Parashat Bamidbar: Is It Worth It?
The Torah in Parashat Bamidbar tells of the role assigned to the Leviyim to transport the Mishkan (Tabernacle) when Beneh Yisrael traveled. We read how the Kohanim were responsible for designating the Leviyim for their individual roles, such that each and every Levi knew precisely which item he needed to carry during travel. The Midrash comments that this was necessary because the Leviyim would fight over the privilege of carrying the most sacred item – the Aron (ark). Each Levi vied for the opportunity to transport the Aron which contained the two tablets and upon which the Divine Presence resided. This resulted in violent and even fatal clashes among the Leviyim, and G-d therefore instructed the Kohanim to appoint each Levi to a particular role, so each one would know his job and the fighting would stop.
The Mesilat Yesharim (chapter 20) cites this Midrash amidst his discussion of “Mishkal Ha’hasidut” – the “scale of piety.” He explains that there is certainly great value in “Hasidut,” in going beyond the strict requirements of Halacha and taking upon oneself additional measures of piety. A child who truly loves his father will not just obey his father’s wishes, but also do what he feels will make his father happy. Similarly, if we are truly devoted to the Almighty, we will do not only what He demands of us, but even more. However, the Mesilat Yesharim warns, extreme care must be taken when accepting upon ourselves additional measures of “Hasidut” to ensure that these measures are indeed achieving their desired goal. Very often, such measures have adverse “side effects,” and we need to think long and hard whether the pious act in question is truly worth the undesirable consequences. Of course, when it comes to our strict Halachic requirements, we must fulfill our obligations regardless of what this entails. But when it comes to “Hasidut,” we must weight our actions on the “Mishkal Ha’hasidut”; we must weigh their value against the adverse effects they may cause, and then determine whether they are indeed “pious” and worth the consequences.
The Leviyim genuinely sought to fulfill the great Misva of transporting the Aron, but their desire for this privilege led them to fight with and harm other people. If this is the result of their attempts to carry the Aron, then this pious act fails the “Mishkal Ha’hasidut.” Quite simply, it is not worth it. There is no question that we should not be taking upon ourselves voluntary measures of piety if this causes fighting and discord.
It is told that Rav Yisrael Salanter was once seen using a small amount of water for Netilat Yadayim, just enough to fulfill the strict Halachic requirement. The onlookers were puzzled, as the Gemara speaks of the value in using copious amounts of water, and how it brings wealth. (The word “Mayim” – “water” – has been viewed as an acrostic for “Maleh Yadenu Mi’birchotecha” – “fill our hands with Your blessings.”) They asked the Rabbi why he used such a small amount of water for this Misva, and he explained that the water was brought to the meal by the elderly maid who carried water on her back.
“Is it right for me to earn blessings on this woman’s back?” the Rabbi rhetorically asked.
Rav Yisrael understood that the concern not to overburden a hardworking housekeeper was far more important than using large amounts water beyond that which Halacha strictly requires.
Another story is told of the Hafetz Haim, who once hosted guests for Friday night who were astonished to see the Rabbi begin Kiddush as soon as he returned from the synagogue, without singing “Shalom Alechem.”
“The Rabbi does not sing ‘Shalom Alechem’ on Friday night?” they asked.
“I know that you have not eaten all day,” the great Sage explained. “The angels don’t need to eat, so they can wait for ‘Shalom Alechem.’ But I should not make you wait when you are hungry so I can sing.”
There are many situations when we need to keep this perspective in mind, and ensure to maintain our priorities when measures that are not strictly required can harm other people. Although one brings great merit to a deceased parent’s soul by leading the prayer services, one brings far greater merit to the soul by allowing somebody else to lead the service in the interest of avoiding conflict. Similarly, Rav Avraham Pam would instruct his students not to continue dancing after a wedding when the parents and other guests want to go home. As important as it is to dance with the groom, as the hour gets late it is more important to show sensitivity to those who need to leave.
As valuable as it is to “carry the Aron,” to go beyond our strict obligations to get close to Hashem, we must always ensure that the extra measures are truly worth it, and do not cause more harm than good.