Don’t Forget to Live
Ki Tetzei (Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19 )
“There shall not be in your pouch a stone and a stone, large and small. There shall not be for you in your house an eifah (type of measuring container) and an eifah, large and small. A complete, just stone shall you have, a complete, just eifah shall you have in order that your days shall be lengthened upon the Land that Hashem your Lord gives to you. Because it is the abomination of Hashem your Lord all that do these, all that do injustice (24:13-16).”
This is the mitzvah to be honest in our weights and measurements – one of the many details of our obligation to be upright in our monetary dealings with others.
Immediately following this mitzvah, we are commanded about remembering how the nation of Amalek brazenly attacked us in the desert as we left Egypt. Commenting on this seemingly odd juxtaposition, Rashi writes, “If you are dishonest in measurements and weights, worry about the incitement of the enemy, as it says ‘Scales of deceit [is the] abomination of Hashem, and a complete stone is [in accordance with] His will. A [man with] willful intention [to do harm] has come, and disgrace comes, and wisdom is with the modest (Proverbs, 11:1-2).’” The severity of cheating in one’s measurements and weights is such that it can bring on a punishment of being attacked by the enemy.
How, though, is the specific attack of Amalek particularly appropriate to illustrate this point? Furthermore, what is the logical connection between an enemy-attack for cheating in business and “wisdom is with the modest”?
In describing the attack of Amalek, the verse says, “asher karchoh ba’derech, that he happened upon you on the way (25:18).” Rashi explains that the word “karchoh” has an implication of happenstance or coincidence, and that it also has the implication of cold (as in the word kor). The latter implication is that Amalek “cooled off” the Jewish People by brazenly attacking them.
After the splitting of the Red Sea, the Torah describes how all the nations of the world were gripped in fear from the Jewish People – they were aware that the Almighty Himself had chosen them to be His special People; the Jewish nation became deeply feared throughout the world1.
The Jewish People were untouchable.
They were like a piping hot bath that everyone was too afraid to enter; that is, until one chutzpahdik person comes along and jumps right in. “You see! It’s not so bad!” Although he is scalded, he has nevertheless succeeded in cooling it off in everyone’s eyes. So too did Amalek do in respect to the Jewish People. They effectively made it seem to the world as if “they’re not so tough”. Although Amalek was defeated, they succeeded in “cooling off” the Jewish People in the eyes of the nations of the world.
The two meanings of the word “karchoh”, then, merge together. Amalek’s actions were effectively the following pronouncement. “What are you all so scared of them for? Because of a few silly miracles? Ahh, it was all just one big crazy coincidence! It was just a fluke, one big freak accident, that’s all!” With this scornful jeer of “it’s all one big crazy coincidence!”, they served the purpose of undermining in the eyes of the nations of the world the exaltedness of the Jewish People as the chosen People of Hashem. Yes, Amalek was defeated; yet, nevertheless, with their twisted approach of keri, everything being happenstance, they made cold the Jewish People in the eyes of the world.
Essentially, then, the terrible sin of Amalek was not so much in their physical attack as much as in the statement that the attack expressed. They undermined all that is sanctified and holy, special and exalted, in the eyes of the world. Amalek was defiantly saying, “Don’t bother me with this business of God and morals, right and wrong – I’ve got no interest in your burdensome demands of being sanctified and purposeful. For me, life is just one big coincidence without any meaning or purpose, so all I care about is indulging in my hedonistic desires, to grab as much gusto as I can get as long as I happen to be breathing!” In other words, Amalek was saying that they have no interest in hearing anything about God and the implications that it carries.
Cheating with one’s weights and measurements is an aveirah by which one expresses a strikingly similar folly. One who is aware – on the level of emotional conviction – that God created and directs the world will not cheat in business. He acutely feels the fact that income comes from Hashem, and, therefore, he is of course going to follow Hashem’s guidelines as per what is prohibited and what is permissible in the putting forth of effort to obtain one’s livelihood. When one cheats, though, he is clearly functioning under the mistaken impression – at least on the emotional level – that it is his efforts that win him his bread. So, if it is his effort that makes the day, why not cheat? Of course a person who thinks that his effort is what makes the money will come to deception – doesn’t that seem like such a quick, easy way of making a lot of money?
Isn’t this the reason people cheat in business?
