Chapter 2, Mishna 1(a)
Israel's Dual Mission
"Rabbi said, What is the proper path a person should choose for himself?
Whatever brings glory to himself [before G-d], and grants him glory before
others. Be careful with a minor mitzvah (commandment) as with a major one,
for you do not know the reward for the mitzvos. Consider the loss incurred
for performing a mitzvah compared to its reward, and the 'reward' received
for sinning compared to the loss. Consider three things and you will not
come to sin: Know what is above you: an eye that sees and an ear that
hears, and all your deeds are recorded in the Book."
The author of this mishna is Rabbi Yehuda the Nasi (lit., prince), the
leading scholar of last generation of the Mishna. He lived in the 1st to
2nd Centuries C.E. and was a seventh generation descendant of Hillel (of
1:12-14). He is known throughout the Mishna simply as Rabbi (pronounced
"Rah-bee" in Hebrew -- and usually mispronounced "Rebbie") - our teacher,
par excellence. He was also a person of wealth and influence with the Roman
government. Rabbi was the redactor of the Mishna - the one who collected
the material of his time, reviewed it (together with his colleagues and
students), and organized it into the Mishna we have today. His lifetime
marked the end of the period of the Mishna. With the generation that
followed him began the period of the Talmud.
Rabbi begins by providing us with the proper criteria for selecting a path
in life. We are to act in a manner which brings "glory" to ourselves both
in the eyes of G-d and in the eyes of man. (I couldn't find a great English
equivalent of the Hebrew term here - "tiferes." The meaning is honor,
glory, admiration.) We are presented almost immediately with an obvious
question. Behaving in a manner which earns G-d's admiration is certainly
the correct idea. That is what we were created for. But the second
criterion is perhaps more curious. Certainly we want to impress others and
show them what true Judaism is about. It might even inspire them to become
better people themselves. Yet how can this be placed on an equal footing
with pleasing G-d? Our *purpose* in life is to serve G-d. If others admire
us and are favorably impacted - great. But if not, what are we to do?
Should we start compromising our own beliefs just so as not to rub others
the wrong way? If they can appreciate truth, that would seem frosting on
the cake. But shouldn't we care far more about what G-d thinks than if
we've earned the approval of fallible and biased human beings?
In truth, however, Rabbi is telling us a profound insight, one which must
fundamentally alter our own outlook in life. In a sense, we *do* have two
masters when we observe our religion. Our success in fulfilling our purpose
must not be gauged by how well we are performing the mitzvos (commandments)
alone, but in how we are impacting on the world around us. And it's
exceedingly easy (and sometimes tempting) to fulfill our obligations to G-d
to the detriment of our mission to man. If someone is very holy and pious
but somehow manages to get on everyone else's nerves (and we probably all
know such people ;-), somehow he's not doing it right. Our purpose is not
to dwell in our own little worlds or ivory towers consecrating ourselves to
G-d alone -- and we must certainly not make our piety a weapon to distance
ourselves from the world at large. Our mission is to transform the world
around us into a reflection of G-dliness. We carry with us a message to the
rest of the world. We must demonstrate through our deeds and behavior that
G-d exists and His Presence can be felt within this world. We must build
families and communities, interact with the world around us, and transform
the world at large into a sanctuary worthy of the Divine Presence. And then
slowly, the world will grow to become a reflection of the G-d who created
The Talmud (Yoma 86a) derives from the verse "You shall love the L-rd your
G-d..." (Deuteronomy 6:5) that each of us is obligated to make G-d beloved
through his or her actions. One should study Torah and deal kindly with
others, so that they say, "Fortunate is his father who taught him Torah!
Fortunate is his rabbi who taught him Torah! Woe to those who do not study
Torah! This one who has studied Torah, see how beautiful are his ways!" It
is so very easy and tempting to fulfill G-d's commandments to the letter
but by doing so estrange ourselves from others - to exhibit a
condescending, holier-than-thou attitude towards all we come in contact
with -- especially those we know best. It is simply our "evil
inclination's" way of attempting to frustrate our efforts after we have
mastered the basics and have begun to serve G-d properly. We are tempted to
use all of our good deeds and throw them in others' faces rather than using
them to bring others closer to G-d. But Judaism asks of us something far
The dilemma involved, however, is far deeper. The world for the most part
is hardly up to the messages of truth and spirituality we have to share
with it. How are we to go about fulfilling our mission to mankind while
maintaining our own standards to G-d - standards which appear archaic,
old-fashioned, and anachronistic to the rest of the world? Can we really
impress both G-d and man, or does it seems at times we must decide between
one or the other?
Allow me to ask this question on a more practical level; it might just
strike a responsive chord with a few of you. The following situation has
repeated itself thousands of times in this and in past generations -- going
back till about the dawn of time (if not earlier). A young man or woman
discovers a little of the truth of religion and wants to become more
observant than his or her parents. The parents usually do not take it well.
The child is joining a cult, going off the deep end, rejecting their
upbringing, showing little appreciation for all we've done for them, etc.
etc. He is not going to go to the college of his choice (read: our choice)
and live up to the image of success and achievement we have for him. The
same old story. (Incidentally, this often has nothing to do with religion.
We as parents often develop too vivid an image of our dreams for our
children -- which is usually more of an image of how we ourselves wanted to
turn out (but did not). We ourselves need to be wary of forming too
restrictive a mold for our children to fill.) But what is the obligation of
this young adult? Does G-d really want him or her to *hurt* his parents? Is
it really a choice - either G-d *or* his parents?
It is clear that when push comes to shove, we must serve our G-d first. Our
bond to our beliefs must be far stronger than any flesh and blood bond.
(The Talmud teaches that if your parents asks you to transgress a Torah
law, you must not listen, for both you *and* your parents are obligated to
listen to G-d (Bava Metziah 32a).) If the world really couldn't care less
about truth, we will just have to stand firm against an uncaring, apathetic
world (as did our forefather Abraham), preserve what we may, and hope for
Nevertheless, it is my sincere belief that it is possible to do both. It is
inconceivable to me that G-d would "force" us to hurt others. Let us return
to that word above that we had trouble translating - "tiferes" or glory.
There is a distinction between being an idol, a folk hero everyone is in
love with and wants to imitate, and being someone others can respect. If we
present ourselves as sincere, as firm in our beliefs and willing to stand
up for what we believe in, chances are others will respect - and perhaps
begrudgingly admire - us for who we are. We must not flaunt our differences
or use them to distance ourselves from others. And we must certainly
exhibit the Jewish values of concern and love for every human being. But
regardless of our specific beliefs or practices, even the most stalwart
parent or Gentile - who may not admit it immediately - will come to admire
us for who we are and what we stand for.
This is the tightrope we must often walk in life - uncompromising rigidity
yet friendliness, nonconformity yet love and concern. But it is possible to
maintain differences between friends and relatives - even fundamental ones
- and at the same time preserve a sense of love and mutual respect.
Parents, of course, do have their own free will. They can be stubborn and
refuse to come to terms with changes in their children no matter how well
their children try. But there is a level at which they can respect and
honor even if they do not agree. Scriptures sums up Torah observance as:
"Its ways are ways of pleasantness" (Proverbs 3:17). Our practices might
not always be socially acceptable or in the political mainstream, and we
must at times stand aloof and apart, but our deeds, our conduct and our
demeanor must always radiate love and pleasantness to all.
Pirkei-Avos, Copyright C 2003 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org.