Deeds Not Words

One winter a delegation of scholars visited the rabbi of Viedislav, the father of then five-year-old Simcha Bunem. The rabbi prepared a meal for his guests and, as they were eating, called to his son: “Simcha, go and prepare some new interpretation of the laws of hospitality that you can share with our learned guests.”

“The boy left the table and returned a few minutes later. Everyone was surprised at his quick return. True, Simcha Bunem was a child prodigy when it came to Torah, but even he should have taken longer to come up with a new and innovative interpretation of hospitality. Still, his father welcomed him back and said, “So, have you found a new interpretation of Torah?”

Simcha said that he had and that he would be happy to share it after his father’s guests finished eating. When the meal was done, his father invited him to share his insights.

“I have nothing to say, father, but rather something to show.”

Expecting a novel interpretation of law, both father and guests were perplexed. Seeing that the men remained seated, Simcha said, “Come and I will show you.”

The entire delegation followed Simcha into another room of the house, and there they found his interpretation of hospitality: Simcha had prepared a bed for each guest complete with pillows and quilts folded neatly in place.

“And where, little one, is the novelty in your interpretation?” one of the rabbis asked.

“With all due respect, Teacher,” Simcha Bunem said, “if I had simply provided you with a new set of words you would have a chance to rest only your minds, but in this way I offer you a chance to rest your bodies as well.”

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Hospitality is a central tenet of Judaism: “Let your home be wide open, and treat the poor like members of your household” (Avot 1:5). The sages of the Talmud list hospitality as among those acts “whose fruit is eaten in this world, and whose principle remains for the World to Come” (Shabbat 127a).

Torah (from the Hebrew root yaroh, “to teach”): Best understood as “teaching” or “instruction.” The notion that Torah is primarily a legal code is false and misleading. It is a book of teaching about life and how best to live it, and it contains law but is not limited to law. Technically, Torah refers to the Five Books of Moses, but it is commonly used to refer to the entire body of Jewish teaching.

The Hasidim speak of the Three Garments of the Soul, three ways in which the Divine enters into the world. We encounter these garments as thought, word, and deed, and we experience them as a cascade: thought leads to words, and words lead to deeds. The quality of each garment depends on the cleanliness of the one preceding it. Thus, we can see that everything depends on the quality of our thoughts.

When you were born, all three garments accompanied you into the world. Originally clean and free of the stain of selfishness, over time they become soiled and need refining. What soils them is selfishness. You begin to think only of yourself, speak only of your needs, and act in ways that exploit others in order to fulfill those needs. Cleansing the Garments of the Soul is the goal of spiritual practice.

But where to start? Because thought is key, you might expect to begin with that. But to think thought clean is like washing a windowpane with muddy water; this only smears the dirt but doesn’t remove it. The way to cleanse thought is not to think but to do. This is what Simcha Bunem knew instinctively, and what we must know as well. If you wish to know God, begin by doing godly.

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Published in: on September 26, 2009 at 1:00 am  Leave a Comment  

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