We all notice people who do not practice what they preach. We find them to be lacking self-awareness and realism at best, or disingenuous and insincere at worst. We find it difficult to be in an honest and deep relationship with them because of our perception of their hypocrisy. We also realize that they are infective teachers and influencers, as their spoken message is drowned out by the example that their actions demonstrate. Yet, not all hypocrisy or inconsistency is the same.
Shamai The Edler’s life mantras are recorded in Ethics Of The Fathers (Pirkei Avos 1:16). The first is “make your Torah a set practice.” The simple understanding of this lesson is that Torah study and observance need to be our primary concern and everything else must be secondary. Rav Ovadyah From Bartenura gives an alternate understanding of these words: “set” in this context means consistent. One should not give a stringent ruling to others while observing a lenient ruling for himself, nor should one observe a stringent ruling for himself and a lenient ruling for others. Rav Ovadia is teaching us that we should have consistent standards for ourselves and those around us. Important caveat: Rav Ovadia is not telling us that everyone is the same and should be treated the same. Every person has individual needs, strengths, and weaknesses and every situation is different. In fact, every stage in each individual’s life is different, and we each need to constantly evaluate what is the correct mitzvah observance for ourselves and the people around us. Rav Ovadia is telling us that all else equal, every inconsistency is inappropriate. But Why?
What Is Wrong With Being “Tougher” On Yourself?
It is easy to understand why it is inappropriate to be lax in your own observance yet demanding of your peers or students—but what is wrong with the flip side? If I want to hold myself to a higher standard than I demand of others, is that hypocritical? The best way to answer this question may be with one more question.
Why Take The More Difficult Path In Observance?
At times, when we study Torah we will see a crossroads in mitzvah observance. There seems to be room to be stringent and room to be lenient, and it is simply not clear what to do. We dig deeper, struggle with the relevant texts to discover the truth. After careful deliberation we decide that the stringent path is the true intention of the Torah and we incorporate that truth into our observance. Should we not be driven to share this truth with our peers and students? Should we be satisfied with our friends acting in a way that is not the best for them? Shammai is teaching us that not sharing this truth (or opportunity for growth) with others could be a lack of caring or even an act of haughtiness. It is not a mitzvah to be stringent, it is a mitzvah to do what the Torah teaches us will be spiritually beneficial. Once we discover that mitzvah, we should be eager to share it with others. If you had a great stock tip or investment idea, would you not share it with everyone that you love? Mitzvah observance and Torah is that spiritual investment strategy. When we sincerely, respectfully, tactfully and lovingly share Torah and mitzvot with our friends, we are showing them caring and love and helping them claim the rich Torah heritage they deserve.