This post is dedicated in memory of Etya Sarah bat Yitzchak ha-Levi. May it be an aliyah for her neshama.
In 1896, one of the greatest mussar yeshivot (centers of Torah) created was called Novardock, after the city in which it was established, Navahrudak. The style of learning there placed a strong emphasis on self perfection through acts of הפקרות (contextually translated as "total negation of the ego and the physical self"). The students there "participated in deliberately humiliating behavior, not to put themselves down as is mistakenly thought by some, but to acquire emotional freedom from the chains of public approval. The bachurim (young teenagers) did things like wear old patched clothing, don fur coats in the summer and one particular story tells of how a boy walked into a pharmacy, slapped down some money and asked for a bag of nails. When the Bolsheviks seized Lithuania (which included the little town in which the Jews of Novardock learned), the yeshivah students' soul work proved beneficial against the sway of communism in Poland.
In this week's Parshat Emor, the idea of serving G-d from a state of indifference to social pressures can be derived from the words, "And the Kohen haGadol (High Priest), who is elevated above all his brothers, upon whose head the anointed oil has been poured..." (Leviticus 21:10). The Ba'al HaTurim defines the word 'elevated' to mean built, in physical strength, wealth and years. Initially, many might find this explanation puzzling; aren't we supposed to serve G-d from a place of total nullification of the ego? And doesn't all of the above inspire the exact opposite? The Or HaTorah, a commentator on the Torah, explains that here is when a person must define the difference between humility and ego. Humility means that while I recognize my strengths as well as my weaknesses, I acknowledge that everything I have is G-d given and therefore, essentially, I am nothing and no one without Him. Ego, on the other hand, is the mistaken perception that, "My strength and the might of my hand accumulated this wealth..." (Deuteronomy 8:17). Okay, but why did the Torah require these physical trappings? What made them necessary? They gave the High Priest the means to remain impervious to social pressure.
There are still people with the Novardock spirit around, men and women who form an opinion so strong, nothing will dissuade their belief system. In Judaism, we call this mesirat nefesh (contextually translated as putting oneself on the line for the sake of sanctifying
G-d's name). An act of mesirat nefesh could be anything, ranging from people who refused to work on Shabbot, even when it meant the uncertainty of hunger, to college students who openly wore star of David necklaces even though that might have invited ridicule.
So how do we reach such a lofty level? Public approval has always been and will always continue being something that defines us, at least, it defines us insofar as the way we conduct ourselves in the street. And that isn't necessarily a bad thing. Our environment goes very far in keeping us from toeing the line, breaking the law and hurting one another.
Let's look at it this way: all people are cut from the same cloth, yes? While our most basic needs include things like food, sleep, shelter, we also crave love, connection and self actualization. What makes us different from one another is our self definition (and how we relate to G-d and the people around us, whether they be family members, friends or that guy who hands out the newspapers at the subway entrance). Naturally, our growth processes differ as well. As the saying goes, "All roads lead to Rome," and if one's focus is clear, all approaches lead to G-d.