It is my personal belief that Judaism is a constant balancing act. We have values and expectations which often, necessarily, come into conflict—how could it be otherwise with so many distinct values, expectations, morals, and commandments! When these values come into conflict, our tradition expects us to make difficult choices, while still maintaining the importance of each value—even if we have to lay one aside temporarily.
Sometimes these examples pit ethical commandments against ritual ones. The Talmud describes a poor widow who brings a chicken to the rabbi asking whether the chicken has become un-kosher. The rabbi sees a ritual issue with the chicken and rules it not kosher, and a more senior rabbi immediately chastises him for callously taking chicken off the table of a poor widow and her children. Perhaps the younger rabbi should have paid to replace the chicken, or maybe found (or created) a ritual loophole to declare the chicken kosher.
At other times, we are challenged by the difficult meeting of ideals and practicalities. If we tell ourselves that we will commit to Jewish learning when we have time for it, we will never make the time for it (paraphrased from Pirkei Avot). However, we are also enjoined to spend our time working and visiting the sick, and we are allowed to push off most commandments if we are working for the good of the community—advocating on behalf of the Jewish community, for example, or as a police officer, fire fighter, medical professional, or member of the military. Further, there are blessings to be said upon seeing the ocean, the desert, a high mountain, a rainbow, newly blossoming trees, and a dozen other natural wonders, suggesting that God would very much like us to enjoy those, as well. We simply do not have time enough in each day to do all of those things.
Finally, there are sometimes conflicting values, each of which we would like to embody. When we are asked to take an honor in the synagogue—an aliyah to the Torah, or to open the Ark, or to carry, lift, or dress the Torah—Jewish tradition considers refusing the honor to be an act of humility. Humility is a prized Jewish value—Moses was said to be exceedingly humble. However, every part of the Torah service is a vital piece of the commandment to read the Torah in public each week—a commandment incumbent upon the community as a whole. Refusing an honor hinders the community’s ability to have the Torah read—and the prayer for the welfare of those who participate in the Torah service refers to those volunteers as “those who were (both) called and came up to the Torah.” Clearly, a humble community would never get the Torah read!
I believe that God values the process of deciding which of the competing values to choose more than the choice any of us ultimately makes. When we weigh the options, we show how much we cherish all of our values, and we refuse to throw out one or the other for convenience’s sake. We show that we care, even about a concern that must become secondary.
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