There’s a story told that “Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach commissioned his disciples to buy him a camel from an Arab. When they brought him the animal, they announced that they’d found a precious stone in its collar, expecting their master to share in their joy.
‘Did the seller know of this gem?’ asked Rabbi Shimon. On being answered in the negative, he said angrily, ‘Do you think me a barbarian that I should take advantage of the letter of the law by which the gem is mine together with the camel? Return the gem to the Arab immediately.’”
When the Arab received it back, he said: “Blessed be the God of Shimon ben Shetach! Blessed be the God of Israel!” (Devarim Rabbah 3:3)
When my sons were young, their mother and I told them that what they did, how they behaved, and the way they spoke to and treated others outside the home reflect not only on them, but on us, their parents, and on our family name. We reminded them to be honest, kind, and modest, and to embody those values always.
I often tell Rabbi Shimon’s story to children and remind them that what we do not only says much about who we are, but about our families and the Jewish people.
Until the modern period when communal values changed broadly, the most respected Jew in the community wasn’t the wealthiest and most politically influential, nor the celebrity, business maven, professional, or financial benefactor. Rather, the highest moral, ethical, and religious virtues were expected to be emulated by the Torah scholar, but even the scholar struggled mightily against the yetzer hara (“the evil inclination”).
Here is Maimonides’ description of what’s expected of the great Torah scholar:
“…When a person …is a great scholar, noted for her/his piety, people will talk about her/him, even if the deeds that s/he has committed are not offenses in the strict sense. Such a person is guilty of profaning the divine name (hillul ha-Shem), if s/he, for instance, makes a purchase and does not immediately pay for it, in the case where s/he has the money and the sellers demand it, but s/he stalls them; or if s/he indulges in riotous behavior and in keeping undesirable company; or if s/he speaks roughly to her/his fellows and does not receive them courteously but shows her/his temper and the like. All is in accordance with her/his status as a scholar. S/he must endeavor to be scrupulously strict in her/his behavior and go beyond the letter of the law. If s/he does this, speaking kindly to her/his fellows, showing her/himself sociable and amiable with the welcome for everyone, taking insult but not giving it; respect them, even those who make light of her/him; in all her/his actions until all praise and love her/him, enraptured by her/his deed – such a person has sanctified the name of God (Kiddush ha-Shem). Regarding such a person scripture states: ‘You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be gloried.’” (Moses ben Maimon, Yesodei Ha-Torah 5:11)
RAMBAM taught that “Sanctifying God’s Name – Kiddush Ha-Shem” includes business ethics, conduct in mundane affairs, refinement of behavior and public demeanor, kindness and humility before people and God.
Except for the rare individual, we’re all a continuing battleground between two yetzers (i.e. good and evil inclinations) and we must choose. For too many of us, base instinct rules. We’re driven by need, desire, greed, jealousy, envy, lust, anger, impatience, fear, and hate. Others have an easier time being kind and generous, and they struggle less. But we all struggle.
The reason Torah study is determinative for the scholar (and is important for everyone) is because we find ourselves everywhere in the text. Every human instinct and virtue is addressed.
Anyone who says that Torah is irrelevant to his/her life is hiding something. To the contrary, the opposite is true. It’s there in Torah that we discover our deepest selves, a sense of meaning and purpose that sustains and strengthens us for noble ends.