By Rabbi Yehoshua Berman
Are you an eved Hashem? It’s a question that commands our concern throughout the year, and, perhaps, with much greater urgency during the Yamim Noraim season. With teshuva being the mandate of the day, one may sometimes find himself wondering where he really stands. Possibly, many people – maybe even most – would not feel comfortable answering the question, “are you an eved Hashem”? We might feel that only a select few who live lives of exceptional dedication and devotion to Torah and mitzvos can rightfully claim that title; while the rest of us are, well, shall we say struggling to keep our heads above the water.
So, now, let’s pose a different question. Imagine you bump into your neighbor who seems like he is a bit harried and in a hurry. He’s got a serious demeanor adorning his facial features. Knowing him to be a serious Jew, you ask, “Wow, you look really busy and preoccupied! What special avodas Hashem are you up to?” Now, what you didn’t realize is that the guy is actually on his way to a din Torah over a serious monetary dispute with one of his clients. Incredulous, he gives one of those looks, and with a nervous laugh exclaims, “Avodas Hashem? Hah! You’ve got to be kidding! I’m on my way to a din Torah. I got into a thorny disagreement with one of my clients, and we just did not manage to resolve the matter on our own. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I really must be on my way.”
Sounds like a reasonable response, right? I certainly would have thought so; that is, until I came across the following piece in Sefer Chafetz Chaim (Hilchos Lashon Hara 8:4): “Know that the prohibition of speaking lashon hara applies even to speaking negatively about someone who is an am ha’aretz, for he is also a member of the Nation of Hashem…and all the more so does it apply to speaking negatively about someone who is a talmid chacham…the sin is then far greater…and it is even more so if the talmid chacham is a Posek in the city. Then, certainly, the transgression of speaking negatively about him is even far more severe. For starters, the fact that he is someone who is relied upon for psak halacha, speaking negatively about him is a violation of the respect that is due to him. Furthermore, by speaking negatively about a Posek, one thereby impedes others from avodas Hashem, because people will say or think things like, ‘Ah, what’s the point for us to go to him to adjudicate our dinei Torah, since, after all, he really doesn’t know much…’. Because of this, people will just act on their own (in addition to other terrible consequences).”
Did you notice the example that the Chafetz Chaim gave of avodas Hashem? That’s right, going to a din Torah, in the eyes of the holy Chafetz Chaim, is called avodas Hashem. And the truth is that a moment’s contemplation makes it clear that it is so true. After all, here you have a monetary dispute with someone. We all know how worked up people get over money. You could try to take the law into your own hands. You could theoretically sue in the secular courts. But, no! You do nothing of the sort. Instead, what do you do? You bring your grievances to a Beis Din or a Rav. You submit your case to the law of Hashem. Are you perhaps edgy, disgruntled, out of sorts, or even angry? Yes? Ok, so perhaps you’re not one of the lamed-vav tzaddikim. But, at the end of the day, you are adhering to Hashem’s laws. You are acting with fidelity to His will. And that, without a doubt, is avodas Hashem.
Do you buy kosher food? Do you send your kids to private schools so that they may get a Jewish education and grow up to be a credit to themselves, their family, their People, and their Creator? You do? Well, did you ever stop to think that you could save yourself tens and even hundreds of thousands of dollars if you would eat treif and send your kids to public school? So, if you are an FFB you’ll say, “But, I was raised that way, and doing such things are not on my radar screen!” Ok, so then that means that you had the good fortune to be raised to be an eved Hashem. And you’re kids are also benefitting from that tremendous good fortune. Would you say that a royal prince is not really royalty because he was brought up to be that? Of course not! He is royalty, and had the inestimable good fortune to be born and raised as such. And so were you! If you are a Torah observant Jew, then you are an eved Hashem!
