On Simplicity

20 Aug

By Adin Even-Israel (Steinsaltz)

The first letter of the word tamim – the letter tav – in the verse “Be wholehearted (tamim) with God your Lord” (Deut. 18:13) is traditionally written in Torah scrolls larger than the other letters of the word. Rabbi Naftali of Ropshitz, who was known to joke at his own expense, and even more so at the expense of others, once said that the reason for the large tav is so that there should be room inside it for everyone, so that no one should consider himself too big and great to fit into this wholeheartedness.

What does it mean to “Be wholehearted with God your Lord”? It is not so simple to determine what type of person qualifies as tamim.

The first person to whom this attribute is assigned is Jacob, who was a “wholehearted man (ish tam) who stayed with the tents,” unlike Esau who was “a skilled hunter” (Gen. 25:27).

The designation ish tam is so closely identified with Jacob that the great Tosafist Rabbeinu Tam was given this name because his first name was Jacob. We generally envisage an ish tam as a type of lowly creature, a pale young man, an idler, who sits in the tent and does not know how to perform even the simplest of tasks. Yet from the Torah’s account, Jacob does not seem to fit this description at all. He is not simple and naïve; on the contrary, the Talmud says that when Jacob met Rachel and told her that he was her father’s brother, he said to her, “I am his brother in deception” (Bava Batra 123a). Sure enough, Jacob uses this craftiness to ultimately emerge unharmed by Laban.

In modern Hebrew, a tamim is a naïf, a person whose mental capacities may be lacking in some way. But this is not the plain meaning of “Be wholehearted with God your Lord” and of the word tamim as it generally appears in the Torah. Rather, the Torah speaks of temimut in the sense of wholeness and wholeheartedness.

This distinction can be seen by considering the context of our verse. Moses tells the People of Israel that if they want to know the future, they must not be like all the other nations who “listen to astrologers and diviners” (Deut. 18:14). Rather, they must “be wholehearted with God your Lord” – be completely with Him. When people want to see something that is hidden from them, some will attempt to see the concealed item by straying outside stealthily. King Saul, for example, reasoned that if he could not know the future – neither via the Urim and Thummim nor via the prophets – he will go outside the Torah’s framework and visit the woman who consults ghosts. When something is interesting and intriguing enough, it is very tempting to go outside to get a glimpse.

“Be wholehearted with God your Lord” means that we must be wholly with Him, just as Chamor and Shekhem described Jacob’s family to their fellow townsmen: “These people are completely with us” (Gen. 34:21).

To be wholehearted with God your Lord means to be completely in God’s domain and not to go outside to get a glimpse of the future. As such, temimut is truly a simple matter. It is the simplicity of one who lives within a world of wholeheartedness.

The Ability to Accept

Another difference between the tamim and the non-tamim is the ability to immediately accept new things, whether it is another person, idea, or subject, without constantly asking if perhaps the opposite is the case.

Temimutis measured by a person’s initial reaction: Does he immediately block out everything that he encounters, or does he come with the willingness to listen and accept? After the initial acceptance, there is certainly room for investigation and examination, study and search, and sometimes one in fact discovers that the thing in question must be rejected. But one’s initial reaction is what determines if one is a tamim or not.

Rashi comments that an ish tam is “one who is not sharp in deceiving.” Some explain that the reference is not to one who does not know how to deceive or does not understand what deception is; rather, “sharp in deceiving” refers to one whose first thought is how to get the best of the other person: “You do not trust others because you yourselves are untrustworthy” (Is. 7:9).

The Midrash relates that when God offered the Torah to the Ishmaelites, they asked, “What is written in it?” whereas the People of Israel immediately said, “We will do and [then] hear” (Mechilta DeRashbi, Ex. 20:2). The Talmud cites the words of a certain sectarian: “You are a rash people, who gave precedence to your mouths over your ears [when you said ‘We will do and (then) hear’].” Rava answered him: “We, who walk in integrity, of us it is written, ‘The integrity of the upright will guide them.’ But of you, who walk in perversity, it is written, ‘but the perverseness of the faithless will destroy them’ (Prov. 11:3)” (Shabbat 88a–b).

