In Judaism, First Things First

I remember being a little girl, maybe in fourth or fifth grade, and reading the Tzivos Hashem magazine. There was a contest on the front page: write an essay about your very favorite mitzvah. Well, my favorite ritual was washing our hands before we eat bread – specifically, the act of holding the vessel first in our right hand as we filled it with water and then, only once full, passing it to the left hand.

I never wrote it. (I was scared.) And never mind that that is a custom, not a law. Yet I remember feeling so attached to that little detail. It spoke so much to me about the power of intention, nuance, the special role that the seemingly inconsequential step takes in creating a larger experience of G-dly connection. Right to left. This is important.

There’s something profound in that.

In our lives, we not only strive to learn what is right and wrong, moral and unjust – we need to figure out what is merely a shiny rock and what is a true nugget of gold in the murky river bed…And, boy, life sure is murky.

Ikar v’tafel is a halachic principle that suggests what is primary (ikar) and secondary (tafel) when deciding which blessing to recite over different foods. (Like cereal and milk. And salads. And cake with frosting.)

The concepts, however, have come to connote something else. Ikar and tafel suggest that delicate tightrope we walk every single day where we constantly decide what is fundamental to us, ikar, and what is less important, tafel.

What is the ikar? Spending time with our families? Or spending time with ourselves? The love we show our own child? Or a perfect stranger? Giving charity even when we’re struggling? Or being fiscally responsible? To believe in G-d? Or Humanity? Going to synagogue to pray with a quorum? Or meditating alone? Placing our children only in Jewish schools — even if our child’s needs aren’t met there? Or daring to look elsewhere? Does Jewish law tell us which is ikar and which is tafel –– or are these all things that are left to personal judgement?

Is there a right answer? And how do we know?

Sift. Sort. Discern. Decide.

So much of our education system is geared toward developing this sensitivity: to really know that which is ikar and that which is tafel. To fine-tune this oh-so-important radar. To decide what should float to the top, every single time.

Because there’s so much value in getting this right. And it’s so scary to get this wrong.

It’s as if G-d took some big, fat yellow highlighter and aggressively marked what we need to pay attention to most. “This! Look here! Don’t forget!” And in a way, through the intricate system of developing halacha, Jewish law, He did just that. And yet — it’s not always so clear.

But we — parents, teachers, school and shul leaders, community members — assume that it is. And we assume that that which we deem as important, as fundamental, as priority, is true for everyone.

So we encourage behaviors of sifting and sorting, attempting to discern tafel from ikar, deciding what to believe, how to act.

We make rules. And more rules. And even more rules. Anything to accentuate our ikar. Anything to help our children discern our right.

We downplay, negate, or even ridicule those things that, for us, ring as tafel. Art? Music? Fashion? English studies? Sports? Personal hobbies and passions? Nah. Tafel.  

We accentuate that which we define as ikar. Modest dress. Scholarship. Piety. Scrupulousness in halachic observance. Outward displays of devotion. Separation between genders.

In trying to wade through the murky grey, we color everything in black and white.

Yet, for many, this doesn’t work. We don’t, necessarily, sensitize our children to discern what is right. We (inadvertently?) encourage neurosis. We may place our markers in the wrong spots. We, ourselves, are confused.

Nowhere does it say that every Jew is cut out to work in outreach. Or that learning from a book is more important than learning from life. There is no Jewish law that prohibits a yeshiva boy from wearing red socks. Or contends that we can’t show a woman’s face in an advertisement. No laws about leggings under skirts or which type of head covering to wear. No laws about spending hours in shul even when our families await us at home.

And yes, there is the Spirit of the Law. Yes, there is incredible beauty — and importance — in customs. Yet do we truly believe that this is how to teach it, how to make it call to our children in a way that invigorates their souls?

By focusing so much on the trivial, we have become confused. Our priorities are skewed. Our tafel has become ikar and our ikar has been pushed away by our obsession with the absurd.

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We are preoccupied with the minutiae that, in the grand scheme of things, mean next to nothing.

There’s a slippery slope between binding, Torah laws, minhag (customs that in many respects hold the weight of law), and community norms that attempt to socialize people through fear and control.

And lately, this whole thing is bothering me. A lot.

I struggle with this as a mom of young children. I want to sensitize my children to what’s important. I recognize that there’s a role in the details. But how do I decide? If my child is tired, do I compel him to come to the table for kiddush Friday night? Do I force my child to sit next to me in services, or let him play with friends, happy to be in shul? Socks or tights or all the other minutia in modesty and dressing our daughters? Is it knowing the right answer? Or being respectful? Doing a favor for another — even if it means giving up what you need? Is my value to sensitize my child to protect her reputation? Or live authentically?

What’s more important: Loving G-d? Or fearing Him?

I look around me and see kids heading into their teenage years and their radars are off. They’ve been balked at and scoffed at and pushed into boxes that others tried to convince them were made of ikar.

Be here. Stay here. Don’t go there.

Wear this. This color, this style, this shape. No trends. Don’t read that. Don’t like that. This is good. No, that is bad.

Our future leaders are not empowered. They are not celebrated.

And this makes me sad. And frustrated.

I’ve developed this mantra over the years, something I tell myself time and time again. It’s a way I’ve come to understand my personal ups and downs and twists and turns: “Life is a weeding out process.” There will be friendships we’ll choose to end. Careers from which we’ll veer. Toxic relationships that we’ll walk away from. We weed out the bad from the good. That which belongs to us and that which we need to let go of.

So yes, there is ikar and tafel. There are details that hold more weight. And this is why the secondary is secondary — it’s something that needs to grow from what’s really important.

But the “weeding out” process cannot happen from fear. It cannot happen from manipulation, confusion or control.

If we truly want to teach our children — anyone! — the sensitivity that everything counts, that everything holds a purpose, that we must only choose those things that are worthy of our attention, we must inspire them. Set their hearts ablaze. Ignite their imaginations.

And most importantly — we must let go.

It’s not about the red socks or the leggings or the baseball cards or the guitar playing at night.

It’s not about fossilized community norms that act to hinder growth and expression.

To sensitize others toward a life lived with G-dly consciousness, toward the ultimate ikar, we must be courageous enough to give them the space to breathe.

For in the space, the shadows will melt.

For in that space, the right path will unfold.

For in that space, the truth will emerge–

If, and only if, we let it.