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Thought for the Day: The Torah Expects/Demands Precision in Performance

When Newton first proposed his laws of mechanics, he was ridiculed.  The basis of the ridicule was a simple question: How could physical objects know to follow a rule?  That question, and therefore the push-back against Newtonian mechanics, doesn't make any sense to us.  To understand the objection, we need to really understand the pre-Enlightenment mindset; a mindset really architected by Aristotle.  Aristotle's view of matter and motion was that all physical objects had a preferred place in the universe; move them from that place, and they seek to return.  They could get back lots of ways, it might take a while or go quickly, or they might just hang out a while in discomfort.  (I think whimsically think that Aristotle would have said that all objects in the world are basically νεαρός; teenagers, for those of you who don't read Greek.)  Newton changed the entire world view by proposing and then demonstrating that the physical world actually operates according to a set of very precise rules.  Motion could be predicted to essentially any precision desired.  (The modern/quantum view is not materially different; it just modifies what can be measured, but not how precisely it can be measured.)

That difference in world views is very similar to the difference in how Torah Judaism and the western humanist/Judeo-Christian ethic views the function of religion.  The Judeo-Christian (hey!  I finally found a context where that word works)/humanist view is that we should all try to be good people, and people will tend to try to be good; there are lots of way to to that, and they may take their time, or even just stay where they are an choose not be be good.  Torah Judaism, in sharp contrast, views halacha as a set of precise rules about how reality works.  Eating pork is damaging to the Jewish soul, just as smoking is damaging to the human lungs.  The fact that non-Jews can eat pork at no peril to their souls is a statement regarding their spiritual needs.  No bigotry implied nor suggested; just a simple statement of fact.

Understanding that will open our eyes and minds to the function of תוכחה.  That word is often egregiously mistranslated as rebuke/reproach/admonishment -- all of which convey a sense of disapproval and/or disappointment.  תוכחה conveys no such meaning; not explicitly and not even implied.  The word תוכחה would be aptly applied to a conversation between two golfers: G1: You should be using a 7 iron for this shot.  G2: You are not taking the wind and recent reseeding of the fairway into account.

I was asked by a coworker from India (who therefore has not had much contact with Western culture and less with Jewish culture), what my goals are in life.  I don't know what he was expecting, but I told him, "To perfect myself as preparation for an eternal relationship with the Creator, and I achieve that through the means He has communicated to us."  That was the end of our conversation, but it reminded me to refocus and remember that any תוכחה I receive -- regardless of how it is delivered -- can only help me in that goal.  I may reply that you didn't take this or that into account, but it is always worth at least a moment's of reflection.  The goal, after all, is beyond priceless.


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