I’ve often wondered why the standard adult dose for paracetamol (the chemical ingredient in products like Panadol and Tylenol) is 1000mg, but the tablets are 500mg. Is it because more active ingredient would make the tablets too large to swallow? Or is it to perpetuate the adage “take two pills and call me in the morning”?
When it comes to the two tablets that Moshe brought down from Mt Sinai inscribed with the Ten Commandments, there are many reasons given as to why there were two, and in particular the way they are arranged on each tablet. The first five commandments are mitzvot that relate to God’s relationship with people – known as “bein adam laMakom” (lit. between man and God), and the second five are mitzvot that govern the function of society itself – known as “bein adam l’chavero” (lit. between man and his fellow man).
The two tablets were equal in size to give equal weight to both categories of commandments – that we must be as diligent in performance of mitzvot that relate to us and God, as with those that tell us to how to treat others.
But in practice, we often find a dissonance among people when it comes to these two categories of mitzvot. At the extremes, the dissonance presents in one of two ways: either someone can be very careful about the God-man mitzvot and scant regard for the way they treat others or the government. The other extreme is where someone’s Jewish expression is purely in terms of how they deal with others, with little or no reference to God.
The former is sadly a stereotype often associated with the Haredi world, as we see high profile cases of people who maintain a “holier-than-thou” façade (and indeed may be very scrupulous in the performance of mitzvot between God and man) yet are found guilty of a variety of crimes against others. But the latter is often lauded as a humanitarian of the highest order. They are not denigrated for not keeping Shabbat or making God a bigger part of their life – their behaviour is just accepted as a personal expression of their Jewishness.
The Torah clearly doesn’t like either type of dissonance. A brazen robber must return the goods they steal. But a burglar, who sneaks into homes thus showing they are afraid of being caught by people but not afraid of God, attracts the kefel punishment and must repay double. And many of the mitzvot in Vayikra that govern our conduct in society conclude with the phrase “I am God” as a constant reminder that despite appearances, God knows the motives deep in our hearts. Following the giving of the Torah in the parsha of Yitro, the introduction to civil laws starts “v’Ele HaMishpatim” – “and these are the ordinances …” From this we learn that both types of mitzvot are equally divine in origin.
It’s not clear why either manifestation of this dissonance exists – it’s likely a product of cultures deeply embedded in particular societies and communities that favour some observances over others. Certainly the common responses reflects the modern secular world in which the only laws that “count” are those between man and man. Indeed, for this reason some people might only recognize the first example of dissonance and may reject the second entirely.
But should this be the Jewish response? And more broadly, does poor performance in one area negate good performance in another?
We find so many examples of this. Whether it’s Charles Ramsey, who one day was a hero for saving kidnap victims and the next was revealed as having a conviction for domestic violence. Or the Ultra-Orthodox Jew who is in prison for white collar crime but is condemned for demanding kosher food. Or the Orthodox Jew who keeps Shabbat, eats kosher, and is diligent in most mitzvot except one, yet is ostracised from his local shul and denied an aliya. While the first example is probably just tall poppy syndrome, it certainly seems related to the general malaise in society where we allow (or look for) poor performance in one area to detract from the good in a person.
What is most objectionable about this pattern is that it always seeks to bring a person down; to suggest that any good they do is less good; as if to resolve the dissonance between the good and bad within them, they should reduce the good rather than seek to eliminate the bad and thus improve themselves. And that is the crux of the matter – the simple test one can apply to validate such an argument. If the criticism will lead a person to question the value of the good they do and as a result potentially do less, then the criticism should be rejected. On the other hand, if it will lead to some improvement in any part of a person, then it should be accepted.
Two tablets; one standard: continuous improvement.
Reflecting on the Jewish Holiday of Shavuot (Pentecost) and how society looks at the good and bad within all of us.
This was also posted at [Times of Israel].