of Leviticus that I’m sure will be familiar to some of you – the story of the sudden deaths of two of the High Priest, Aaron’s, sons, Nadav and Avihu. The two brothers were killed when they entered the innermost sanctum, the Holy of Holies, inside the sanctuary and made an incense offering to God that they had not been instructed to give. The two young priests both were suddenly incinerated, leaving nothing behind except their ashes, tunics, and the firepans for the incense they had brought. 

Photo by Jonas Frey on Unsplash

It’s a strange story and for centuries rabbis have debated just what it was that Nadav and Avihu did wrong, or whether they were simply the victims of an unfortunate accident triggered by their not adhering to the specific instructions God had commanded to the priests regarding bringing offerings into the Holy of Holies. One thing the rabbis of old agreed upon, though, was that the story seemed to illustrate that the cosmic encounter taking place between God and human in the Holy of Holies was fraught with danger for the humans involved, perhaps because of the Divine energies that could potentially be unleashed if specific ritual procedures were not followed carefully. 

If Nadav and Avihu could have a do-over, they would probably argue that sometimes the details are definitely the main thing. And they’d be right. Sometimes that’s true. I really want my surgeon to care about the details. I’m always hoping that the people flying the plane are detail oriented, especially the ground mechanics who we’re told are remedying some little engine problem that is delaying our departure. I think if you ask an astronaut whether the details of procedure matter or whether they are getting in the way of just doing the main thing – you know, exploring space and having fun doing it – they would wonder whether you actually have any understanding of what they do. 

There are so many kinds of activities where the details matter, matter so deeply. When my kids were school age, I wanted their classroom teachers to attend to the details that help reveal how different students learn, and that make children feel noticed and cared for. Households and families can’t function without a lot of time and energy given to the details of life. Ask a visual artist or a poet whether the details matter.

I think it comes down to this: we have to make a judgment call in each moment about what the main thing is. Sometimes it is in the details. Sometimes the details are a distraction. And this: sometimes we can help someone else seize an opportunity for a transformative, powerful experience by taking care of the details that need attending to while they get the chance to have a special moment. 

Let’s jump from Leviticus to Deuteronomy, the final book of the Torah. Deuteronomy chapter 14 gives us a review of the list of animals that the Israelites are permitted and forbidden to eat. If you read through the list, after an inventory of dozens of exotic birds and small mammals, the Torah contains one more sentence. It almost seems like it was added as an afterthought. 

Lo tivashel gidee b’chalav imo.  You shall not cook a kid in its mother’s milk. I have always found this one line stunning, and very moving, because of the intense sensitivity it contains.  After all, a kid — a baby goat –that’s been slaughtered for a meal is not going to know that it’s being cooked in its mother’s milk.  And the mother goat isn’t going to know either, because presumably she isn’t allowed in the place where the cooking is happening. And yet, some of our ancestors felt strongly enough about this behavior to say that it should not be done.  

I imagine the biblical author of this line thinking something like, “It’s sad enough that we’re killing animals for food, but if we’re going to be doing that, let’s not do it in a way that is insulting to their dignity, even if they would never know or understand it as such.”  

It’s a moment in which the Torah manages to be extraordinarily sensitive, or rather, in which the Torah directs us to be extraordinarily sensitive, and to maintain a sense of respect even when the beings who would otherwise be disrespected have no way of knowing about our actions.  

So, I’ll close by suggesting that we’re called upon by our tradition to try to live lives of higher purpose. And in order to do that, there’s a lot we may need to balance. If we’ve embraced rules and detailed procedures to the extent that we’ve lost sight of the importance of the central truths of living a good life, we’re out of balance. If we’ve grown too impatient or incurious to learn detailed rules and practices and we tend to barrel through life in ways that leave lots of collateral damage, we’re out of balance. And we should try to keep our eyes and ears open to special moments when a small detail – a small action that may not seem to have any witnesses except oneself – may be a vessel of exquisite sensitivity, compassion, and humanity. Do not cook a kid in its mother’s milk. 

May we all be inscribed for a year of kindness, balance, and hope.

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