middot order mesorah order and priorities

order and priorities

Written by  rav carl kinbar

art-ducksinrow"Whatever sacrifice is offered more regularly than its fellow takes precedence over its fellow, and whatever sacrifice is more holy than its fellow takes precedence over its fellow" -- Mishnah Horayot 3:6.

Judaism's emphasis on order has its roots in the Torah and become a pervasive principle after the Hurban, the destruction of the Second Temple. For several centuries after the Hurban, the sages of early Judaism sought to establish a foundation for all of Jewish life. Unlike pre-Destruction Pharisees, who were tied to fixed traditions, this mixture of Pharisees, priests, and scribes knew that existing traditions were not enough to bring order to a society that had lost its central earthly point of orientation, the Temple, and was now under crushing foreign domination.

Therefore, the sages sought to establish a new order, based on the Torah, tradition, and innovation that would meet the needs of their times. Although their writings and personal influence did not receive immediate acceptance, their labors turned out to form the basis of all subsequent varieties of Judaism.

The job of the early Jewish sages, known collectively as Hazal, was to bring order out of chaos - religious order, social order, and civil order - every area of Jewish life. The first written expression of their thinking is found in the Mishnah, which was edited shortly after 200 C.E.

The overriding impetus of the Mishnah was to put things in order, each in its own place. What activities are so essential that they override Shabbat? What makes the testimony of a witness in court reliable or unreliable? What blessings are appropriate for some situations but not for others? Which activities are permitted right up to the eve of Pesach and which must be terminated earlier? Which sacrifices come first, the more regular or the more holy? Et cetera, et cetera. In each case, clarity was achieved by considering essential characteristics of the actions being considered.

Let's take the last example - which sacrifices come first, the more regular or the more holy? Even though the Temple no longer stood, the sacrificial order loomed as a reality that permeated Jewish life. How should the priests, faced with the many sacrifices to be offered each day, decide which took priority? Should it be the more regular sacrifices such as the daily --- and the Yom Kippur sacrifices or other, less regular but sometimes more holy sacrifices such as sin, guilt, and thanksgiving offerings? The sages determined that the more regular come first.

It may seem to us that the more holy should come first, but the sages had a powerful rationale for their choice - the regular sacrifices were made in behalf of the entire people while non-regular sacrifices were most often made for individuals. They placed the needs of the entire community before the needs of the individual, even if that individual were a High Priest or a king. A major exception was sacrifice offered to qualify a priest to make sacrifices in the first place - there again, the major factor wasn't the needs of an individual but the people as a whole.

So, what does this have to do with the middah of "Seder" or Order? One aspect of order is the sequence of things: which comes first, second, etc. How do we to prioritize our actions when the decision is entirely up to us? That is, when our work or immediate community or family situations don't dictate our actions, how do we schedule our time?

Let's face it - most of us tend to put off things we hate to do, as if doing them later will somehow be less painful than doing them now! But the pleasure principle - doing first what gives us the most pleasure - will get us into trouble more often than not. You know what I mean. In order to order our days, we have to consider the essential character of our actions. For example, which activities are done for the sake of others, which for myself alone, and which ones affect both others and myself?

What is done for others generally takes priority over what I do for myself. For example, those family errands that could be put off 'til later - I'll do them now. Among things I do apparently for myself, it turns out that some should also take priority because of their impact on others. The daily mussar diary is an example - this week we write about our daily struggle with disorder. But putting our lives in order is not for our sake alone - it's for the sake of our family, our community, and everyone we come into contact with. Bringing our lives into order would seem to require that the diary be written at the end of the day but while I'm still alert. That means it may not be wise for me to make it the very last thing I do before succumbing to sleep.

It's not easy to determine the essential nature of things; my ideas are only suggestions and simple ones at that. Things get complicated when we consider that some of my activities have to get done at a certain time of day or they won't get done at all. For example, I prepare for my Wednesday morning hevruta study early Wednesday morning so that it will be fresh in my mind. Since hevruta study is irreplaceable, I may have to put off that task my wife asked me to do until I return home.

So, how can we actually bring order out of the chaos or semi-chaos of our lives? Like the sages of early Judaism who carefully worked through the issues of Jewish life - and it took centuries to do it - we start simple. For example, we can consider a small group of regular activities -say three or four - that mark our lives. Slowly, careful we sort through the issues to determine which take priority, and then how to schedule them out. Chances are pretty good that discussing these things with our hevruta will help us in the process. Then making ourselves accountable to your hevruta will give us the extra motivation to stick to your schedule.

By the way, putting the needs of others before our own is not asceticism - it's a Torah principle that, in the end, brings the great satisfaction of knowing that we are living as God intends us to live.

The sages of early Judaism knew that priests would be faced with the clamor of individuals wanting to make sacrifice, but they were guided by a clear sense of priorities that placed the community first. A clear sense of priorities will likewise help us to bring order to the clutter and chaos of our lives.

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