middot humility besorah necessary or not?

necessary or not?

Written by  rabbi russ resnik

art-reiHappy are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. --Matthew 5:8

I yearn for simplicity, but life insists on complicating itself.

The REI catalogue arrived in the mail the other day and I discovered all kinds of things that I really needed, which I didn’t even know existed the day before. I got some relief after I sent the catalogue to the recycling bin, but later that day in a conversation with a friend I learned about several books that I absolutely had to read and a new movie I should definitely see while it was still in the local theaters. On top of that, a couple of new problems popped up at work and I realized I’d need to cancel my late afternoon walk (along with any extra reading and movie viewing) and knock out some more hours in the office.

The Riverton website says, “Simplicity allows you to find yourself and Hashem.” Amen, but how to find simplicity? The website continues, “Simplicity is assessing what is necessary in life and what is excessive. By slimming down our appetites, possessions, and desires, we can begin to experience the riches of a simple life.”

It’s true that we need to assess what is necessary in life. Not long after I tossed out the REI catalogue, I forgot about the things it told me I needed, so that assessment was easy. Even slimming down actual possessions seems straightforward. It might be hard to actually get it done, but the concept is clear enough—unclutter your life. But how about slimming down our appetites and desires? How do we accomplish that? For an answer, I’ll return to the Shema—my emphasis in mussar practice this year—especially the second line, “Love Hashem your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.”

These three components, heart, soul, and might, or resources, aren’t three different components of the human personality, but a way of describing the whole person. The rabbinic writings draw out different meaning and implications from these three categories, but they build on the primary meaning of whole-hearted devotion to Hashem. As one Christian commentator notes, no rabbinic sage “had any doubt as to what was the collective, united demand made in Deut. vi. 5, and that one thing only was here required: a sterling, undivided love for God.”[1]

So simplicity starts with a holistic view of ourselves, and a holistic response to God. We are not essentially three-part beings, made of body, soul, and spirit, or heart, soul, and might, but whole persons. We’re not to be pulled in different directions by soul and body, the physical and spiritual, but to unite all the aspects of our selves and our lives in love for Hashem. We weigh our desires and set our priorities based upon this one overriding motive.

That ought to simplify things.

That also might bring us into some conflict with the world in which we live, with all of its enticements, priorities and demands. If our lives really are shaped by wholehearted love for God, we might seem simple in another sense, as in mentally challenged. It’s ironic that English translations of the Scriptures use “simple” in contrast with “wise” or “discerning.” And perhaps that’s another key to cultivating simplicity. We can’t worry about keeping up with conventional wisdom or looking hip. We might risk the misunderstanding or disapproval of the world around us, but we’re on the way toward seeing God.


[1] Birger Gerhardsson. The Shema in the New Testament. (Lund: Novapress, 1996), 27.

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