middot decisiveness stories pious on the shoulders of others

pious on the shoulders of others

Written by  rebbetzin malkah

art-bucketRabbi Salanter was washing his hands before a meal when the rabbis he was with noticed he was not immersing his whole hands in water in the ritual manner preferred by Jewish law. When questioned about this practice, Rabbi Salanter responded:

“I am not the one who obtains the water from the well; it is the poor peasant girl who must do so. Several times a week in the middle of this bitter winter, she must trudge out to the well, break the ice, and bring back pails of water for us to use in our home. The more water I use to wash my hands, the more often she has to face the bitter cold. And I do not want to be extra pious on the shoulders of her suffering.”

This story teaches us something very powerful about the performance of mitzvot at the expense of others.  Many times we conjure up in our minds that righteousness means the observance of mitzvot at all costs.  However, this is actually a flawed way of thinking and not a valid mindset in the world of Judaism.

Jewish thinking certainly does encourage doing mitzvot, connecting to Hashem and being thorough in our observance.  The Sages have gone to great lengths to detail how and when to perform mitzvot.  However, if someone's life is at stake, these laws are suspended.  Even the laws of Shabbat are subject to going on hold for the sake of saving a life. 

However, in the absence of compassionate consideration, how many times do we subject those around us to our standards of supposed righteousness?  And how many victims have to be subject to our halachic observance and who take away from it nothing more than our rigidity and our lack of humanity?  If we do not inspire others through our living, we are doing something seriously wrong.

There are also times when our supposed mitzvah wagon is not operating under kosher standards.  Perhaps we wish to print out some blessings for ourself, but we do it on company paper without permission.  This is at the direct expense of the company we work for and is unethical.  Or maybe we wish to daven at work, but use company time outside of our breaks and lunch.  This too is something which we do on the backs of others. Perhaps we schedule an appointment with a friend, and then realize before we leave for that appointment that we had forgotten to daven (pray).  Do we take the time to daven and show up an hour late and disrupt that person's schedule?

While it is crucial to try and maintain a kosher and halachically fit lifestyle, brimming with mitzvot, it is important to remember the human element.  For if we forsake the people we encounter for a higher level of righteousness that we wish to attain for ourselves, then we forget one of the highest principles of righteousness which we have been called to:  love your neighbor as yourself.

The next time you have the ability to do a deed of righteousness, consider all of the ramifications surrounding that mitzvah and ask yourself a few questions:

  • does fulfilling the mitzvah negatively impact those around me (inconvenience, offend, embarrass)
  • is there anything unethical being done in the process of performing the mitzvah


When we truly participate in righteous living, we find that we are not hurting those around us; rather, we are being a light and the deeds that we do not only lift and connect our souls, but those of the world as well.

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