Striking the Right Balance
The Torah states regarding the walls of the Tabernacle: "The center crossbar shall go through the middle of the beams, from one end to the other." (1) The Targum Yonasan writes that the center crossbar was made with wood that came from the trees that Abraham planted for the purpose of performing kindness for the travelers. Why was this wood in particular used to take such a prominent position in the Tabernacle? Rav Zelig Pliskin explains that it is to remind us that even whilst we are devoting ourselves to God, we should never forget to have compassion for our fellow man who is created in God's image.(2)
This lesson is stressed in the teachings by the great Torah scholars: One of the great contributions of Rav Yisroel Salanter was that whilst it is highly commendable to place great care on one's observance in the realm of bein adam l'Makom (between man and God) nevertheless we should be very careful that this should not be at the expense of others. There are numerous examples of how he put this teaching into practice. On his way to get water for netilat yedayim (the ritual washing of the hands), a student passed through some rooms in which people were sleeping. "Netilat yadayim is a mitzvah instituted by our Sages," commented, Rav Yisroel, "but robbing others of their sleep is forbidden by the Torah."(3) On another occasion a student began praying a spirited Shemoneh Esrei (the standing prayer) whilst standing by the open window on a hot day. Rav Yisroel scolded him for blocking the air for the other people in shul. Another of the great teachers of self-growth, the Alter of Slobodka, also placed great emphasis on mitzvot in the realm of bein adam l'chaveiro (between man and his fellow).
Each person needs to be aware in his own performance of mitzvot that he does not unwittingly cause pain or inconvenience to others: For example, when a person is donning his tallis in synagogue for the morning prayers he should be extra vigilant that his tallis strings do not strike anyone nearby. Another case is when the Sefer Torah is brought out, it is certainly praiseworthy to kiss it, however, if one is likely to push or shove others on the way then the Torah authorities write that the kissing the sefer Torah is over-ridden by the requirement not to risk harming our fellow Jew.(4)
Another aspect in which it is important to emphasize one's bein adam l'chaveiro as well as bein adam l'Makom (between man and God) is in the areas of stringencies. The Ramban discusses the verse in the beginning of the Torah Portion of Kedoshim, where the Torah instructs us to "be holy." The Ramban tells us that it is not enough to keep the basic laws, rather we should strive to reach ever higher levels in our relationship with God over and above the actual technical observance of mitzvot. There is another section in the Ramban that makes a similar point with regard to bein adam l'chaveiro. The Torah says, "And you should do what is fair and good in the eyes of God." The Rabbis say that this verse teaches us that we should go beyond the letter of the law in our dealings with other people. The Ramban explains that it is not enough to simply keep the basic laws of mitzvot in the realm of bein adam l'chaveiro, rather we must realize that God wants us to treat people with a heightened sensitivity to their needs.
A person may have a tendency to emphasize stringencies in mitzvot of bein adam l'Makom such as kashrut - this is a tremendous thing when applied correctly. Yet the Imrei Emet (the Rebbe of the Chassidic Dynasty of Ger) understood that the concept of stringencies applies just as much to our dealings with other people as to our relationship with God. A chassid once asked him if he could borrow a pair of tefillin since he had misplaced his own. The Rebbe lent him a pair, but not just any pair. It was his own set of tefillin, which had belonged to his father, the Sfat Emet. When asked why he gave the chassid his most precious set, he answered that, "the Torah says, 'Zeh Keili v'anveihu' from which we learn that one must do a Mitzva in the most beautiful way possible. This concept applies to kindness as well. That is why I gave him the priceless tefillin." (5) The center crossbar in the Tabernacle stood as an eternal reminder that there are two pillars of serving God - bein adam l'Makom and bein adam l'chaveiro, and even at times of the highest devotion to God it is essential to remember our obligations to our fellow man. May we all merit to strike the right balance.
1. Terumah, 26:28.
2. Pliskin, Growth Through Torah, Parshas Terumah.
3. Zaitchik, Sparks of Mussar, p. 21.
4. Piskey Teshuvos, 2nd Chelek, Simun 148, p.209.
5. Kaplan, Major Impact, p.161-2.