Uh, oh. The yetzer hara is getting concerned. You see, he really would much prefer that you don’t think of yourself as an eved Hashem. It makes his job so much easier. The minute you become convinced that you really, actually, honest-for-goodness are an eved Hashem, that wily scoundrel immediately loses the upper hand. So, now, let’s make a guess as to what would be his next stab at trying to disabuse you of the “ridiculous notion that you’re actually an eved Hashem”. Parenthetically, the really incredible thing about this, is that he’s so good at what he does, he makes it sound as if it’s really you talking to yourself when it’s really him talking. In any event, would any of the following sound familiar?
“Me, an eved Hashem?! Are you kidding, do you have any idea how I yelled at my kids this morning?!”
“Ha! You should have heard the awful, lashon-hara-filled conversation I had with my sister last night!”
“If you had the slightest inkling as to what I looked at a few hours ago, you’d go running in the other direction!”
More or less, it’s one basic script of, “What?! With the aveiros I’ve done?! Oh, no, not me sir. You’ve got the wrong guy!” All you need to do is to fill in the blank (sometimes it’s not even an aveirah, but a perceived lack of accomplishment; yes, he is quite wily…).
So, let’s take a look at an interesting pasuk (they’re all interesting, it just takes some time until we realize that). It’s a pasuk that appears in the context of Yosef’s brothers begging for merciful treatment in the wake of Yaakov Avinu’s passing. They were worried that, with Yaakov gone, Yosef may finally exact his revenge for what they did to him. At one point, they say this: “Please, bear please the iniquity of your brothers and their sin, for they paid you evil, and now please bear the iniquity of the servants of the Lord of your father (Vayechi 50:17).” The result of that message is that Yosef cries in anguish that they would suspect him of wanting to take revenge.
But let’s zoom in on that expression “bear the iniquity of the servants of the Lord of your father”. They refer to themselves as avdei Elokei avicha, or, in other words, avdei Hashem. Now, doesn’t that sound awfully presumptuous?! After all, it’s not like they simply ruined a shidduch for him (and, don’t get me wrong, ruining a shidduch is no small matter!). For crying out loud, they abducted him, stripped him naked, threw him into a pit of venomous snakes and scorpions, and then sold him into slavery! You know, there is a severe punishment that the Torah assigns for abducting and selling a Jew. It’s in the Aseres Ha’Dibros, and the penalty is death! And, as if that weren’t enough, Chazal tell us that it was because of that awful sin of Yosef’s brothers that Rabi Akiva and his contemporaries – the Asarah Harugei Malchus – had to die in such a heinous way at the hands of the barbaric Romans! And they have the audacity to call themselves avdei Hashem?! And in case you may be inclined to think that they didn’t really any mean anything by that, and it was “just an expression”, take a look at how Rashi explains it: “Perhaps your father has died, but his Lord still exists and [we] are His servants!”
Obviously, then, what we see from here is that it was not audacity at all, but a simple statement of fact. Yes, there most certainly is someone who deigns to assert that, because of their heinous crime, how dare they claim title to being an eved Hashem. And you know who that someone is? Do you know whose voice it is that says, “Oh, please! You?! An eved Hashem?! After the types of things that you’ve done? You’ve got to be kidding me!”? Yes, you guessed it. It’s your old pal. Yetzer hara. Satan. Malach ha’maves. By any of his names, it’s all the same. And what we see from the Shevatim is that it’s all lies. Fabrications and calumnies. Yes, they committed an absolutely horrific aveirah – against both man and G-d – but, nevertheless, even in the context of begging clemency therefor, they insist that they are avdei Hashem.
Because they are.
And why is that? Because, as Chazal make clear, there is no one action that can define you. What defines you is the overall path and flavor of your life. If, overall, you are someone who is committed to following the word of G-d, then you are his servant. That’s a fact, plain and simple. No matter how many mistakes you might make, no matter what types of mess-ups you fall into, that is not what defines you. What defines you is the overall way that you live your life. And, as such, if you consider yourself a Torah observant Jew – and overall that is how you live your life – then, yes, my friend, you are a bonafide eved Hashem.