This is exactly the essence of temimut: A tamim is one who immediately says, “We will do and then hear,” rather than always making sure to first ask what is written.

Does this mean that it is easier for Jews to fulfill the Torah than it would have been for the Ishmaelites or the Edomites? One could argue just the opposite: It is true that the Ishmaelites could not accept “Do not commit adultery” and the Edomites could not accept “Do not murder” (Ex. 20:13), but the Jewish people had difficulty accepting all Ten Commandments, from beginning to end. Nevertheless, the Jewish people’s approach was that because the Torah came from God, it was their responsibility to accept it before delving too deeply into the details. If there are problems later on, they can be dealt with, with the necessary struggle, coping, and reckoning, internally and externally.

The difference between Israel and the nations is the difference between temimut and the sense that everything must be investigated. It is the willingness to accept a thing as it is, without feeling the need to first dismantle it, extract the inner mechanism, and see how it works, and only then consider whether to accept it.

A Complex World

When one loses the ability to see something new and simply go with it – whether because of one’s own personality, the society in which he lives, or the education that he received – this is a poisonous way to live one’s life. Such a person will never again be able to see things in a straight way. This actually happens to some people. They reach a state where they assume that behind every smile lurk dark thoughts. They lose the simple ability to recognize and accept the good in things.

It is difficult to be tamim. Perhaps it is easy for one who has never suffered disappointments in his life. For someone who has never been kicked from behind, it is easier to relate to people according to the expressions on their faces. He feels much more comfortable with people; if someone smiles at him, he smiles back. The problem exists primarily with those who have already encountered dishonesty in interpersonal relationships. Yet even these people are charged with maintaining their temimut, and this is not easy at all.

Part of what people learn in the course of their lives, for better or for worse, is that the world is complex, and not everyone is the same inside and out. Despite the need to live one’s life with temimut, this, too, is an experience that one must learn: Although not everything that appears unpleasant on the outside is unpleasant on the inside, and although not everything that seems frightening should actually cause alarm, the reverse is also true; not every nice thing is actually as nice as it appears. However, sometimes people take this distrust too far, and are no longer able to accept anything at face value.

After Adam ate from the Tree of Knowledge, he may have wanted to spit it out, because he probably discovered immediately that the pleasure of knowledge is accompanied by much pain. What is difficult and tragic is that once man tastes the fruit, after the slightest lick from the Tree of Knowledge, it is very hard to spit it out.

A righteous Jew once came to see his rebbe and said to him, “When I pray, I see facing me letters of fire.” The rebbe informed him that the letters represent the contemplations of the Ari on the prayers. The Jew replied, “Rebbe, I would prefer not to see those letters, and to pray with the intention that I used to pray with.” The rebbe answered, “In order to study the contemplations of the Ari and yet not see those letters, one must be on a much higher level than yours.”

What, then, can be done? According to the Responsa of the Rivash (No. 157), Rabbi Shimshon from Kinon used to claim that he prayed with the mentality of a young child, that is to say, with the same temimut or simplicity that a young child has. Rabbi Shimshon of Kinon, author of Sefer HaKeritot on the rules of Talmud, was one of the greatest rabbis of his generation, and part of his greatness was that after all that he knew and heard, he was able to pray “with the mentality of a young child.”

Nowadays, prayer requires spiritual effort that in earlier generations was not as necessary. One’s spiritual work in prayer is not just to remove distractions or extraneous thoughts, but that people cannot relate to the matter of prayer itself; rather, they feel that they must conduct all sorts of analyses of prayer. Nowadays, when one wants to have proper intention in prayer, he must conduct linguistic, historical, and philosophical analyses, and even esoteric or exoteric analyses, and cannot accept the prayer as it is. He cannot contemplate the Selach Lanu blessing without debating whether the phrase mechol lanu follows the rules of grammar or not, and other such questions.