We can venture to say that it goes even deeper. What may bring someone to this horrible mistake of thinking that it is his effort that brings him success? One who cheats is more often than not doing so as a result of his desire to increase his indulgence in temporal pleasure. He wants more and more money so he can buy more gourmet food, purchase a larger house, buy a fancier car, etc. He so badly wants to indulge his selfish desires to the extent that he will even cheat in business in order to achieve that goal. Such a person has lost sight of what life is all about. He has forgotten that making a living is simply a means to enable one to live a life filled with purpose and meaning through serving the Creator.
Imagine the following exchange.
Chaim – Yankel, why do you work so hard in the business?
Yankel – What do you mean?! To make a living of course!
Chaim – Well, what do you have to make a living for?
Yankel – I have to eat, don’t I?!
Chaim – What do you have to eat for?
Yankel – What do you mean, what do I have to eat for – to live of course?
Chaim – So, what are you living for?
Yankel – What do you mean what am I living for? You should just see some of the pictures of the places that I’ve dined in, visited, and vacationed in. You have no idea the type of experiences that are available to someone of my means!
Chaim – But why do you need all that? What do you need to vacation for?
Yankel – Well, what do you think I am, a machine?! You think I can just go on working 24/7 three hundred sixty five days a year? A man needs to take a break every now and then to refresh himself and replenish his strength!
Chaim – Oh, so you mean that you need to work so hard in the business so that you can make lots of money so that you can vacation so that you can be refreshed to get back to work after the vacation?
Yankel – ………
If we’re not careful, we can lose sight of what we are living for. Indeed, what are we living for? Is man meant to work so that he can eventually take a vacation so that he can be refreshed to go back to work so that he can take another vacation….?
Obviously, that’s not what we want out of life.
“Baruch Elokeinu sheh’bera’anu lichvodo v’hivdilanu min ha’toim v’nasan lanu Toras Emes v’chayei olam natah b’socheinu, Blessed is our Lord that He created us for His glory, and He has separated us from those that live in error, and He gave us a Torah of truth, and eternal life He has implanted within us2.”
Hashem gave us His holy Torah from which we learn about the purpose of life – the purpose of creation – and live that purpose in every moment of our lives. Living by the Torah infuses our lives with infinite significance, with exalted kedusha – we become purposeful, meaningful beings. We live a purposeful life, we do so with an awareness of that great purpose, and we attain the eternal reward in the Next World by living its mitzvos, directives, and instructions.
Having to make a living, and by extension, all involvement with the physical world serves as a constant, ongoing danger of distracting us from our awareness of our purpose in living. As human beings we do have to make a living, we do have to have our dental check-ups, trips to the supermarket to purchase food, bank appointments, etc. Throughout all of this heavy involvement with the temporal aspect of our existence, how are we to guard ourselves against sinking into hedonism?
“And wisdom is with the modest.”
Perhaps this is the answer to our burning question. It very well may be that the implication is dual: one who conducts his life in a modest fashion will merit to retain his wisdom, and one who ensures that he retains his wisdom will merit to be modest.
Yes, it is wonderful if we can afford a nice house, nice clothing, etc. However, one must not go overboard and indulge in luxuries that are flaunting and showy. Allowing oneself to go overboard in usage of the physical world will certainly entrench one in that world and pull him away from a life of kedusha, of purpose and meaning.
Certainly, there can be no better way of reminding oneself of the purpose and meaning of life than by studying the Torah through which we learn about and live that purpose and meaning. It is in the Torah, and only in the Torah that Hashem has taught us of the purpose of life, the purpose of creation. Indeed, it is one of the most fundamental aspects of our mesorah that learning Torah is the central mitzvah around which life must revolve. Through maintaining his set times for learning Torah, the Jew is able to constantly refresh and deepen in his mind what his purpose is in living.
More than that, by constantly learning and keeping the Torah he is living. He gains the deepest knowledge of the Creator that is available to man, and thereby so deeply connects himself with holiness, with purpose and meaning; and he concretizes that connection by causing it to be manifest in the form of worship when he keeps what the Torah teaches him. When a Jew studies Torah, not only is he upholding one of Hashem’s mitzvos, he is also propelling himself to uphold all of the mitzvos in the Torah, and through all this his life will be infused with the deepest purpose and meaning. He will truly be living.
“And wisdom is with the modest.”
1. Beshalach 15:14-16
2. Excerpt from Shachris, near the end of U’va Letziyon.