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Mind Your Maxims

Mind Your Maxims

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“There is nothing new under the sun,” King Solomon tells us in Proverbs.1

As a child, I found this a puzzling statement; however, I recognized its veracity soon enough. For one thing, so many of the adages I came across while growing up As a child, I found this puzzlingseemed to be based on sayings from Torah sages, especially those in Ethics of the Fathers. For example, the well-known aphorism attributed to American Indian folklore—“Don’t judge a man until you walk a mile in his moccasins”—echoes a teaching from our great sage Hillel: “Do not judge your fellow until you have reached his place.”2 Another one from Ethics of the Fathers, propounded by Rabbi Meir, is “Do not look at a vessel, but what is in it . . . ,”3 which closely resembles the [later] popular dictum, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.”

In every language and culture, many other great sayings remind us of the earlier credo of Judaism’s greatest Torah leaders.

During one of those philosophical flashes that mark adolescence—when inspiration flits through young, searching minds like a dizzy butterfly—I challenged myself to come up with a novel maxim. Here is the result: For a fuller life, eat and speak sparingly, but sleep substantially.

If you’re thinking this is hardly innovative, I agree—in retrospect, that is. At the time, I would probably have argued in defense of my supposedly original thought. But looking at my yellowing journal entry now, I realize that the ideas I expressed are Torah-based. There’s an allusion to the Rambam’s advice on physical health, with intimations of the Chofetz Chaim and other Torah scholars and sages, though I’m not sure exactly how aware of this I was at the time.

It occurs to me that the reason I didn’t explicate my homemade maxim is that my younger self was unable to carry through with a discussion about topics antithetical to adolescents. Teenage me, for example, had an insatiable appetite (and a metabolism that could tolerate it!), spoke on the phone endlessly, and was far too occupied to “waste time” sleeping. But somewhere in my mind, there seems to have been an awareness of a more sensible lifestyle, resulting in this formula for a successful life.

Amazing how a few decades (okay, not just a few) can change the picture: As a teenager, I probably felt quite virtuous to think about such high ideals. As an adult, though, it’s rather bothersome to consider striving towards them. After all, getting enough quality sleep is too often an out-of-reach luxury, eating in moderation can be an unwelcome challenge, and counting your words becomes more of a chore than counting calories.

However, I feel compelled to probe one of the ideas expressed in my self-constructed maxim. Because my work deals with words—whether delivering and listening to them, or reading and writing them—I’ll focus on the directive to speak succinctly.

Our sages enjoin us to deliberate before speaking. In Ethics of the Fathers, Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel says: “. . . I was raised among the sages, and I have found nothing better for oneself than silence; . . . one who talks excessively brings on sin.”4 Isn’t this a powerful statement? Imagine being surrounded, as Rabbi Shimon was, by Torah scholars like the Men of the Great Assembly, whose every word was graced by Torah wisdom. And yet, Rabbi Shimon chose to impart this particular instruction.

I can guess what you’re thinking: Indeed, it’s significant and meaningful—but silence is so . . . so silent! That’s precisely the point. If we’re honest with ourselves, we can probably concur that, overall, less unpleasantness occurs as a consequence of remaining silent. Just consider the benefits: Confidential information stays secret; feelings and dignity are protected; and we bring joy to our Creator for following the Torah commandments not to hurt our fellow man. The possible downside of looking foolish for a while wanes in comparison to these substantial gains.

It’s certainly a trial to exercise restraint if we’re provoked, but keeping in mind the Talmud’s principle of l’fum tzara agra (“according to the effort is the reward”) should help alleviate the utter frustration we might feel when we’re holding ourselves in check. The Talmud teaches that “the entire world exists only in the merit of the person who restrains his words at the time of a quarrel.”5 Imagine, then, the extent of the merit of a person who is embarrassed in public but refrains from responding in a similar manner!

There’s an oft-repeated incident in my family that drives home this point. My uncle was a Holocaust survivor whose wife and children perished in the war. Though he remarried, there was unfortunately no progeny. A landsman (person from one’s hometown) who had immigrated before the war became his confidant. Watching his friend working in his butcher shop, Uncle Shalom once noticed that he was disposing of several gergalach (chicken necks). Tearfully, Uncle Shalom told him that his daughter had favored this part of the chicken, which some customers had no use for. From then on, the butcher had a package ready for him along with his weekly order.

Once, the butcher had to go to a freezer in a basement storage area to bring the package to Uncle Shalom. Meanwhile, an impatient customer yelled at my startled uncle in Yiddish: “You survivors are always expecting privileges in exchange for your sad stories. For shame!” Uncle Shalom paled but remained silent, and the shouter stormed out. Another customer, recognizing Uncle Shalom’s merit, promptly asked my uncle to bless him for livelihood. Uncle Shalom bestowed a warm blessing, and lo and behold, a short while later this man did get a better-paying job.

Although As a child, I expected neat, happy endingswe’ll never know how much influence Uncle Shalom’s blessing really had, the incident affected our family profoundly. What has stayed with us is the realization that while the hurtful words may have been uttered for various reasons, Uncle Shalom’s nonresponse spoke louder than any retort possibly could have.

As a child, I expected neat, happy endings, so I asked my father why Uncle Shalom’s earnest prayers for children—and ours on his behalf—hadn’t been answered. He explained that although we finite beings cannot understand our loving Father’s ways, we can be sure that no deed goes unnoticed, and no prayer is unheard.

This became my guiding principle, the ultimate maxim to live by.

Footnotes
2.
Ethics of the Fathers 2:4.
3.
Ethics of the Fathers 4:20.
4.
Ethics of the Fathers 1:17.
5.
Talmud, Chullin 89a.
B. Schreiber, M.A., is an English teacher, writer and editor whose stories and essays have appeared in various publications. She lives in Jerusalem with her family.
Sefira Ross is a freelance designer and illustrator whose original creations grace many Chabad.org pages. Residing in Seattle, Washington, her days are spent between multitasking illustrations and being a mom.
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anna nyc August 23, 2017

thank you Reply

Adonai's Anointed Pittsburgh August 20, 2016

Aaaah. YES. Toda raba. Reply

M. Diane Queens, NY August 15, 2016

But..hold on a minute! Your prayers for your uncle to have 'children' or at least a 'child' was answered. Here you are writing a memorial to him. A brilliant one that brings tears to the eyes and teaches a lesson about how to be responsive (butcher); avoid cruelty (shouting customer); exhibit patience and restraint (uncle); be understanding and giving (blessing seeker); and, be just plain sweet (you). Many parents with biological children do not earn or get such kind stories written about them as did your uncle. A lovely article. Reply

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