parsha of the week

‘Shomer mitzvot’ is good, ‘shomrei Torah’ is better


When I was in ninth grade, our teacher, Rabbi Cohen, trained our class to respond to the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” with the answer, “an eved Hashem” (servant of G-d).

Once, I was hired to serve as a mohel in an Orthodox shul in Manhattan. That week, I got a call from someone at the shul doing due diligence in maintaining the synagogue’s standards. He asked, “Are you a shomer Torah u’mitzvos?” My response, in a nod to the human imperfection we all share, was “I do my best.”

I thought of these two anecdotes this past weekend when I came across a comment of Or Hachaim in parshat Bechukotai giving 42 explanations for the opening words of the segment of rebuke: “If you go in my laws.” The fourth interpretation utilizes the words of Mishlei 3:6, “In all your ways you should know Him.” The Ohr Hachaim describes how every behavior a person undertakes can be channeled through the lens of serving Hashem, with concrete examples for eating, drinking, speaking, and more.

My thoughts jumped to a verse from later in that chapter of Mishlei, a verse that we say often upon replacing the Torah in the Ark: “Its ways are ways of pleasantness” (Mishlei 3:17).

As we celebrate the giving of the Torah on Shavuot, and as the last chapter of Pirkei Avot is studied this week in synagogues and Jewish homes, perhaps I can offer a new idea of what it means to be a servant of G-d, and what it means to follow a Torah whose “ways are pleasantness.”

There are different ways to classify mitzvot: bein adam lamakom (concerning man’s relationship with G-d), and bein adam lachaveiro (concerning man’s relationship with his fellow man). We can certainly argue over which are easier. But I would argue that it is relatively easy to fulfill the commandments that are between us and G-d. They don’t impact anyone else, in most cases they don’t cost very much, and G-d is forgiving if we make a commitment to do better. Shaking a lulav, eating matzah, putting up a mezuzah — they are all important mitzvot, but while they may demonstrate a reverence for G-d, they do little to advance character refinement.

The commandments between man and man, on the other hand, are somewhat more difficult. It’s hard to pay damages, it’s hard to love someone as we love ourselves, it’s hard to not carry a grudge, and it’s hard to not hate some people in our hearts. The commandments related to caring for others are supposed to refine our characters.

The Torah, in its totality, is meant to be a guide towards pleasantness. The sixth chapter in Pirkei Avot demonstrates this idea in many ways:

“Rabbi Meir would say: Whoever studies Torah for Torah’s sake alone, merits many things; not only that, but [the creation of] the entire world is worthwhile for him alone. He is called friend, beloved, lover of G‑d, lover of humanity, rejoicer of G‑d, rejoicer of humanity. The Torah clothes him with humility and awe; makes him fit to be righteous, pious, correct and faithful; distances him from sin and brings him close to merit. … He becomes modest, patient and forgiving of insults. The Torah uplifts him and makes him greater than all creations.

Such is the way of Torah: Bread with salt you shall eat, water in small measure you shall drink, and upon the ground you shall sleep; live a life of deprivation and toil in Torah… 

“Do not seek greatness for yourself, and do not lust for honor. More than you study, do. Desire not the table of kings, for your table is greater than theirs, and your crown is greater than theirs. …

“Torah is acquired with forty-eight qualities…[which include] slowness to anger, good-heartedness, faith in the Sages, acceptance of suffering, knowing one’s place, satisfaction with one’s lot, qualifying one’s words, not taking credit for oneself, likableness, love of G‑d, love of humanity, love of charity, love of justice, love of rebuke, fleeing from honor, lack of arrogance in learning, reluctance to hand down rulings, sharing the burden of one’s fellow, judging others favorably.”

It would be dishonest to ignore some of the passages in the Torah that promote violence. However, at worst, they were a one-time commandment of G-d pursuant to a goal that is today beyond our comprehension. It would certainly be exceedingly difficult to find a Jewish leader today who advocates any kind of violence against any group of people, except in self-defense.

With all of this, I posit that a person who is observant of the laws of the Torah can certainly claim to be a shomer mitzvot. But until Torah has achieved the goal of refining a person’s character, until all of us are pleasant, as per the Torah’s teachings which are meant to refine character, we cannot truly classify ourselves as shomrei Torah.

If our goal in life is to be ovdei Hashem and shomrei Torah umitzvot, then a pleasant demeanor towards all is essential in fulfilling that goal.