This issue is one that digs straight at my core values of emes and unity. Not unity in the “let’s go dance in a circle around a camp fire” sort of way – as much fun as that can be – true unity of connection in eternity, of Oneness.
So what’s the issue? Beautification of mitzvot. What does that mean? Like the mitzvah of not cutting hair around the cheekbone/ ear area, and then trying to make it more beautiful, more obvious, by wearing the hair longer there to show more that it’s not cut, i.e. Payot. There’s a million other examples too. Don’t get me wrong; it’s a beautiful thing to beautify the mitzvah, to show that you’re being extra careful to make it special. It’s like buying your wife flowers because you know she loves them and then wrapping them in her favourite colour. It adds more to the value of the action. But that’s where it must stop.
There are so many details in Judaism that we can get lost in the detail. We can forget what the mitzvah is and why we’re doing it, and spend hours of our day on the beautification of the mitzvah in its own right. Standing for an hour in front of the mirror curling payot is not the point of Yiddishkite, unless of course you’re on such a level that it’s all about the ikar, the point, to connect to Hashem. But let’s be honest, we’re probably not on that level.
So why is this happening? It’s not just “the outside world” who are so externally/aesthetically focused influencing our religious world. Let’s stop blaming the outside and look within. All societies, religeous, not religeous and non Jewish have the very human drive (yetzer hora) for attention, for honour, for ego. Each community to their own level of course, but as religeous Jews we have a responsibility to lead by example. What is our focus? What is our drive?
If it was purely a fighting with your yetzer hora issue I wouldn’t think much of it. We all have to fight against our yetzer hora, whatever it is, and live up to our ideal holy selves. It’s more than this.
In getting lost in the beautification of the mitzvah we do three things:
1. Create societal norms and peer pressure that is external, driving the whole society down and away from the point of the mitzvah.
2. Putting a stumbling block in front of the blind, especially with confusing baalei teshuva about what is the actual mitzvah and what is the beautification. You see so many one year old baalei teshuva growing huge payot but not yet keeping Shabbos, copying societal norms instead of building a relationship with Hashem.
3. The focus on the detail for the detail causes fragmentation, disunity, which is basically the antithesis of Judaism.
This last point is the one that really gets to me. Judaism is at it’s core about unification, Hashem echad, Oneness, the Shema. In focusing on the details of the details we can lose ourselves but also our whole connection with Hashem. In choosing your wife’s favourite colour wrapping for the flowers we run late and don’t come home on time, making her upset even with the flowers. What was achieved? Disunity. You did the mitzvah, you even beautified it! But you lost the relationship. The mitzvot and their beautification are there to connect us. It’s about beautifying our relationship with Hashem. So please, don’t get lost in the detail. Be honest with yourself. Are you doing it for yourself, societal pressure, or truly for Hashem? Let’s lead the world towards light, towards unification from the details, and truly beautify Hashem.