Clinging to Values

  • Harav Yehuda Amital

I. Commitment to values

Rambam writes at the end of Hilkhot Nedarim (13:23-24):

One who takes vows in order to stabilize his conduct and correct his ways - this is proper and praiseworthy. For instance, a gluttonous eater who banned for himself meat for a year or two, or an alcoholic who banned wine for a long time or drunkenness forever, or the corrupt individual who banned taking anything from anyone, or the vain individual who became a Nazir, or any such case is to be considered serving God. Regarding these and similar vows, our Sages said: "Vows are a fence around abstinence."

But although they are considered the service [of God], a person should not indulge in, nor accustom himself to, vows that add prohibitions. He should rather abstain from those things from which it is worthwhile to abstain without a vow.

It follows from here that while Chazal generally disapproved of vows – "Is what the Torah forbade you not enough that you wish to forbid other things as well?" (Yerushalmi, Nedarim 9:1) – they approved of a person who seeks additional obligations in order to prevent himself from straying in undesirable directions.

In recent generations, particularly in Musar circles, it has become customary to accept commitments upon oneself (though they are without the binding force of a vow). Even outside the narrow confines of the yeshiva world, we meet people who have accepted upon themselves obligations, from which they are not prepared to retreat, even when those commitments require considerable sacrifice on their part.

In today's mobile world, people are constantly undergoing change and transition – moving from place to place, from city to city, from country to country, from one place of work to another, and so on. People usually undergo such changes because they wish to improve their social and economic status. Frequently, however, such transitions extract a great spiritual toll. For example, a person may have the opportunity to accept a new position that will lead to material advancement, but will prevent him from regularly participating in Torah classes or congregational prayer, and may even seriously diminish the time that he can devote to his children. Sometimes the job itself being offered may raise an ethical problem, for example, a position in the field of marketing, which may require a certain measure of deviation from the truth; or a job the acceptance of which will harm another person. Such a situation tests a person's commitment to the values he professes. Hence the importance of establishing moral priorities and clinging to them, even when doing so will extract a social and economic price.

An example of such a moral stand may be found in the well-known Mishna in Avot (6:10):

Rabbi Yose ben Kisma said: I was once walking by the way when a man met me and greeted me, and I returned the greeting.

He said to me: "Master, from what place do you come?"

I replied: "I come from a great city of sages and scholars."

He said to me: "Master, if you would be willing to dwell with us in our place, I would give you a million golden dinars and precious stones and pearls."

I replied: "My son, were you to give me all the gold and silver and precious stones and pearls in the world, I would still not live anywhere except in a place of Torah. For when a man dies, neither silver nor gold nor precious stones and pearls accompany him, but only the Torah and good works."

Rabbi Yose ben Kisma had to decide here between economic well-being and holding fast to an atmosphere of Torah. This anecdote serves as a model for commitment to the world of values that a person professes.

II. Distancing oneself from controversy

            Particular attention must be paid to the problem of controversy. Chazal spoke at length in various different places about the great evil associated with controversy. For example, the Gemara in Sanhedrin states (7a):

Rav Huna said: Strife is likened to a channel made by a rush of water; once it widens, it widens.

Rashi comments: "When a river rises, it sometimes flows over into the fields on either side in the form of small channels, which, if not immediately blocked, will continue to widen until they can no longer be blocked." It is not enough to distance oneself from a place of strife; one must run away from it. For a person cannot maintain himself and stand on the side while controversy rages around him. In my opinion, this is a very important consideration; it is better for a person to suffer substantial loss, rather than remain in a workplace marked by strife.

            The Gemara in Chullin (89a) states:

Rabbi Ila'a said: The world exists only for one who keeps silent [bolem] during a quarrel, as it says (Iyyov 26:7): "He hangs the earth on nothing (belima)."

The world does not exist by the merit of people of action who disagree and argue about everything, but rather by the merit of those who successfully avoid controversy and strife.

            It is particularly important to avoid strife that is "for the sake of Heaven," regarding which there are no constraints, because a person thinks that everything is permitted to him, being that he is acting – in his own estimation – for the sake of Heaven. The Mishna in Avot (5:17) states:

Any controversy that is for the sake of Heaven will result in something permanent, but any controversy that is not for the sake of Heaven will not result in something permanent. Which controversy was for the sake of Heaven? The controversy between Hillel and Shammai. And which controversy was not for the sake of Heaven? The controversy of Korach and his company.

