Ekev - ALL OR NOTHING
I WOULD like to discuss with you this familiar Yiddish expression that most of us remember from early childhood, oder gor, oder gornisht. The closest translation in English for this phrase that I know is. "All or nothing at all." On numerous occasions people will say, "If I can't do it 100% I won't do it at all."
People who are reluctant to participate in any community enterprise will say, "We don't believe in half measures. Either we will throw ourselves into the work heart and soul or we won't do it at all."
I asked a student why he quit college at the end of his sophomore year and he replied, "Since I couldn't make the Dean's list for two consecutive years, I didn't see any sense in continuing school."
There are those who will attend a party or a gathering only if they are certain that they will be the center of attraction. They must be stars and get top billing or they won't go at all. You and I know mechutanim who will not attend a wedding or Bar Mitzvah affair unless they are assured of a seat of honor. Either the most kavod or nothing at all. Others will not join an organization unless they are certain to get high office. They want to start from the top. Big chief or nothing at all.
Then there are those who when they do condescend and join a group insist that everything be done their own way. You have heard this phrase before, but let me refresh your memory. A man will say, "Either it is going to be my way or I will have nothing to do with it at all."
This malady is especially prevalent and harmful in the realm of religious observance. An attitude of oder gor, oder gornisht has become the great stumbling block which interferes with every attempt to induce people to adhere to a minimum number of tenets of our faith. "Listen rabbi," a fellow will say, "as you know I am a straight and consistent person. With me it has to be all the way down the line, and since circumstances prevent me from observing Judaism to the full, I refuse to bother with it at all. I am not a hypocrite, and you wouldn't want me to be one, would you?" Another will say, "Rabbi, if I can't be as pious as my parents and grandparents were, I don't see the sense of it at all. With me it's got to be just right or I won't have anything to do with it."
I ask a Jew to join our synagogue as a member and his reply is that he hasn't the time to attend meetings or to participate in the activities of the shule , and since he can't do everything he won't do anything at all.
A woman will say, "You talk to me about lighting candles on Friday nights and having a kosher home. My husband works on Saturdays and he is careless with the utensils—the forks, the knives and the spoons. He always mixes them up, so I dropped the whole thing. With me it's all or nothing at all."
Such remarks remind me of the Jew who had to see the poretz, the local Polish nobleman, on business. The poretz offered him half a glass of wine which the Jew politely refused to drink, explaining that according to the rules of his religion, he could only drink kosher wine. The nobleman flew into a rage, drew his revolver and shouted, "If you won't drink the half glass of wine that I gave you I'll shoot you down like a dog." The Jew smiled and said, "Now that you have put it that way I am allowed to drink the wine, for when it's a question of life and death, the law steps aside." And with a twinkle in his eye, he added, "Since I have to drink anyway, you might as well fill the glass to the top."
The attitude of az men esst chazir zol es rinen iber der morde, that if you violate one precept, you might as well go all the way, is demoralizing and disheartening to those who labor in the vineyard of the Lord. The fact is that there have always been varying degrees of piety and observance among our people. There were the ultra-religious, the average, and the below average groups. They were all Jews and they identified themselves in all matters pertaining to the life of the community. When a family deviated completely, they were called porshim midarkei hatzibur —isolationists and subversives, and were held in derision and contempt. But today the philosophy of all or nothing at all is the curse and blight of American Jewish life. As a rabbi, I keep looking for the slightest manifestation of religious interest and I try to do all in my power to encourage it. Experience has taught me that a tiny spark can be fanned into a radiant and warm spiritual flame. It is therefore a mistake to ignore or neglect those who evince even a slight interest in yiddishkeit.
I have known people whose religious spirit was below par but who came to shule for one reason or another, for kaddish or bar mitzvah , and have made a tremendous comeback. With proper encouragement, many more could be brought back to the bosom of Torah Judaism. The major stumbling block remains this perfectionist foolishness of all or nothing at all. And I submit that in most instances it is used as a subterfuge and an alibi. Examine the record and you will discover that those who claim to be such finicky perfectionists insofar as their religious conduct and communal responsibilities arc concerned, seldom apply the same yardstick to other areas of life.
