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Thought Of The Week

TRUTH, BEAUTY AND THE TALMUD


In the Talmud (Baba Batra 60b), we have a case of a public nuisance; branches of trees hanging over a walkway. The townsfolk bring the man who owns the trees to court to have them trimmed. Yannai, the judge, realizes he also has branches over hanging the same walkway. He sends his people to investigate, because the judge thought that people liked the shade. He was wrong - they preferred the sunlight, it seemed. The trees were a public nuisance, so he had his trees cut down. Then he ordered the other guy to cut his tree down. His people asked why he did not order the other guy first, and the judge responded with a well known maxim of Resh Lakish, a great rabbinic sage: The maxim starts by saying "hitkosheshu vekoshu", quoting the prophet Zephaniah 2:1. In that biblical passage, it means "gather together". It doesn't make much sense here.

I can't quite figure what that biblical passage means in this context, and from the second part of the saying of Resh Lakish, it seems that no one else understood it, either. So in the second half of the maxim, Resh Lakish clears things up into a simple mixture of Hebrew and Aramaic and says: "keshot atzmekha, ve achar kakh keshot acherim." This is fairly simple to translate: "beautify yourself, then beautify others." "Keshot" is an Aramaic word that means "beautify". (In Hebrew, "kishutim" are decorations.)

This is clear. Before you tell anyone to clean up their act, clean up your own. This is one of most often repeated instructions I give in couples counseling: someone has to start the stopping of criticizing, complaining, condemning and engaging in fruitless conflict. Someone has to trim the darkness and let the light in. People say, "but he/she has not stopped!" This would be like saying to Yannai the judge "since the other guy did not get rid of his public nuisance, you should put yours back up." I always remind people: don't focus on what others do; focus on what kind of person you want to be. If the other person does not stop with their destructive behavior, there are many things one can do, but one of them is not to go back to your destructive behavior.

So far so good, but then it gets complex. It turns out, for etymological reasons not pertinent here, that the Aramaic word "keshot" also means "truth." So another way to translate "keshot atzmekha, ve achar kakh keshot acherim" can be "be truthful to yourself, and then you can be truthful to others" (predicting Shakespeare's Pollonius by several centuries). This phrase can also mean, "be truthful to yourself, and then you can guide others to truth."

Should we translate "keshot" in Resh Lakish's maxim as "beauty" or "truth"? What was Resh Lakish trying to say? At some deep level, truth and beauty mean the same thing. At some deep level, in the depths of the soul's experience, beauty communicates a truth and truth is beautiful -- and both are at the heart of philosophy.

In the early morning blessings of the prayer book, we are told "a person should always revere God in private and public, and acknowledge the truth, and speak the truth in his heart." There are many levels of truth, and at the deepest levels it is like the most beautiful music: broken symmetry, rhythm and mystery, piercingly sublime, et cetera.

Rabbi Yannai took the long way around when he was trying to say, "If I am gonna tell some other feller to cut his tree down, seems only right that I should go first." He chose, instead, to quote this obsidian gem of Resh Lakish. Why would he do that? Give a maxim that, upon investigation, pushes us from simple virtue ethics into the realms of aesthetics, probity and philosophy?

Well, in my experience, there are teachers who, when they are saying one thing, they are also saying another. I love the Talmud.

Shabbat Shalom, and Chag Sam'each!

Rabbi Mordecai Finley





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