The halakhic disagreements between Hillel and Shammai were indeed "for the sake of Heaven" in the positive sense, for they did not involve strife. On the contrary, the Gemara (Yevamot 14b) relates:

Come and hear: Although Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel are in disagreement on the questions of rivals [in levirate marriage], sisters, an old bill of divorce, a doubtfully married woman, a woman whom her husband had divorced and who stayed with him over the night in an inn, money, valuables, a peruta and the value of a peruta, Beit Shammai, nevertheless, did not abstain from marrying women of the families of Beit Hillel, nor did Beit Hillel refrain from marrying those of Beit Shammai. This is to teach you that they showed love and friendship towards one another, thus putting into practice the Scriptural text, "Love you truth and peace" (Zekharya 8:19).

A person must, however, distance himself as much as possible from any controversy involving strife and personal insult, especially when the controversy appears to be "for the sake of Heaven."

III. The value of family

            One of the most important values in Judaism is family, especially in contemporary society which is marked by great alienation and distance between one person and the next. One of the most difficult problems of our times is when people prioritize their career over their family, a phenomenon which unfortunately leads to the break-up of families and other serious difficulties.

            The value of family cannot be expressed solely through the connection felt in the heart; it requires that people devote time to their families, to their spouses and children, at all ages. A person must share his experiences with the other members of his family, both experiences which cause him satisfaction as well as his problems – at every age according to the particular person's understanding – so that his work hours not be construed as a time in which he is totally cut off from his family.

The Mishna in Avot (2:2) states:

Rabban Gamliel the son of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi said: It is well to combine Torah study with some worldly occupation, for the energy taken up by both of them keeps sin out of one's mind.

The Rishonim disagree about the meaning of this mishna, their dispute being cited in Hagahot Maimoniyot, Hilkhot Talmud Torah (3:11, no. 2; see also Tosafot Yeshanim, Yoma 85b, s.v., teshuva):

It is stated in chapter "Keitzad mevarchim" (Berakhot 35b): "And you shall gather in your corn" (Devarim 11:14) – deal with it in the manner of the world. And we have learned in tractate Avot: It is well to combine Torah study with some worldly occupation. Rabbenu Tam explained that [having] a worldly occupation is of primary importance. As it is inferred in chapter "Ha-choletz" (Yevamot 38b): From the fact that it states: "The husband's heirs must share with the father's heirs," this implies that the father's heirs are the principal heirs.

According to Rabbenu Tam, it is the second element in a statement of this sort ("A with B") that is the principal element. In our case, having a worldly occupation is of primary importance. Tosafot Yeshanim (ad loc.) go as far as to say: "Torah study is of secondary importance in relation to having a worldly occupation." Clearly, we are not dealing with primary and secondary importance from an ideological perspective, but rather from the perspective of time: The world is constructed in such a way that a person must devote most of his time to earning a livelihood.

Rabbenu Elchanan, however, disagreed with Rabbenu Tam, as noted in Tosafot Yeshanim: "But it did not seem right to Rabbenu Elchanan to say that Torah does not enjoy primary importance." As was stated above, however, Rabbenu Tam may very well agree that, ideologically speaking, the small amount of time that a person studies Torah is more valuable, for "having a worldly occupation is of primary importance" – only from a practical perspective. This dispute is cited by Magen Avraham (O.C. 156, no. 1), and also discussed by Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook in his Orot ha-Torah (chap. 9), who writes: "In general, it depends upon the character and nature of each and every individual."

In any event, Rabbenu Tam raised an objection to his own position: If the word "with" implies that the second element is primary, how are we to understand the verse: "See life with the wife whom you love" (Kohelet 9:9)? Surely "a wife is not the primary element of life"! He answers as follows:

The gemara in the first chapter of Kiddushin (30a) learns from this verse that "Just as one is obligated to marry off his son, so is he obligated to teach him a craft." For "life" refers here to a craft. And a wife is of primary importance in relation to a craft.

Rabbenu Tam argues that marital life is more important than earning a livelihood. It follows from this that a person should not develop his career at the expense of his family. A person's family must be of primary importance, and his craft – his profession – must be secondary. This is especially important in our time, when a person's economic and social advancement is dependent in great part on the amount of time that he invests in his work. A clear contradiction often develops between the possibility of a person to advance in his workplace and his ability to invest the appropriate amount of time in his family. This is why it is important to internalize the importance of family.

It should be emphasized that the value of family does not mean only giving to one's family, for a person also receives from his family. A person who has a warm and supportive family fares better in the face of problems of any kind.

I wish to note in this context that, in years past, there were yeshivas that tended to sever their students from their homes. In my opinion, a steep price was paid for this approach. I believe that yeshiva students should remain connected to their families and avoid any type of cut-off. They must be especially careful not to offend their parents against the background of heightened meticulousness in the observance of mitzvot.

(Translated by David Strauss)