The second perek (chapter) of Mishna Berachot concludes with רַבָּן שִׁמְעוֹן בֶּן גַּמְלִיאֵל אוֹמֵר, לֹא כָּל הָרוֹצֶה לִטּוֹל אֶת הַשֵּׁם יִטֹּל, Rabban Shimon, son of Rabban Gamliel, says that not everyone who wants to assume the title (of a tzadik) is authorized to. Although the mishna is technically discussing the ruling of a bridegroom reciting the Shema on his wedding night (whether he can achieve the proper kavana (spiritual focus) for this while nervous about consummating his marriage), the real lesson is about arrogance and pretentiousness. While a very few special people (Rabban Gamliel, for example) are able to function at a much higher level than the rest of us, rather than wasting our energy pretending we’re holier than we really are we should, better, focus on our job.
Of course it’s much more glamorous to be the sexy, sophisticated model driving a new car on a tv commercial, actually building the car requires an entire range of human endeavors, some glamorous and some not no much (from mining the metals out of the earth to engineering and designing, to turning the screw that holds the door on). If everyone insists on being the spokesman, no one will actually manufacture the car to begin with!
Perhaps the major theme of the upcoming Yomim Noraim (Days of Awe) is tshuva (returning/resetting, but often badly translated as repentance). A famous lesson of this season is that our prayers can fix our sins against God, but we must personally, directly and specifically ask for forgiveness from the people we’ve harmed over the year. We’re also taught that when sincerely approached we’re absolutely obligated to forgive.
Given this principle, wouldn’t it be even better to forgive the people who’ve harmed us even before they ask? After all, the Prophet Isaiah (65:24) describes God, וְהָיָה טֶרֶם־יִקְרָאוּ וַאֲנִי אֶעֱנֶה עוֹד הֵם מְדַבְּרִים וַאֲנִי אֶשְׁמָע (Before they call and I have already answered; while they are still speaking I have already heard). Aren’t we mandated to imitate God? This is a real dilemma, since we’ve also given detailed instructions how to live as humans, and as Jews.
Especially in an environment where everything is considered relative, where exclusivity is considered, at best, boorish and parochial, it’s very tempting to reject our own tradition and just “go shopping” for ideas that, on the surface, appear “better”, “holier”, “more compassionate”. Especially when, after millennia of abuse which, to one degree or another, has led most of us to internalize at least a little of the anti-semitism we’ve experienced, we’re often not even aware when we’ve assumed non-Jewish values as Jewish ones. “Turning the other cheek”, while sounding nice, often leads to self-victimization and a sense of deserving the abuse. The phrase “Stockholm Syndrome”, in which the hostages identify with their kidnappers, describes a pathology, not a value to admire and aspire to. This is the extreme case of “forgiving before being asked”, and when performed by a human, rather than by God Himself, is self-damaging rather than self-enlightening.
But the damage doesn’t stop here. In a less extreme case, much more common in normal human interaction, the process of asking forgiveness from one we’ve harmed is a fundamental and essential step in our own tshuva, self-repair. Denied this opportunity, our path towards healing ourselves has been blocked. In halachic terms, the person who forgives before being asked, rather than being beneficent, has just stolen our mitzva! In more extreme cases (such as the wholesale terror campaign against the State of Israel and Jews worldwide), those with the pretensions of “godliness” only validate the evil that others do. Assuming that somewhere down the road, once our own survival has been secured, we do want even our enemies to return to a righteous path, we haven’t done them any favors either by validating their savagery.
God provided us the framework of a justice system (one of the seven Noahide laws that are incumbent on all humans, not just Jews, which define being civilized) to teach us by practice how to become a just person, a צדיק (tzaddik), something every human being is capable of becoming. We create a just society, not to mention a safe and secure one for everyone, when we don’t try to shortcut it out of the egotism and narcissism of believing we’re God rather than human.
Give ourselves and others the opportunity to experience the process of these holy days.
Ketiva v’Chatima Tova.