There is a story told in the Rabbinic literature that “Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach one day commissioned his disciples to buy him a camel from an Arab. When they brought him the animal, they gleefully announced that they had found a precious stone in its collar, expecting their master to share in their joy.
“Did the seller know of this gem?” asked Rabbi Shimon. On being answered in the negative, he called out angrily, “Do you think me a barbarian that I should take advantage of the letter of the law by which the gem is mine together with the camel? Return the gem to the Arab immediately.”
When the Arab received it back, he exclaimed: “Blessed be the God of Shimon ben Shetach! Blessed be the God of Israel!” (Deuteronomy Rabba 3:3)
When my sons were young, their mother and I told them more than once that what they did, how they behaved, and the way they spoke to and treated others outside the home would reflect not only on them, but on us, their parents and on our family name. We reminded them to be honest, kind, modest, and to reflect those values always.
I often tell the story of Rabbi Shimon to students in my synagogue and remind them that what we do not only says much about who we are, but about our families and the Jewish people.
Until the modern period when communal values began to change broadly, the most respected Jew in the community was not necessarily the wealthiest and most politically influential, nor the celebrity, business maven, professional, or even the largest financial benefactor to community causes, as important as these people have been historically in Jewish communal life. Rather, the highest moral, ethical and religious virtues were expected to be emulated first and foremost by the Torah scholar. However, our sages understood that even the Torah scholar struggled mightily against the dominance of his yetzer hara (“the evil inclination”). [Note that almost all scholars before the modern period were men].
Here is Maimonides’ classic description of what is expected of the great Torah scholar:
“…When a person …is a great scholar, noted for his piety, people will talk about him, even if the deeds that he has committed are not offenses in the strict sense. Such a person is guilty of profaning the divine name (hillul ha-Shem), if he, for instance, makes a purchase and does not immediately pay for it, in the case where he has the money and the sellers demand it, but he stalls them; or if he indulges in riotous behavior and in keeping undesirable company; or if he speaks roughly to his fellows and does not receive them courteously but shows his temper and the like. All is in accordance with his status as a scholar. He must endeavor to be scrupulously strict in his behavior and go beyond the letter of the law. If he does this, speaking kindly to his fellows, showing himself sociable and amiable with the welcome for everyone, taking insult but not giving it; respect them, even those who make light of him; in all his actions until all praise and love him, enraptured by his deed – such a man has sanctified the name of God (Kiddush Ha-Shem). Regarding such a person scripture states: ‘You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be gloried.’” (Moses ben Maimon, Yesodei Ha-Torah 5:11)
“Sanctifying God’s Name” (Kiddush Ha-Shem), as RAMBAM teaches, concerns the entirety of life including business ethics, one’s conduct in mundane affairs, one’s refinement of behavior and public demeanor, one’s kindness and humility before one’s fellows and God.
Except for the very rare individual, each of us is a continuing battleground between our two yetzers (i.e. good and evil inclinations) and we must choose between them. For so many of us, base instinct rules. We are driven by need, desire, greed, jealousy, envy, lust, anger, impatience, fear, and hate. Others have an easier time being kind and generous, and struggle less. But we all struggle.
The reason Torah study is determinative for the scholar and is so important for all of us is because we can find ourselves everywhere in the sacred text. Every instinct and virtue is addressed.
My friend, Rabbi Mark Borowitz of Beit T’shuvah in Los Angeles, rightly teaches that anyone who says that the Torah is irrelevant to his/her life is hiding something. To the contrary, it is there that we can discover our deepest selves, a sense of meaning and purpose that will sustain and strengthen us for noble ends.