Monday, March 24, 2008

Is Spiritual Height a Measure of Piety?

Is Spiritual Height a Measure of Piety?
A guest post by mevaseretzion

[DB : I don't even understand the question.]

It is second nature for most religious people to assume that when one does G-d's will, he becomes more spiritual, i.e., he rises in spiritual attainment (מדרגה). We usually assume that spiritual height is a measure of our closeness to God, and thus, of our fulfillment of His will. This seems to hold in many areas of life. However, in the extremes, this thesis seems to unravel, and our tasks in this world become uncomfortably subjective.

In Megilla 16b, the Talmud relates two conflicting enumerations of those men who left Bavel to found the second state of Israel. In the first, Mordechai is counted fifth. Twenty-four years later, he is mentioned sixth in the list. The talmud finds this puzzling, and Rav Yosef posits the reason for Mordechai's demotion: "the study of Torah is greater than life-saving..."

This passage does not sit right. Mordechai was seen as less spiritually complete because he occupied himslef with protecting Jewish lives while he could have been learning? We know that anyone who saves a Jewish life, is as if he saved an entire world (Jerusalem Talmud, Sanhedrin 4:9). Also, we are commanded not to stand by our brother's blood (Lev. 19:16). So how can it be that Mordechai was lower spiritually after seemingly fulfilling God's will on a large scale?

On this troubling passage, Rashi says that "...because of this [his work on behalf of the Jewish People], Mordechai's status was lowered in the eyes of the sages." (emphasis mine) Perhaps this is the key. In the eyes of the sages, in the eyes of Man, Mordechai was on a lower spiritual level. In the simplistic calculus of humanity, he spent less time concerning himself with the study of Torah (which, after all, is כנגד כולם), and dealt with the nitty gritty aspects of the world around us. He dealt, in the parlance of the בית מדרש, with חיי שעה, temporal concerns, and neglected חיי עולם, the eternal torah (see Shabbos 10a). Thus he lost ground to his study partners, who did not leave the study hall, and who thus reached high spiritual levels.

A person, it turns out, can be a צדיק חוטא. One can constantly concern himself with the spiritual climax of Torah, and while developing himself spiritually, miss (חטא) his actual job in this world. To use an analogy, one can cheat on his taxes, and become more wealthy. Similarly, one can cheat on his tasks in this world (for example, by not saving lives when he can), and dishonestly gather for himself higher spiritual attainment (by studying Torah during the time he saved).

In Pesachim 50a, (the same?) Rav Yosef visits the next world. When he returns, his father asks him to describe what he saw. He answers, "I saw an upside-down world, those who are high here, are low there, and vice-versa." His father said, "You saw the true world, and this one is inverted." Perhaps his statement from Megilla is an example of what Rav Yosef saw in Pesachim. Not only are the rich here sometimes lowly there, and the poor here, on a high level there, but Rav Yosef is making a deeper point, as well. Spiritual giants that we see in our world, may have gained their spiritual height deceitfully, and thus, they will be made low in the world of truth. That is a world where God, who insight and knowledge is perfect, judges people not only by how much spiritual currency they have, but, more importantly, by how (and why) they attained it.

It is relatively simple to know what God wants us not to do. סור מרע, keep from evil, is pretty straightforward. It is the עשה טוב, the 'actively do good' that is so tricky. We must be self aware and cognizant of the totality of our situation in this world, in order to choose the right action instead of simply a good action. We must realize that right is subjective, and what is right for everyone else may not be right for me. We must not allow herd mentality to affect our service of G-d in this world. May we resolve to follow the path of Mordechai and do right, not just good.

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