Chapter 3, Mishna 15 (b)
Masking Holiness, Part II
By Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld
"Rabbi Elazar of Moda said: One who desecrates sacred objects, one who
disgraces the festivals, one who shames his fellow in public, one who annuls
the covenant of our forefather Abraham, or one who interprets the Torah not
according to Jewish law -- even if he has Torah [study] and good deeds, he
has no share in the World to Come."
Last week we discussed the five shortcomings listed in our mishna and the
severity of each one. This week I would like to penetrate beneath the
surface -- to examine the common thread running through these five concepts
and the true significance of each. We will then hopefully begin to
appreciate the justness of R. Elazar's condemnation.
In truth, there is a deep philosophical difficulty with our mishna. R.
Elazar states that even if such a person has studied Torah and performed
good deeds, he has no share in the World to Come. But where is the justice
in this? What about all the good deeds this person *has* performed? No
matter how terrible desecrating sacred Temple objects is, isn't it possible
that this fellow's good deeds outweigh his evil? Isn't the 11th of
Maimonides' 13 Principles of Faith that G-d rewards and punishes for each
and every one of man's actions? If so, how can our mishna so unequivocally
state that such a person receives no share of Eternity? Will his good deeds
simply be cast aside, not even considered on the heavenly scales?
To answer I would like to note a profound truth in R. Elazar's words -- one
we can appreciate with a deeper understanding of the cases of our mishna.
Four out of the five objects listed in our mishna have one dilemma: they are
beautiful. The Temple was a magnificent structure -- architecturally and
aesthetically pleasing with marble pillars, golden ornaments, and royal
tapestries. The Talmud states: "Whoever has not see Herod's Temple has not
seen a beautiful building in his life" (Bava Basra 4a). (Solomon's Temple
was not exactly a 7-11 either; see I Kings 6.)
The festivals are likewise joyous events of feasting and celebrating the
Holy Land's agricultural cycle. Torah study is an inspiring and
intellectually-gratifying masterpiece of prose, laws, history, philosophy,
and anecdotes. As a work of literary art it has literally not been matched
since in wisdom and awe-inspiring marvel. Lastly, human beings are both
physically and intellectually impressive creations. We contain the skills,
stamina and know-how to inhabit a world, to house and feed billions of
people, and to accomplish stunning achievements in the fields of art,
science, literature, architecture, medicine, communications, athletics, etc.
Precisely because of this, however, there is a very real danger we will fail
to appreciate the above items for their true worth. We may see the Temple in
all its beauty and see Judaism as an aesthetic religion of golden ornaments
and priestly robes. There are many religions whose adherents have built
themselves exotic and picturesque places of worship. (Some even charge
visitors, pocketing the income for their sacred cause...) ;-) (Herod's
Temple too had points of approach designated for Gentile sightseers.) We may
likewise see the Torah's wisdom as inspiring and heart-warming, as
Shakespeare, Aristotle, and Aesop's Fables all rolled into one. Or we may
see the festivals as joyous times of folk and national celebration, or human
beings as wise and versatile homo sapiens, the crown of the animal kingdom.
But if we would, we would be selling all these items woefully short. The
Temple was a structure which housed G-d's Divine Presence. The Torah is the
sacred word of G-d. The festivals are a time of closeness to G-d. And man is
(potentially) a sacred being, fashioned in the image of G-d. All of these
items carry with them enormous external beauty, to be sure, but it merely
alludes to a far more profound spiritual beauty within. Physical beauty is
at best a reflection, an intimation of spiritual beauty and potential within.
King Solomon wrote: "Charm is false and beauty is vain. A woman who fears
the L-rd -- she is praiseworthy" (Proverbs 31:30). And conversely, "As a
golden ring in a swine's snout, so is a beautiful woman who has turned away
from good judgment" (ibid., 11:22). The beauty of the physical world is
illusory. On its own it is nothing more than a facade. As above, Scripture
refers to it as "vain" ("hevel" in Hebrew). "Hevel" means emptiness; it is
used in the Talmud to refer to hot stale air. Like air, it has no tangible
substance; it has appearance but no content. If, however, there is something
beneath it, something it can build upon, it can project spiritual beauty
onto the world of the physical, causing it to shine on all planes of
existence. Physical beauty could alternatively be viewed as a mirror, one
which beckons us to look beneath the surface and to view the sanctity it
covers -- it masks -- underneath.
(As a quick aside, this is why Judaism places more emphasis on modesty for
women than men. Where the physical beauty is greater on the outside, there
is an even greater need to conceal it -- lest anyone think the value of
women is in the external trappings. (As heard from R. Zev Leff.))
And this too is the message of circumcision, the final case of our mishna.
As we discussed last week, circumcision implies that we are not fully
creatures of this world. We are obligated to take the physical bodies G-d
gave us -- as just another member of the animal kingdom -- and "improve"
upon it. As we enter our covenant with our G-d, we are no longer fully
creatures of this world. We live for something beyond -- and our very bodies
Thus, circumcision tells us we are not at home in the physical world: we
must look beyond. Never see living in this world, with all its beauty, as
the end-goal of existence. We must live as spiritual people; we must see
beyond the confines of the physical realm. We must seek out and uncover the
spirituality concealed in the world of man.
We finally return to the theme of our mishna. The person of our mishna sees
only the external; he mistakes the glitter for the gold. He admires the
Temple, the Torah and humanity, but he sees no sanctity in them. And so, he
does not truly respect them. He insults others: There is no reason to
respect a person's *feelings*. He desecrates Temple items; he disgraces the
festivals: To admire their beauty? Yes. But to treat them as sacred and
godly? No. They are beautiful, inspiring and enjoyable, but they are not
holy. Likewise, he says any interpretation in the Torah he pleases. Torah
study is stimulating and challenging, but it is not the sacred and
unalterable word of G-d. And finally, he does not see circumcision as that
special mitzvah (commandment) which directs us to look beyond this world and
the superficial. To him it is an inconvenience -- to be discarded for social
prestige (as we discussed last week).
And to such a person G-d says as follows: "If nothing is sacred, if you see
only this world, then you have no place in the next. Even the mitzvos you do
perform are not spiritual encounters; they are finite and dead acts. They
will earn you no eternity."
If I do not truly respect Judaism, but keep a few observances because they
are "beautiful" and make me feel good in the here and now, then my acts are
finite and physical in nature. I am not serving G-d because I want a
connection with the infinite. I do so because I enjoy the heartwarming
family gatherings of Passover (much like Thanksgiving), or I enjoy the
intellectual stimulation of Torah study. And the reward for such deeds is
equally finite. G-d certainly does reward man for every act, but He rewards
according to the level of devotion. A good deed so insincere as to be devoid
of spiritual worth is paid back in material currency alone; that is all it
is truly worth. For such a person deserves this world alone. The next world
is reserved for the true servants of G-d -- for those of heart, those of
spirit, and those of beauty... and those of the covenant of our forefather
Text Copyright © 2004 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org.