The Torah in Parashat Bereishit lists the descendants of Adam down to Noach, and in mentioning Noach’s great-grandfather, Chanokh, the Torah states that Chanokh was especially righteous (“Chanokh walked with God” – 5:24) and was taken from this world at a relatively young age.
A number of works cite a mysterious passage from the Midrash Talpiyot telling that Chanokh worked as a shoemaker, and as he stitched the shoes, “haya meyacheid yichudim” – he engaged in deep mystical thought. The conventional reading of this Midrashic passage is that Chanokh’s piety was expressed by his intensive spiritual focus even as he went about his regular, mundane affairs.
Rav Yisrael Salanter, however, is cited as offering the precise opposite explanation. In his view, it is inconceivable that a man described as being righteous would focus on anything while performing his work other than ensuring it is done properly. If a shoemaker is paid to make or repair shoes, his primary obligation at that time is to do everything he can to complete the job to the customer’s satisfaction. Accordingly, Rav Yisrael Salanter understood the Midrash’s remark to mean that to the contrary, Chanokh focused intently on doing his work properly, and this was as spiritually significant as engagement in deep mystical thought and meditation. The Midrash specifically seeks to instruct that tending to our basic responsibilities, which include serving customers and employers with integrity and to the best of our ability, is no less religiously meaningful than mystical meditations, and is a necessary prerequisite for piety.
This reading of the Midrash’s remark seems strained, and it is told that the Chazon Ish rejected Rav Yisrael Salanter’s interpretation and insisted that this passage be understood according to its straightforward implication (Ma’aseh Ish, vol. 1, p. 179). Nevertheless, the fact that Rav Yisrael Salanter felt compelled to interpret the passage in this fashion is itself significant, as it reflects the great importance with which he viewed fulfilling our basic responsibilities before proceeding to loftier spiritual goals. Rav Yisrael Salanter could not imagine a righteous person focusing his attention on anything but his work while tending to his professional duties – not even lofty spiritual matters – because a person cannot begin pursuing greatness if he or she does not first achieve goodness. It is only after we fulfill our basic obligations of decency and integrity that we can then seek to rise to greater heights of spiritual achievement.