An old Jew named David wants to try pork before he dies. Being an observant Jew he can’t go ahead and eat pork in his community. So he decides to travel about 50 miles away. He enters a restaurant and on the menu there’s a dish called “suckling pig.” So he orders the suckling pig, and they bring it out on a beautiful tray with an apple in its mouth. Just as he’s about to take his first bite in walks Goldberg, the guy who sits next to him in synagogue. Goldberg says: “David what are you doing? What are you eating?” He responds, “Goldberg, can you believe this restaurant? I order a baked apple and this is how they serve it to me.”

If Only

One of the more practical teachings of the Talmud comes to us by way of an anecdote at the top of my shortlist of Talmudic stories.1

"Once, when Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai fell ill, his disciples went in to visit him. They said to him: Master, bless us. He said to them: May it be God's will that the fear of heaven shall be upon you like the fear of flesh and blood."

Say what? Did that mediocre, even sacrilegious-sounding, statement really come out of the mouth of a saintly man on his deathbed asked to share a last earthly reflection and prayer? Is that really all this noted scholar and saint expected of his disciples, that they fear G‑d only as much as they did their fellow earthlings?

Rabbi Yochanan’s response to his incredulous students is as simple as it is profound:

“If only…” he said.

If only human beings accorded G‑d the same courtesy and regard as they do their fellow homo sapiens. If only they viewed G‑d as being as imminent and real as they did all of physical existence or “reality.”

Rabbi Yochanan concluded by spelling it out more clearly: “See how relevant this is, for when a man wants to commit a transgression, he says, ‘I hope no one will see me.’”

Here was a teacher of religion who saw people in “real-time”—as they were, not (just) as they should be. Here was a man as fluent in human nature as he was in theology, who introduced a healthy dose of pragmatism to the lofty world of religious worship.

Go Rob a Bank

This discussion between Rabbi Yochanan and his students recalls another one2 with an identical punch-line.

"The disciples of R. Yochanan ben Zakai asked him why the Torah was more severe regarding a Ganav (the term used to describe a thief3 who commits his crime in stealth out of fear of being caught) than a Gazlan (a term used to describe a robber who commits his crime publicly and fearlessly).4

(According to Torah law a Ganav has to pay double for his theft, whereas a Gazlan has to pay the value of what he stole but not more.)

He replied: The Gazlan puts the honor of human society on the same level as that of the Creator, whereas the Ganav puts the honor of human society higher than that of the Creator, for he acts as if the Heavenly Eye does not see or hear."5

In other words, G‑d takes less issue with one who holds up a bank (unmasked) than one who steals a jelly-bean from a child when he’s not looking. [Robbing with a mask complicates things and is beyond the scope of this essay; for that query or related ones, one should consult their local rabbi.]

As in the earlier discussion, here too Rabbi Yochanan is found advocating for the equal consideration of G‑d and mankind. According to his understanding, the thief’s fear of man and not G‑d is an act of discrimination against the Creator, and he is therefore dealt with more harshly than an egalitarian mugger who disregards G‑d and his fellow man equally.

Might this idea explain one dramatic-sounding rabbinic teaching that equates stealing with worshipping idols?6

For by stealing covertly, out of fear of being caught by people, one asserts one’s belief in man over the G‑d who forbids theft under any circumstance.

In sum: Rabbi Yochanan calls on ancient and modern students of religion to apply Hillel’s famous teaching7 to our relationship with G‑d8: Don’t do unto G‑d what you wouldn’t do unto your fellow.

And conversely, the same should apply in the positive sense, when it comes to honoring and respecting our Creator: Do for G‑d no less than what you would do for your neighbor.

This perspective may not be—should not be—the end-all, or destination of, our religious journey, but it’s as good a place to start from as any.

As Rabbi Yochanan would say: “If only…”

What’s in it for me?

The above has great bearing on the love-versus-fear-of-G‑d argument and the debate over incentive-driven versus altruistic religious worship that has troubled religious thinkers and practitioners of all time.

Isn’t the reward-punishment model of religious worship petty and childish?9Isn’t a good Jew one who serves G‑d out of love rather than fear?

The answer: A good Jew is one who serves G‑d, period, whatever it takes to get him or her there—at least to begin with.

Following, is a related thread of conversation between the Lubavitcher Rebbe and a group of Hillel directors in August, 1960:

Question: “You define yir’at Hashem [fear of heaven] as awe. Can it not also be fear, as in fear of physical pain and punishment?”

Rebbe: “There are times when you cannot influence yourself with lofty thoughts about the Seventh Heaven or Gan Eden—that doesn't work; but thinking of gehinom [Purgatory] works [see here for the full discussion and the Rebbe’s explanation of Purgatory].

Spiritually elevated thoughts do not help most people when they are “walking down Broadway,” (a metaphor for the religious/moral challenges we face on the streets of life, not in its study or prayer halls). At that point, diverting the evil inclination by engaging it in a philosophical discussion just won’t work. One can sooner divert it with a story or thoughts of gehinom. Not that those are loftier, but one needs to choose a thought or deed to fit one’s mood and circumstance. One cannot cut bread with a mathematical discussion. One needs a material knife.”

The point is: Kid yourself not! Figure out what works for you, even if it means that as a starting point Jewish practice is about “keeping up with the Goldbergs.”

To paraphrase a different teaching of the sages: Doing the right things for the wrong reasons will eventually and inevitably lead to doing them for the right reasons.10

More for Me…

Essentially, Rabbi Yochanan is teaching us that sometimes it is necessary to introduce a lower and imperfect element into a grand relationship for the sake of its betterment.

Which brings us to the following question—not an easy one to ask, but an important one to answer: How many of us behave more kindly and with more generosity towards strangers than we do to our own families and ourselves? The thought is heartbreaking, and yet its practice breaks hearts—particularly those tender hearts we’d do anything to keep whole.

So, at times, we would do well to read (and apply) backwards that best known Biblical statement of all: “Love your neighbor like yourself [and family],” becomes, “Love yourself [and family] like your neighbor.”

Based on Likutei Sichot, Volume 17, pp. 205-214.