Sunday, July 22, 2007

24/7 surveillance

In the class of Monday, 16 July, Brigitte, Peter, Jason, and Alexey (pictured above) attended. We discussed the concept that G-d is always watching us.

How can a person sin, if he knows that it is against G-d’s will? It is simple. He convinces himself, whether consciously or subconsciously, that he can “get away with it,” and that “no one will know.” As for G-d, he “tunes out” of G-d’s presence.

As the Talmud puts it, “Gaze upon three things and you will not come into the grip of sin. Know what is above you: a watchful Eye, an attentive Ear, and all your deeds are recorded in a Book.” (Ethics of the Fathers 2:1)

The Talmud is saying that morality depends upon the recognition that G-d is always observing all our actions, our words, and even our thoughts. It should be noted that it is insufficient to be aware of this concept intellectually; for this truth to have its full impact on the person, his entire consciousness must be permeated with it. Thus the Talmud speaks of gazing, i.e., meditating intently upon this concept. This is the concept of prayer (with G-d’s help, I will elaborate on this concept in future classes).

Conversely, the less we are aware of G-d, the easier it becomes to sin.

The Talmud mentions a Book. What is this Book? The rabbinic commentaries explain that all our deeds are recorded in the heavenly Book of Remembrance. G-d refers to this Book in deciding each person’s blessings for the entire coming year on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, which is in fact the Day of Judgement for all mankind.

To explain this further, I will preface with a story. The Talmud (Berachos, 28b) relates how the disciples of the great sage, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, came to visit him as he lay on his deathbed. The disciples asked their teacher to bless them. He responded, “May it be the will of G-d that the fear of Heaven be upon you like the fear of flesh and blood.” Astonished, they inquired, “Is that it?” In other words, should not their fear of G-d be greater than that of man? Rabbi Yochanan replied, “If only that were so! When a person commits a transgression [in private], he says [to himself] ‘let no one see me.’”

Thus, human nature—even that of the spiritually advanced students of Rabbi Yochanan, never mind ordinary people like us—is that embarrassment from man is more likely to deter from sinning publicly than embarrassment from G-d will deter from sinning in private.

This stems from the fact that once our souls became vested in bodies, the physical world became our immediate reality. Thus, although we can recognise intellectually that G-d must exist and that He is the true reality, until the Moshiach arrives this reality will always be abstract and distant from us, and will never be as real as the existence of other people. Thus, Rabbi Yochanan blessed his students that their fear of sin should equal their fear of man.

For this reason our spiritual health demands that we remind ourselves of G-d’s constant presence. Moreover, we should make a point of doing so regularly.

This can be compared to physical health: The body requires regular nourishment, and no normal person will say, “I ate yesterday, so I need not eat today.” Barring an emergency, one should not even skip a meal once.

Similarly, for our spiritual health we need a regular reminder that G-d is watching. This is accomplished through regular prayer. But this must be supplemented with regular Torah study, to keep us freshly updated on what G-d wants of us. Finally, to bring merit and blessing, one's spiritual dose should be completed with an act of charity.

Likewise, it is insufficient to engage in these activities several times a year, monthly, or even weekly. We must do so daily, and not "skip a meal" even once. Moreover, we should encourage others to do likewise.

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