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Jewish World Review
Sept. 3, 2004
/17 Elul, 5764
Improve oneself or society?
Rabbi Berel Wein
What the Bible expects of us individually and collectively
One of the salient points of Judaism is that it treats and deals with
individuals and their behavior while at the same time it sponsors a
program for the national entity, as well.
In Judaism, the individual is responsible not only for personal behavior but for society as a whole. The Talmud long ago reminded that we are all guarantors one for another.
Personal piety, if not extended into the social improvement
of the society as a whole, will be found wanting on the scale of Eternal
judgment. Personal piety is easier to achieve than is its exportation
into societal behavior. There is a Yiddish phrase that describes this
shortcoming graphically: ah tzadik in peltz a self-righteous person
wrapped in his own fur coat to protect himself from the cold. Judaism
searched for those who would light a fire to warm all by its heat and
not for fur coat wearers, no matter how personally pious they may be in
their private lives.
Yet, on the other hand, people committed to improving the public life of
society must themselves be grounded in personal morality and goodness.
Immoral people, no matter how talented they may be and how high in
office and power they might rise, leave a sour legacy within the society
they mean to serve. The rabbis in composing the blessings after the
haftorah (weekly reading from the Prophets) were careful to thank G-d for having provided Israel with prophets who were good people. This in contrast to other prophets
outside of the Jewish world, like Bilaam, who, though possessed of great plans and gifted prose, were unscrupulous and immoral in their personal lives.
Such prophets bring only sadness and disappointment to their societies.
Throughout Jewish history, lasting Jewish leadership was always measured
by the yardstick of personal probity and decent behavior by the leader.
The Talmud compliments Rabbi Hillel not only for his intellectual prowess and
devotion to Torah study but for his sterling character and his behavior
in the general world of society. His ability to restrain anger, to
encourage compromise and moderation, his welcoming of strangers and his
soothing influence in a tumultuous period of Jewish history (30 BCE - 10
CE) are the hallmarks of his leadership success.
The sage's constant efforts
towards his own character self-improvement proved to be the catalyst for
his immense stature and influence in society generally. He was able to
transform Hillel, the private individual, into a society of many Hillels
that proved to be the key to Jewish societal survival at that time.
Jewish history always stressed the need for a balance between the
struggle for private piety and the necessity to work to improve the
general society at one and the same time. Oftentimes the demands of
improving society contradict the efforts to achieve greater personal
spiritual accomplishment. And the same is true the other way around as
well, as the Torah (Bible) does not draw a hard and fast line regarding this
balance. It is clear though, that the Torah demands that both the public
and private goals of improvement must be attempted.
Our forefather Abraham
supplies the role model for this venture.
According to Rabbi Menachem
HaMeiri (14th century Provence) Abraham influenced half of the world
towards the concept of monotheism. And he accomplished this by being
Abraham and struggling always for his own continued spiritual growth and
character improvement. His efforts at achieving this personal greatness
which he shared with his world's society, earned for him the approbation
of G-d: "Behold, I have made you into the father of a multitude of
The month of Elul, in which we now find ourselves, has traditionally been
the time for self-introspection and renewed commitment in Jewish life.
Our society faces many difficult social and moral problems. But if
charity begins at home, so does societal improvement. Being better
people, inculcating Jewish values and outlook into our personal lives,
will accomplish more for curing our society's ills than the best
intentioned piece of legislation can do. Being
kinder and gentler at home will eventually make us kinder and gentler on
our roads, in our markets and malls and in our public discourse.
a goal well worth pursuing for in its achievement lies the ability to
have the fairer, more equitable, democratic society that we so
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JWR contributor Rabbi Berel Wein is one of Jewry's foremost historians and
founder of the Destiny Foundation.
He has authored over 650 tapes, books and videos which you can purchase at RabbiWein.com.
Comment by clicking here.
© 2004, Rabbi Berel Wein