Today’s daf (Shabbat 133b) cites a Beraita presenting two approaches to the verse זה אלי ואנוהו – ‘this is my God and I will beautify God (lit. ‘Him’)’ (Shemot 15:2).
According to the first approach (expressing the view of Rabbi Yishmael – see Mechilta Beshalach 3, Massechet Sofrim 3, Yerushalmi Peah 1), our task is to ‘beautify ourselves before God with the mitzvot that we perform’, such as through having a beautiful sukkah, a beautiful lulav, a beautiful shofar, beautiful tzizit, a beautiful Torah scroll etc.
But we are then taught the interpretation of Abba Shaul who, based on the same word ואנוהו, explains that we should ‘be like Him’, meaning: ‘Just as God is gracious and compassionate, so too, we should be gracious and compassionate’.
Although the Gemara itself does not explain how both these interpretations are derived from the above-mentioned verse, Rashi teaches us that the word ואנוהו [I will beautify God (lit. ‘Him’)] can be read to mean אני והוא (Me and Him). Based on this, Rabbi Shmuel Alter )1885-1969) explains in his ‘Likutei Batar Likutei’ that Rabbi Yishmael seemingly interprets אני והוא (Me and Him) to solely refer to mitzvot between a person and God (Mitzvot Bein Adam LaMakom), and that the word ואנוהו comes to teach us to beautify the mitzvot that we do for God, in order to express our loyalty to God.
However, as Rabbi Alter further explains, Abba Shaul’s interpretation of אני והוא (Me and Him) not only includes our relationship with God (Bein Adam LaMakom) i.e. Me and ‘Him’, but also our relationships with other people (Bein Adam L’Chaveiro) i.e. Me and other people. Based on this reading, it seems that Abba Shaul sought to teach us that while it is important to show loyalty to God through the mitzvot we perform for God, if we are able to interact and help others in a manner that emulates God, we can reach a higher grade of ואנוהו.
Sadly, as noted by Rabbi Menachem Tzvi Taksin (1850-1918) in his ‘Orach Yesharim’ commentary, there are too many people who only adopt the view of Rabbi Yishmael and who fail to understand the deep message communicated by Abba Shaul. As he writes:
“While there are many people who are cautious and particular with the mitzvot they perform and who invest considerable effort to purchase beautiful tefillin and… a beautiful etrog…and by doing so they demonstrate their dedication to matters relating to themselves [and God], [unfortunately], when an opportunity comes to them that concerns others, such as the mitzvah of tzedakah, offering hospitality, doing good deeds.. such as when a person in a difficult situation comes to them to seek assistance, they turn their ears from hearing his request or from lending him [any money]”.
Having explained this behaviour which sadly seems to have been equally prevalent both when he was alive and today, R’ Taksin, offers a beautiful explanation of Abba Shaul’s interpretation:
“It is in response to such behaviour that Abba Shaul comes to add a further explanation.. to teach us that the word ואנוהו means to help beautify the life of someone else. In fact, the simple truth is that while it is good and wonderful to purchase a beautiful etrog and beautiful tefillin, the essence of Judaism is solely to beautiful the lives of others, and just as God is gracious and compassionate, so too, we should be gracious and compassionate”.
(nb. In general, I accompany my daily daf post with a picture. But today I have chosen to attach these beautiful words of Rabbi Taksin to my post, because I truly believe that there is nothing more exquisite than thinking of ways and of fulfilling our mission of beautifying the lives of others).