Towards a Kavod Shomayim Consciousness
by Jonathan Rosenblum
December 13, 2012
It would be easy to prepare a laundry list of challenges facing our community (however defined) and areas in need of improvement. That would also be true of every human society that has ever existed.
Where Torah society differs, I think, is that it offers a way of addressing all those distinct challenges by focusing on one central point: What is our purpose in this world? This has little to do with money, and everything to do with changing consciousness.
In chapter 19 of Mesilas Yesharim, entitled the Divisions of Chassidus, the Ramchal describes the chassid as one whose every thought and deed is with the intention of increasing Kavod Shomayim in the world. Admittedly, that is an extraordinarily high level only a few ever attained, even in the Ramchal's day. But it points the way towards a consciousness that should be the focus of our chinuch. Each of us must know and convey to our children that everything we do in the world either increases or lessens Kavod Shomayim in the world, through the messages we convey.
The impact of such a consciousness would be felt on both the individual and Klal level. To the extent that one is aware of every moment as an opportunity to increase Kavod Shomayim, one must constantly ask the question: What is the right thing for me to be doing now. The answer to that question is by no means obvious: Most of our life is lived between the realm of permitted and proscribed.
But the only place to seek the answer is the Torah combined with knowledge of ourselves. The Torah, writes Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, is Divine Anthropology. The Torah teaches us about Man from the point of view of G-d. The mitzvos must be understood not as arbitrary rules that demand only obedience, but as the tools through which Hashem seeks to shape the ideal human being. Accordingly, Hirsch explains the meaning and life lessons of each detail of the mitzvos.
Approaching Torah in that fashion – as a continuous message about how to conduct ourselves – intensifies our learning. Rabbi Noach Weinberg used to refer to this approach as Toras Chaim. One example of the approach will show how it encourages probing questions and leads to real life answers.
Rashi describes Yaakov Avinu as preparing for war, sending gifts, and praying in anticipation of meeting Esav. Why, asked Rav Noach, should preparations for war precede tefillah, which would seem the primary response of a man of faith? He answered that every situation in which we find ourselves is a message from Hashem. First, we have to show Hashem that we are listening and know that something must be changed, and then we can daven that the test come in a less onerous form.
A Kiddush Hashem consciousness also fills one's life with the idealism and sense of purpose that is too lacking today. Each of us has a mission that no one else can fulfill, and that mission does not depend on class rank, popularity or good looks. It derives from the fact that no one else was ever in exactly the same situation as I am at this precise moment because no one else was ever exactly like me or shared the same personal history. And therefore the message that I am broadcasting to increase Kavod Shomayim (or, chas ve'shalom, the opposite) is one that has never been heard in exactly the same way before. And it never will be again.
Thinking more about Kavod Shomayim would thus make us deeper people, with the self-knowledge that comes from reflection upon what makes one unique. And it would fill our lives with more passion and lead to a more intense connection to our Torah learning. (It might even help alleviate the shidduch crisis – perhaps the single greatest source of pain in our community – by producing more mature young men, who had spent some time learning up the parasha of their own selves, and who would not be afraid to marry someone close to them in age.)
THERE IS ALSO A CRUCIAL KLAL DIMENSION to Kavod Shomayim consciousness: It reinforces our sense of ourselves as being inextricably bound to every other Jew. In the same chapter previously mentioned, the Ramchal, based on Pirkei D'Rebbe Eliezer, describes the chassid as constantly thinking about the good of the generation: Kavod Shomayim cannot be separated from the situation of the Jewish people. When Klal Yisrael is in galus, when the majority of Klal Yisrael have no connection to Torah, Kavod Shomayim is minimized in the world.
Redemption of the Jewish people and the coming of Mashiach is the ultimate in Kavod Shomayim. And as the late Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe used to emphasize, that can only happen when all Klal Yisrael does teshuva. We will not be redeemed as individuals.
A Kavod Shomayim perspective necessitates that we think beyond our individual and familial lives, beyond even the Torah community, to all of Klal Yisrael. Rabbi Shimon Schwab writes that it was Yaakov Avinu's desire to rest from proclaiming Hashem's Name in the world to focus on his own spiritual growth and the education of his children that opened the door for the Satan.
That perspective also makes possible an interaction with the outside society that is less threatening to our individual spiritual well-being and potentially more effective in bringing the larger society to the teshuva of which the Rabbi Wolbe spoke.
Torah Jews are involved to an ever increasing extent in the general society. We have to be acutely aware of the dangers and costs involved. At the same time, we must not approach every interaction in a purely negative posture. Rather than being consumed by fear of how our secular Jewish brothers or sisters will negatively affect us, we also need confidence that we can influence them. Interaction with secular Jews is not just a threat, it is also an opportunity to change perceptions, to reveal something of what it means to live a life shaped by Torah and mitzvos.
The more involved we are in the message that we wish to convey the less we will be threatened by theirs. As the football coaches say, "The best defense is a good offense." Or in halachic terms: ain hapoleit boleah – that which is giving off does not absorb."
All Torah Jews wear metaphorical blinders with respect to general society, and try to fit our children with those blinders as well, in order to filter out images and values antithetical to our own. One of the challenges we face, however, is not letting those blinders prevent us from seeing the individuals who comprise that outside society – our fellow Jews to whom we have specific responsibilities and with whom our collective fate is inextricably bound.
When we are constantly thinking in terms of Kavod Shomayim, we cannot help be aware that someone is receiving the messages that we are transmitting. Sometimes our only audience is Hashem, but often times it is all those in whose presence we find ourselves, whether gentiles or Jews. In the case of Jews, so important is the audience, so sensitive do we have to be of their presence and how they are "hearing" us, that under certain circumstances we are required to give up our lives rather than change the color of our shoelaces in front of ten other Jews, lest we thereby convey the wrong message to them.
Only with coming of Mashiach, will all the tears of Jewish life, both individual and communal, be wiped away. Until the ultimate revelation of Kavod Shomayim, our primary task is to demonstrate our eagerness for the Redemption by everything in our power to increase Kavod Shomayim through our own deeds and by bringing our fellow Jews closer to our Father in Heaven.
Written as part of a Mishpacha symposium: What one area would you focus on if given a million dollars to change the Jewish world?
Related Topics: Jewish Ethics
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