Plain Meanings - Complex Texts

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Rabbi Yehiel Poupko is bridging the gap between old Jewish books and contemporary realities.

Plain Meanings - Complex Texts

The next big whatever

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I do not like big questions.  The Ted Talks notwithstanding, I am not looking for the next big idea, or big thing, or whatever else big everyone seems to be after.  Furthermore, I don't think Judaism likes big questions or big ideas.  Please show me the next small idea, the next little thing to do.  I cannot grapple with how to achieve truth, justice, peace, love, and all of those wonderful words that are vessels for infinite thought and emotion, that glibly establish unattainable and frustrating goals ever crashing like waves against rocky jetties of reality. 

We are a small, little people.  We are meant to be a small, little people.  As God says, "I didn't love you because you were so huge; because in fact you're the smallest of all the nations of the world."  That surely is true to this very day.  As a small people we were given a Torah.  To be sure, the Torah has some huge ideas; really massive important fundamental ideas:  There is one God, the Creator.  All humanity is created in the image of God.  These are towering, earth shaking ideas.  However, the Torah doesn't expect us to get to big ideas and huge beliefs by wrapping our arms around them.  A theological medicine ball is too big for anyone.  These big ideas can only be had in lots of little mitzvot.  That's why we have so many mitzvot, because they're all so very plain, simple, and little.  They're not big.  They're right at hand.  They're easy to do.  They manage the world, because the world can't be managed by big ideas and abstractions like love and justice.  We have so many mitzvot because life is lived and loved in the details. 

One of the most famous passages in all of the Torah is, "Love thy neighbor as thyself."  Love?  How can I possibly love my neighbor?  I love my immediate family, but my neighbor?  Love's implementation is impossible without reading the preceding verses.  

You shall not defraud your fellow. You shall not commit robbery. The wages of a laborer shall not remain with you until morning.  You shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind…  You shall not render an unfair decision: do not favor the poor or show deference to the rich; judge your kinsman fairly.  Do not deal basely with your countrymen. Do not stand idly by the blood of your fellow: I am the LORD.  You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart. Reprove your kinsman but incur no guilt because of him.  You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your countrymen. Love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD. (Leviticus 19:11-18)

The Torah instructs how to love.  What is love of neighbor?  Love is one of those words that moves, that slips ever to easily and glibly off the tongue.  The Torah tells us what love means.  If you really want to love your neighbor as yourself, here are the simple little behaviors that you should engage in:

Don't lie to your neighbor;

Don't gossip about your neighbor;

Don't nurture hateful attitudes to your neighbor;

Don't be deceitful to your neighbor. 

Nothing big here.  Just small stuff.  That's what love is.  There are many more examples of this in the Torah.  You love your neighbor by returning what he or she has lost.  You love your neighbor by not cheating them in business.  You love your neighbor by letting them into your field at harvest time if they're poor.  That's how you love.  In fact love has very little to do with "I love you."  The Torah could have said, "Love your neighbor…", and assumed that the rest is easy for us to figure out.  No such thing.  Love is in the details, just ask the devil.  Love has everything to do with lots of little details.  Save the next big thing, idea, or question for someone else.  For the Jewish people the question is always: Where is my next little, easy mitzva to be found?

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