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.
Continue reading “The Main thing and the Details – Yom Kippur Sermon for String of Pearls Congregation 2021/5782”