Integration and the Tale of a Lifetime

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Understanding Aggada
Yeshivat Har Etzion


Shiur #16: Integration and the Tale of a Lifetime

By Rav Yitzchak Blau

R. Illai said: "A man is known in three ways: by how he drinks (be-koso), how he is with his money (be-kiso), and in his anger (be-ka'aso)." And some say: Also in his play. (Eruvin 65b)

Although the play on words of be-koso, be-kiso and be-ka'aso certainly appealed to R. Illai, we imagine that he selected three items that reflect a substantive point as well. One the one hand, we could find a common denominator in these three items. In all three, a person who normally hides corrupt aspects of his or her personality suddenly finds the corruption revealed. Drunkenness and anger certainly reveal normally hidden aspects of a personality, and many people show a new side of themselves when asked to open their wallets. Alternatively, we could view each item as representing an independent category.

R. Shmuel Edels, the Maharsha, adopts this second approach in his commentary on Eruvin. Although I find one aspect of his interpretation to be somewhat forced, his essential idea is quite profound and important. R. Edels argues that a person's traits relate to three aspects of life: being good to others, being good to Hashem and being good to himself. The challenge of money belongs to the interpersonal realm. As a Talmudic statement compares anger to idolatry, Maharsha understands the challenge of anger as belonging to the sphere of relations between a person and God. The temptation to drink relates to how a person treats himself.

Maharsha's third category represents the innovative idea. It is a commonplace that religion challenges us in the realms of both interpersonal behavior and with regard to our relationship with Hashem. Apparently, it also challenges us to think about how we treat ourselves. Imagine a person with a drinking problem who claims that his drinking binges do not interfere in any way with his interpersonal responsibilities or religious duties. We could try to convince such a person that alcoholism will invariably cause harm in these areas. Alternatively, we could say to that person that he or she is not being fair to himself. Maharsha teaches us that this too constitutes a religious sentiment.

Let us turn our attention to the final item suggested in the gemara. Why does "play" reveal the truth about a person in a way that more serious pursuits do not? The answer may have to do with the religious call to live an integrated life. Most observant Jews realize that mitzva performance demands a certain religious orientation and seriousness of purpose. While in the beit midrash or beit ha-knesset, they would not dream of consciously excluding religious values. At the same time, they may think of their leisure time as divorced from religious demands. They fail to realize that even as we affirm that certain areas of life are indeed devar reshut, neither forbidden nor commanded, religious ideals do not become irrelevant to those areas. Halakha has nothing against playing basketball but it does have something to say about how one plays. Halakha's voice in this area is not to be found in a section of the Shulchan Arukh called Hilkhot Basketball but in the more general command to live a life of holiness, service, and morality. The individual whose play also exhibits religious ideals (e. g. playing without selfishness, laziness, or anger) has moved to a more profound level of commitment. Sometimes, it is precisely the conduct while engaging in a leisure activity that reveals the true quality of a given individual.

A different gemara helps to develop this idea:

King Ptolemy gathered seventy-two sages and put them each in separate rooms without revealing to them why he gathered them. He went into each room and asked each sage to translate the Torah [into Greek}. The Holy One, blessed be He, placed good counsel in the hearts of each one and they all translated in an identical fashion. They wrote for him... 'And God finished on the sixth day.' (Megilla 9a)

In this gemara, the many sages choose not to offer a literal translation in passages in which such literalness might lead the readers astray. In the original, the verse actually says "And God completed his work on the seventh day" (Bereishit 2:2). An innocent reader might mistakenly understand that Hashem created something on the seventh day also. Therefore, they took liberties with the translation.

Yet we should still ask how to explain a verse that, on a superficial level, indicates that God did create on the seventh day. Commentators suggest various solutions but we will focus on that of Rashi. Rashi explains that the six days of physical creation did not encompass everything needed as the world still lacked rest. Hashem completed the created order on the seventh day by adding the element of rest.

Rashi offers a nice answer but it brings us to a different question. If this problem can be resolved so easily, why didn't the sages just translate the verse literally and explain it to the Greeks using Rashi's interpretation? Rabbi Norman Lamm provides an excellent answer in his article entitled "A Jewish Ethic of Leisure" (found in his book Faith and Doubt). Rabbi Lamm explains that there are two possible conceptions of rest. One thinks of rest as pure passivity, as a time to get away from it all and not think about ideals and accomplishments. The other conception sees rest as something with creative potential.

Shabbat provides the finest example of the latter model. While we keep Shabbat by abstaining from work, we experience Shabbat as something positive and creative. According to Rabbi Lamm, the Greeks though of rest in purely negative and passive terms. Therefore, they could not view rest as part of the positive created order. The seventy-two sages decided that the Greeks need a non-literal translation as they do not understand the creative model of rest.

The attempt to practice a positive kind of rest should be expanded beyond Shabbat to all our leisure activities. This message should have particular relevance to those who, like this author, do not think that Judaism grants no value to all activities that are not concrete mitzvot. In an excellent essay (found in Tradition, Fall 1985), Rabbi Shalom Carmy writes of the challenge facing Modern Orthodox Jews to live a unified existence. Rabbi Carmy utilizes the image of the human life as a story. In discussing a person's adherence to his or her core ideals, Rabbi Carmy writes as follows:

"A life is integrated if it tells a coherent story in the light of those principles and ideals, it is dis-integrated to the degree that the individual's experience, thoughts, and deeds fail to cohere with them, or insofar as the principles and ideals are internally inconsistent."

When thinking about the quality of our recreational activity, it behooves us to ask whether or not they fit into the same story as our learning, davening, and tzedaka. Just as a good author strives to craft a unified story, each person constantly engaged in writing the most important tale there is, his or her own life story, must certainly work on a coherence of meaning in the wholeness of a human life.