The Values of “Pleasantness” and “Peacefulness”
Derachecha Darchei Noam
On days when the Torah is publicly read, i.e., Shabbat morning and afternoon, Yamim Tovim (holidays) mornings, Rosh Chodesh (the beginning of a new Jewish month) mornings, Fast Days morning and afternoon, as well as every Monday and Thursday morning, when returning the Torah to the Ark, I am constantly profoundly moved by a verse in the paragraph that the congregation recites:
Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace.
Within the context of this liturgical paragraph, the antecedent of “her” is the Torah, in light of another verse from Proverbs that appears earlier in the prayer:
For I give you good doctrine; forsake ye not “Torati” (My Torah).
By associating these two verses with one another, it becomes obvious that according to the liturgist, the “ways” and “paths” of the Torah, the cornerstone of the Jewish religion, are “pleasantness” and “peace.” Therefore, both of these ideas, by definition, must be central Jewish values.
For a discussion of the abstract condition of “peace,” see my earlier essay “’Peace’ as a Key Jewish Value.” http://jewishvaluescenter.org/jvoblog/PeaceValue “Pleasantness,” on the other hand, appears to have more to do with how a particular Commandment is perceived, how someone who is a practitioner of such Commandments is viewed by others, or how someone who devotes himself to Torah and Mitzvot, is thought to generally deport himself.
I have always combined the idea of a person becoming deeply associated with a specific Mitzva or collection of Commandments, with an observation made a number of times by the author of Sefer HaChinuch (e.g., Mitzva #16): by repeating particular outward actions, an individual eventually internalizes the values that such actions contain. I would add that such an individual should become the living embodiment of not only these actions, but their inherent values as well. The Talmud presents a teaching to this affect:
Raba observed: How dull-witted are those other people who stand up (in deference) to the Scroll of the Torah, but do not stand up (in deference) to a great personage (who by virtue of his compliance with the Torah’s Commandments, constitutes a living Sefer Torah) …
Consequently, if one follows the resulting logical syllogism, individuals who properly observe the Torah’s Commandments, and thereby afford themselves the opportunity to internalize such values, should noticeably and objectively be “pleasant” and “peaceful.”
Naturally, the empirical question engendered by the application of this verse in Proverbs to the Torah, appears to be a dual one:
a) Do the Commandments found in the Torah truly advance “pleasantness” and “peace,”
and b) What are the visible effects of the resolute observance of the Torah Commandments on practitioners of Judaism?
As far as the first part of the question is concerned, it is important to keep in mind that Judaism, as a typical eastern religion, places far greater emphasis upon the social, communal interaction of people, than upon the individual, the latter being something more centrally focused upon in western societies. Consequently, there will be Mitzvot that will unquestionably cause discomfort, i.e., not perceived as “pleasant” or “peaceful,” to someone who deeply cares about every individual, particularly those who directly suffer some Mitzvot’s practical consequences, e.g., the child of two people who were not permitted to legally marry, a person who was born into slavery, an individual whose religious beliefs are at variance with orthodox dogma, etc. Therefore, “pleasantness” and “peacefulness” become a function of the particular lens through which such Commandments are viewed and reflected upon.
As for as the second issue, it seems to me to be a “nature-nurture” question, i.e., can “values” like “pleasantness” and “peacefulness” be “taught” and/or “caught” via Mitzva study and Torah observance (nurture), or are they qualities that can only “bubble up” from within a person’s makeup (nature)? I believe that there will always be some individuals even within the Jewish religious world, whose personalities are such that whatever they do will have little or no effect upon their inner orientations which are dominated by genetically who they are. The individuals on one extreme of the spectrum will inevitably be countered by others who possess very positive natures and will be very susceptible to being influenced by their surroundings and whatever lifestyle they ultimately choose to adopt. But the great majority of people are somewhere in the middle of this “values continuum,” and regarding them, the question of whether living according to a Torah lifestyle will alter a person who would otherwise tend to be less “peaceful’ and “pleasant”, is an extremely pertinent matter.
Consider the following paraphrase of a “Midrashic” source (see Dr. Shneyur Leiman’s article, “R. Israel Lipshuts: The Portrait of Moses” in Tradition 24:4, Summer 1989 [https://tinyurl.com/yxwuevht] for a discussion regarding whether this Midrash is authentic) that offers one perspective on such a question:
A king who had heard about Moses, became very curious about him. He sent portrait painters to paint Moses’ likeness, and then gave their drawings to individuals who were able to describe an individual’s character by his facial features. They reported to the king that the likenesses before them was those of a murderer! The king was certain that they were in error and went to see for himself. When the king related what he had been told by his physiognomists, Moses responded that they had described him correctly and that he was indeed capable of such violence. However, his adopting a Torah lifestyle had provided him with the self-control and moral judgment to sublimate his nature and become a better person.
While Moses, according to the bible, obviously continued to be from time to time in need of “anger management,” this “Midrash” puts forth the argument that an individual can be transformed and become basically “peaceful” and “pleasant” even when such qualities are initially alien to him.
So, what should we conclude when some ostensibly observant individuals do not appear to live up to the values of “pleasantness” and “peace”? Is it due to specific, disagreeable personality traits or was their Jewish education not all that it could have been? “Tzorech Iyun” (the matter needs further study and analysis.)
Rabbi Jack Bieler was ordained at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary of Yeshiva University in 1974. He has been an administrator and faculty member of Orthodox Jewish day schools for over thirty years. He is a Jerusalem Fellow and has published and lectured widely on the philosophy of Modern Orthodox Jewish education. He has served as Rabbi of KMS since 1993 until his retirement in 2015. He blogs daily at https://email@example.com and his website can be accessed at https://rayanotyaakov.wordpress.com.
Rabbi Bieler has been a Panelist for Jewish Values Online for several years, responding to questions. You can find his answers by visiting Jewish Values Online, selecting the ‘View all panelists’ link, and clicking his name. A link will appear with his bio to show all answers he has submitted. Rabbi Bieler wrote one of the Blog entries selected as the three best for the each of the first three Quarters of 5779. You can see the most recent entry on the front page of the Jewish Values Online Website.
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