When one hears the blowing of the shofar, notwithstanding all the halakhic matters connected with it, one must remember the simple question, “Shall a shofar be blown in a city, and the people not be alarmed?” (Amos 3:6). The time of the blowing of the shofar is designed for this alarm, but instead of alarm, many people focus on how long the shofar blast lasted, whether the shevarim tones were satisfactory, and whether the shofar blower became confused and blew ten times instead of nine. It could be that when one heard the blowing of the shofar as a child, one experienced fear of judgment and fear of God. But now that one has grown up and studied the Shulchan Aruch, one experiences neither of those fears. Instead of the simple aspect of alarm inherent in the shofar blowing, it has turned into a science of shofar blasts. I can imagine that, even facing Mount Sinai, there was some wise and learned man who stood up and said, “Nu, how long was this shofar blast?” I am sure that there were several God-fearing people there who, when they heard the sound of the shofar “growing louder and louder” (Ex. 19:19), made sure to count how many seconds it lasted.

In a certain sense, after having already encountered so many individual, disjointed parts, it becomes very difficult to see the whole, the temimut. The Talmud expounds on the verse, “Attend (hasket) and hear, O Israel” (Deut. 27:9), saying, “First be silent (has) and only then analyze (kattet)” (Berachot 63b). First there is a stage of listening, of accepting. Only then is it time to discuss and analyze, to break down and reconstruct. If one engages only in analysis without retaining the ability to receive, the idea is no longer alive; it is only dissected parts.

A pathologist who performs autopsies often knows more about the human body than anyone else. However, in a certain sense he now knows less, in that he was never given the whole in its perfect form. All that he has to work with are dissected parts.

This is true of a vast array of things, ranging from faith to prayer. Integral to prayer is the appeal for the strength to serve God wholeheartedly. This is an ability that we generally have when we commit sins but less so when we perform mitzvot. When a person commits a sin, he does not consider how many prohibitions it entails, and how this sin is shameful and contemptible. While the sin is being committed, he has the ability to forget the sin itself and somehow to be wholly invested in the performance. One should pray for the ability to perform the mitzvot just as wholeheartedly, without all the surrounding considerations.

I began with Rabbi Naftali of Ropshitz’s comment on the tav of the word tamim – that at times it may seem that one is already a great man. It is good that the blowing of the shofar causes the eyes of children to fill with tears. But if one believes that he is a great, learned man, who has studied so much about the halakhot of shofar blasts, it is hard to imagine reacting this way. Yet what Rabbi Naftali of Ropshitz says is that even for such a great man, there is room for him to enter into temimut. Indeed, he is obligated to do just this.

“I Have Stilled and Quieted”

Each year, Parashat Shoftim is read close to Rosh Hashanah, and the nature of Rosh Hashanah is that it always arrives, whether I want it to or not. On this great day, the Day of Judgment and the Day of Remembrance, there is an aspect of “I have stilled and quieted” (Ps. 131:2). Indeed, on Rosh Hashanah the mitzvah is not to blow the shofar but “to hear the sound of the shofar” – to listen and to accept. The new beginning on Rosh Hashanah is significant because it sets the direction of one’s progress, and if one begins at a wrong angle, there is a higher chance of continuing this way in the future.

Rosh Hashanah is, without a doubt, a day of intense prayer. The custom on Rosh Hashanah is to read chapters of Psalms; indeed, many people read through the entire book of Psalms twice. One of the reasons for this is that if one must finish reading the entire book twice, one cannot do it with the contemplations of the Ari, nor even with the commentaries on the bottom of the page; one must read it as one reads a book – simply read and react. Sometimes there is a positive reaction and sometimes there is a negative reaction, but there is always a reaction.

Many learned, God-fearing Jews will not have time for all this. When these people read Psalms, they will likely not reach chapter 131, a chapter that demonstrates how to be truly wholehearted with God:

A Song of Ascents; of David. O God, my heart is not haughty, nor mine eyes lofty; neither do I exercise myself in things too great, or in things too wonderful for me. Surely I have stilled and quieted my soul like a weaned child with its mother; my soul is with me like a weaned child. O Israel, hope in God from this time forth and forever. (131:1–3)

Just as a young child sits with his mother even after he is weaned, a great and learned man can likewise sit this way in prayer, even after attaining vast amounts of knowledge and interpretations. When one faces God, “My soul is with me like a weaned child.”

As taken from,

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Posted by on August 20, 2020 in Uncategorized


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