The Mishna, the rabbinic foundation of the Oral Torah, covers the entire spectrum of Jewish law and custom. The six major categories of the Mishna (agriculture, holidays, marriage, civil/criminal law, temple functions, ritual purity) may not seem to be the most pressing issues of the day to us in the 21st century. But to the rabbis of 1,800 years ago, they were matters that the precarious survival of their religion hung upon.
The actual structure of the Mishna takes the form of several divisions of rabbinic statements divided and sub-divided in a manner that makes a somewhat cohesive whole. The first division is into six orders that are the categories listed in parentheses in the previous paragraph. Each order is then divided in subsections called tractates which cover different aspects of the primary category. In the current traditional ordering of the Mishna there are a total of 63 of these tractates, about 10 per order. The tractates are then divided into chapters, each of which details some aspect of the subject of the tractate.
The final division is to break up the chapters into separate paragraphs. Even a cursory reading of almost any of these paragraphs reveals that there is much going on under the surface that is not explained in detail. The intention behind this tactic of revealing much but leaving much unrevealed, was to provide enough material so that future students would have the basic statements and arguments available to recite from memory, but that they would have to supplement the actual words with considerable background information to fill in the details. Thus the student of the Mishna would be doing a combination of recital of the actual words and the exposition of the ideas contained within those words. These two processes, recital and exposition, are both contained in the meaning of the word Mishna, which implies both repetition and study. Eventually, the exposition portion was recorded, at least partially, in the discussions contained in the Talmud.
In all probability, almost half the content of the Mishna was no longer in practice by the time the final standardization of the text took place (around 200 CE). Among the relevant parts was the section dealing with civil and criminal law. Even though the Sanhedrin, or high court, had lost a good deal of its power decades before the temple was destroyed, a version of the court with a portion of its authority remained in Israel up to the beginning of the 5th century. Even more important, the local Jewish court, functioned as an integral institution in almost every Jewish community. Those sections of the Mishna dealing with the courts were vitally important to the Jews of the Diaspora.
Buried deep in one of the sections, the tractate called Sanhedrin, is a Mishna (4:5) that deals with interrogation of witnesses in capital cases. It stresses the need to make the witnesses fear the consequences of false testimony that may convict an innocent person to death. In this vein it suggests that the reason that man was created alone (referring to the creation of Adam) was to illustrate that one who destroys one person is as if he destroyed the entire world. The Mishna continues along this line of thought, concluding with an utterly remarkable statement: Therefore each person is obligated to say, “The world was created for my sake”.
What was that? Each person has to say that ‘the world was created my sake’? Isn’t this the ultimate in selfishness? How did such an irreverent statement ever make its way into the religious rulings of the Mishna? How did such a vulgar remark enter into the one of the primary works of the people who introduced ethical monotheism to the world?
This outrageous line has received relatively little commentary from the vast corp of rabbinic authorities who made a lifetime’s work of explaining every little nuance in the Mishna and the Talmud. It’s almost as if they would prefer the line go away unnoticed. Of those who actually discuss it there are two general schools of thought. One school sees this line as simply another exhortation about the serious consequences of false testimony in capital cases. The other sees it as an independent statement having nothing to do with courts and witnesses. It is a testimony of a different sort – a testimony of the unique importance of each human being.
There are two aspects to this second line of thought. The first aspect centers on a dangerous power that we all have, a power that can lift us to spiritual greatness or paralyze us with the sting of vanity. That power is the ego. We all have it – allowing it to bloat or subduing it until it feels small and worthless, or cultivating it until it finds a happy medium. That mysterious line buried in this Mishna speaks about the ego: Therefore each person is obligated to say, “The world was created for my sake”. For my sake? Yes, for your sake, and your sake alone. Each and every one of us must ponder this perilous thought and face the reality that in some manner - God has chosen you as the purpose of creation.
We all have this thought naturally within us. It blindsides us at the oddest of moments, like the indignant feeling that kicks in when something perfectly normal goes out of whack just when we need it to not do so. The Internet goes off, the car dies, it’s too cold outside, time runs too fast or too slow, a zipper snags. These are all everyday occurrences, all routine things that could happen to anybody with nobody to blame. But we do blame somebody. We blame God. We blame god for having the divine chutzpah to screw things up for me. This is the ego at work in its most insidious fashion, genuinely believing that God is its personal servant.
But there is another side to this monster that lurks within. There is the side of greatness, of human potential, of the incredible uniqueness of us all. We all, every single one of us, are obligated to say, ‘The world was created for me’. What an incredible thought – that I and I alone, somehow bear the weight of a world on my shoulders. This does not mean that I am responsible for volcanoes erupting or the latest strain of bird flu. It does mean, however, that in my own limited scope, within the limits of my world, I am indeed responsible. If I mess up that world by polluting it with physical or spiritual garbage then I have to clean up the mess. I can keep my world a paradise, a Garden of Eden, with beautiful trees and precious thoughts, a world of caring and accomplishment. I can also destroy it with callous indifference or deliberate malice. That world was created for me and me alone. But it is really God’s world and I am merely its guardian.
We cannot shirk this obligation no matter how sensitive we are to its sheer outrageousness and no matter how much we understand the pitfalls of such a thought. We, you and I, are crucially important. We are so important that God gave us a perspective that enables us to see ourselves as the purpose of creation. But we mustn’t fall victim to the temptations of the unrestrained ego, of really believing it. We must realize that this obligation is just a window into an all-to-hidden reality that reveals our true significance. Each one of us is a world unto his or her self. Each one of us experiences enough to fill the universe. We all feel the emotions of the entire human race. Our souls soar into the highest point of the heavens and sink to the deepest realms of hell. Each and every one of us, because of our uniqueness, is the purpose of creation.
This is our burden, perhaps the heaviest of all, to acknowledge our unique importance but not let it get to our heads. Why was this burden placed upon us? Isn’t it better to play it safe and not mess with this precarious ego game? Perhaps. But perhaps we occasionally need to remind ourselves of how vital we really are and how much lies at stake as we create our world. This is your one chance, your moment to grasp. You are what it’s all here for – make it good, don’t make it bad.
There is a semi-famous Hassidic expression that goes something like this: A Hassid is a person who has notes in his two front pockets. On one it says, ‘The entire world was created for me’. On the other it says, ‘I am but dust and ashes’. This cuts right to the core of problem. On one side we run the risk of the ultimate ego trip. On the other we teeter on the edge of depression. The secret is finding that middle ground, that balance which brings us inner peace. Where is that royal road?
Perhaps the answer lies in the Hassidic saying - both those notes have to be carried around, not one without the other. We really may be dust and ashes, from both a scientific and spiritual perspective, but we are also the focal point of creation. The world, in some personal sense, may truly revolve around us, but we still bleed and urinate and die. Remembering both notes lands us somewhere in the middle, not too inflated, not too deflated. We have to read the first note, that essential reminder of self-worth and inner greatness, but when we find ourselves dwelling on it a little too much, we have to pull out the second note to bring ourselves out of the clouds and back down to earth. But too much of that second note blinds us to vast potential that lurks within us, the potential to bear the weight of the world and still smile. At that point we have to take another glance at the first note. Both of them must be carried around as reminders of our unique calling. That reminder, that note, is the little wake up call when the pointlessness and meaninglessness of life threaten to bring us down to the dust and leave us there. You are the purpose of creation.
Food for Thought
The boldness of that statement in the Mishna strikes anybody who hears it as outrageous. Can anybody really believe that the world was created just for them? How can we walk that tightrope that straddles individual greatness and personal ego?
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