When a doctor is summoned to the bedside of a patient he is not always certain that the prescription he prescribes is foolproof, but he does his level best to cure and ease pain. A lawyer is frequently in doubt as to the kind of brief to draw up or the tactics to use in a trial, but he will defend his client and the client's interests to the best of his abilities. The builder who is under contract to erect a multi-floored apartment house or office building is satisfied if he can reach a close approximation of his construction figures and costs. The scientist who develops the "miracle drugs" in the laboratory is not absolutely sure that they will prove 100% effective. The progress mankind has made in the fields of commerce and science is due to the fact that the fallacious doctrine of all or nothing at all was rejected by its leaders.
To quote a ditty:
He who smacks the head of every nail,
Now please don't misunderstood me, I am not suggesting that we should not strive for perfection. What I am trying to say is that we should recognize that it is better to do something imperfectly than to sit back and do nothing at all. Those who will not settle for less than 100% are usually emotionally unbalanced. The over-fussy, over-fastiduous, and over-meticulous are a nuisance to their families, associates and friends. When parents expect and insist on 100% performance from their children, they are responsible for making neurotics and psychotics of them. Not everyone can be an Einstein in mathematics, and not everyone can be a Dr. Dudley White in cardiology. Yet no one in his right mind would discourage a son or daughter to enter these fields unless he or she could match Einstein and White. If one cannot be a Moses or a saint like the Chafetz Chayim, it does not follow that he should neglect Judaism altogether. A little observance is better than nothing at all.
The Chafetz Chayim was once asked by a certain man to define a good Jew, and he answered that a good Jew is he who observes all the commandments of the Torah. "In that case," the man remarked "you can count all the good Jews on the fingers of your hand and some fingers will be left over." "I am sorry that I didn't make myself clear," replied the rabbi. "A man who likes to drink prefers shnapps that is 100% proof. But supposing he can't get the perfect brand and he finds only 80% proof, he will drink that also. He knows that 20% of it is water, but it is still good. And supposing it is only 60% or 40%? It is still shnapps , though it is weak. When it reaches the point where it is 95% water, then it has no taste. And it is so with a Jew. You asked for the ideal Jew and my answer was 'He who observes everything.' But a Jew who observes 80%, or even 40% is still a Jew. He may be a weak Jew but he is a Jew nevertheless. There comes a time, however, when he becomes 95% vasserdik . Then he is an insipid and tasteless Jew."
This thought is brought home to us in a comment on a verse that we find in the Torah today. When Jews were at war, it was the duty of the special priest to address the people, and this is what he said: "Hear, 0 Israel, you come nigh this day to do battle against your enemies. Let not your heart be faint, fear not, and be not downcast, and do not tremble because of them" (Deut. 20:3). Rashi makes a significant comment on the reason why the priest used the familiar phrase "Hear, 0 Israel," as an introduction to his remarks. By this he meant to say that even if the only mitzvah they performed was in reciting the Shema in which they affirmed their allegiance to the true God of Israel, it was sufficient merit to save them from their enemies.
I plead that each and every one of us do something more in the coming year than we did in the past. Women who did not bentch licht should take upon themselves the mitzvah of lighting candles on the Sabbath and holidays, and of preparing a shabbosdik and yomtovdik table. That creates a wonderful Jewish atmosphere in the home. Men who did not make kiddush should resolve to do it in the future. Those who hardly ever came to services during the year should come as often as they can—once a week, twice a month, once a month—but come. Begin to change your homes for the better; enrich your lives with Jewish ceremonies; inspire your minds with good Jewish books.
Long ago, the great sage, Rabbi Tarfon, put it wisely. "It is not incumbent on you to complete the work, but neither are you free to abstain from it" (Ethics of the Fathers, 2:21).