During a concert in Jerusalem, Rabbi Shlomo Katz reminded his audience that in everything we do, we can approach our activities from the focus of “how can we serve Hashem” or, has v’shalom, from the focus of “how can we serve ourselves.” These two approaches are mutually exclusive.
Consider, as Rabbi Katz pointed out, the nature of Chanukah candles. Such exquisite lights are prohibited from being used for anything except for the beauty that they provide our homes, a beauty that is meant to be embraced by our eyes, but not used for mundanitites. We are not permitted to use those candles’ luminosity for tasks. We are not permitted to use them to remove darkness from a room. Rather, those candles’ light is intended to raise us to an ordinarily unattainable mode of existence, to a spiritual height from which we can aspire to make others of our comings and goings equally elevated.
Deliberate, too, that sometimes, regrettably, not only do we kindle lights for mistaken ends, but that we engage in other deeds of loving kindness for the erroneous reason of expecting to get something in exchange. Maybe, we incorrectly suppose that HaKadosh Baruchu is a bellhop through whom we can control cosmic causality by electing certain behavioral ends. We might imagine, as a case in point, that in choosing to hold open a door for another person, that in choosing to give charity, as another example, in choosing to visit someone laid up in the hospital, as one more instance, or in choosing to tutor someone in Torah, as yet another instance, we are choosing heavenly reward. Quite the opposite is true; if we act in a certain way to better our celestial score card, we might or might not get recompensed for our undertaking, but most certainly won’t get recompensed for our motive. We ought not to try to manipulate Shamayim. There’s only one supreme deity and it’s not any of us.
What’s more, if we perform chesed out of a desire to be lauded by our peers, rather than out of a desire to serve the Almighty we are functioning at a miserable level. Whereas Rav. Shimon taught that the crown of a good name, keter shem tov, is higher than: the crown of Torah, keter Torah; the crown of the Kohen, keter kehunah; and the crown of a king, keter malchut, our souls are not advanced when our “reputation” is achieved visa via deeds played to socially promote us. It’s kind of silly to forget why we ought to do the things we ought to do.
At other times, the path of serving ourselves is not defined by our intentions, but by our endeavors. Most individuals, at some point in their life or another, have tried to “redefine” Halacha. In those cases, the yetzer hara has successfully persuaded such persons that Torah law is open to interpretation. For instance, in speciously believing that Shabbot can be compromised, such individuals might surreptitiously: rip the mental lid off of soda bottles, tear toilet paper rather than use pretorn paper or individual tissues, switch a light on and off, or perform any hundreds of others of ill-gotten behaviors, any single one of which necessarily breaks their observation of Shabbot
As another example, there are those people who would self-determine kashrut. Like citizens that self-determine civil law, claiming the traffic lights, through which they drove, were “pink,” not “red,” thereby endangering themselves and sometimes others, koshrut dupes shrug off the stringencies of separating milk and meat, of eating only kosher animals, birds, and fish, or of noticing that a composite food lacks an authentic kashrut seal. They might rationalize that “only a little taste,” constitutes such an insignificant amount of what they ingest as not to be important. They might minimalize the need to eat only animals that are within the traditions of one’s community (i.e. in contrast, some Jews refrain from eating turkey, few Jews eat the two permitted kinds of locust, and no modern, kashrut-observant Jew eats giraffe). As well, they might deny the necessity of patronizing restaurants with adequate supervision, claiming that cold cereal or salad eaten on treif plates, prepared in treif kitchens, presents no kashrut problem.
Loshon hara, derogatory speech about another person, is another area in which folks raise themselves above Torah law. They claim rumormongering is fun, that perpetuating scandals makes them popular, that telltaling proves entertaining and that there is no reason to fret their maligning of other people. They claim that they did not know that gossiping is bad. They claim that they were forced into spreading rumors. They fail, though, no make any conjecture, public, or otherwise, about what that behavior is costing themselves, their listeners and the subjects of their deprecatory speech, so unafraid are they of consequences.
Think, too, about persons’ bankruptcy in upholding another rudiment of Yiddishkeit, about their breakdown in keeping sexually wholesome. There are individuals among us who involve themselves in and justify adulterous or other kinds of immoral intimacies. They claim their partners “deserved” or “caused” their wandering off. They claim that animals or children ought to have been numbered among permissible conjugal partners and that their choices merely illuminate “progressive” thinking. They claim that they limited their straying to a single episode or series of episodes. They claim that spiritual laws that forbid such actions are antiquated, and, by implication, that humans know best which laws ought to and ought not to be preserved and that spiritual laws have expiration dates.
No soul is uplifted by redefining the basic strictures that The Boss gave us. If we waste our lives rethinking sources for our personal ethics or rationale for applying them, we are imprudent, rash, laughable, unwise, i.e. foolish. The Torah was, is and will always be a blueprint for our lives. The Aibishter was, is, and will always be the source stipulating how we ought to behave. We needed to, need to, and will continue to need to cleave to such direction for the sake of serving G-d.