Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. — Leonardo da Vinci
A hiker stopped at the bank of a raging river. Spotting a simple fellow on the opposite bank, the hiker yelled out, “Hey there! How do I get to the other side?”
The simpleton scratched his head. He looked at the river. Then at the hiker. Then back at the river. “You’re already on the other side!”
Being simple gets a bum rap in today’s society. To the uninitiated, simplicity bespeaks naiveté or even backwardness, as in the simple son about which the Pesach Haggada speaks (see also Yerushalmi, Pesachim 10:4).
But simple-mindedness in the Torah sense means so much more.
Indeed, the Torah itself is described as simple (Tehillim 19:8). “Simplicity is beautiful before G-d…just as He is simple…and His Torah is simple” (Medrash Tehilim 119). Simplicity is “a lofty virtue: no other virtue compares to it” (Mishnas Chachamim 219). One who is simple is in G-d’s good graces (Sifri, Devarim 18:13; see Tehillim 15:1-2), and is destined for greatness (Nedarim 32a and Ran ad loc.).
So the Torah has high regard for simplicity. But what is this laudable simplicity?
It is difficult to articulate in English, perhaps because the notion itself is foreign to Western culture. Naiveté or simple-mindedness come close but evoke a negative inflection.
The directive to “be simple with G-d” means to be wholehearted and complete, to “trust in what He has in store for you and not delve into the future…whatever comes upon you accept with wholeheartedness and then you will be with Him and His portion” (Devarim 18:13 and Rashi and Onkelos ad loc.).
To “be simple with G-d” is, according to some, a positive commandment, comprised of two parts: acknowledging G-d as omniscient and omnipotent, and seeking our needs only from Him (Ramban, Commandments Omitted by Rambam, No. 8; see also Sha’arei Teshuva 3:17). Practically, it means we may not attempt to figure out the future by looking to the stars or casting lots (Pesachim 113a; Tosfos, Shabbos 156b).
In a broader sense, however, it means to do G-d’s will without attempting to know or manage all the implications or consequences (Nesivos Olam, Nesiv HaTemimus; Michtav m’Eliyahu, Vol. 5, pg. 110). It means to accept what G-d gives us, and to recognize and appreciate that we can’t manipulate it or even anticipate it. It means we can’t figure it all out. It means not seeking to work the system or overthink or outmaneuver every aspect of life (see Pele Yo’etz, “Temimus”).
It is well known that Shlomo HaMelech spoke all languages, even those of animals. A man once asked Shlomo to teach him bird language. Although Shlomo refused at first, the man persisted until Shlomo caved and agreed.
Shortly after, the man heard a bird say, “This man’s sheep will die next week.” So the man quickly sold his sheep and, lo and behold, they all died a week later.
Then the man heard a bird say, “This man’s house will burn down.” So the man quickly sold his house and, lo and behold, his house burned down a week later.
Then the man heard a bird say to another, “This man will die next week.”
When the terrified man rushed to seek his help, Shlomo reminded him of his warning. “You see, you deserved to be punished for your sins. G-d wanted to take your sheep and your house as punishment, but you tried to outmaneuver Him” (Tuv’cha Yabi’u, Devarim 18:13). In the end, the man was hung by his own petard.
Simple wholeheartedness is ingrained in our collective DNA. Avraham excelled in his pure simple faith in G-d, who told him to “Walk before me, and be simple” (Bereishis 17:1 and Ramban ad loc.)—and he did just that in simply obeying G-d’s command to slaughter Yitzchak, no questions asked. Noach was a “tzaddik tamim” (Bereishis 6:9—building the Ark for a year took righteousness, but persisting in the face of a world of doubters for the next 119 years—when no flood was forthcoming—took simple, unwavering faith. And Yaakov is described as a “simple man” (Bereishis 25:27).
In times bygone, everything was done with unquestioning sincerity. When he was still a young boy living in the town of Chaslavitch, a predominantly Chabad town, Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik attended a cheder in a room rented from the carpenter. Rabbi Soloveitchik recalled fondly how this carpenter was the consummate “pashuter yid”—reciting Tehillim as he worked, with the faith ordinarily attributed to the saintly. Similarly, in the times of the Vilna Gaon, there was a simple shoemaker in Vilna who is not even a footnote in the annals of history; he wasn’t a genius and he wasn’t able to learn Torah for 22 hours per day. But the shoemaker spent his days mending shoes while saying Tehillim with the simplest of intentions.
Only nowadays is there a need to “understand” first and then obey, which is the antithesis of Torah ideology (Bais Halevi, Bereishis 17:1). To those who might mock us as an overhasty nation for agreeing to accept the Torah before knowing what it contained, we respond that it is precisely our ability to be simple-minded that enables us to obey before understanding (Shabbos 88a-b).
We need only act with this simple wholeheartedness. G-d handles the rest.
The Baal Shem Tov was praying together with his students in a small Polish village one Yom Kippur, when he perceived that a harsh heavenly judgment had been decreed against the Jewish people. On the Baal Shem Tov’s orders, everyone in the village was in the shul praying fervently for the evil decree to be averted.
The simple shepherd boy was no exception. He did not know how to read; he barely knew the alef-bais. But as the intensity in the shul mounted, he knew he had to do something. So he opened a siddur to the first page and began to recite. “Alef, bais, vais, gimmel…”
After Yom Kippur, the village folk asked the Baal Shem Tov whether the evil decree had been avoided. “Yes,” the Baal Shem Tov answered, “but not because of your prayers. It was the prayer of the shepherd boy. Though he knew only the alef-bais, he recited it with such simplistic purity that G-d rearranged the letters to compose the most beautiful, heartfelt prayer. That prayer is what saved us.”
Now, like most traits, simplicity has its limits. Indeed, Yaakov was described not as “tam” (simple) but as “ish tam”—“a simple man” (Bereishis 25:27). He was simple, but he also understood when to dispense with the simplicity and be “a man,” i.e., when dealing with Lavan.
Indeed, the Chofetz Chaim explained, only half in jest, that, according to the Torah, “You should be simple with G-d”—i.e., when you are “with G-d” (engaged in spiritual pursuits), you can be simple; otherwise, when engaged in worldly pursuits, you must protect yourself.
The entire existence of R’ Meshulam Yissachar Ashkenazi was supremely simplistic—he had no interest in the world around him other than what was necessary for his survival and to further his studies. Not only did he not value money, he did not even know the value of money.
Before one Pesach, the owner of a local mill asked him to supervise the mill cleaning in preparation for Pesach. R’ Meshulam’s wife had no doubt he would do a bang-up job overseeing the work; it was the salary negotiation that concerned her. “Demand ten rubles and not a kopek less!” she cautioned.
R’ Meshulam ensured the mill was immaculate, and, upon completion, the mill owner presented him with a crisp 100-ruble bill. R’ Meshulam had never seen such a bill. He turned it over several times, pulled it from side to side, and felt it between his fingers. But he still seemed unsure.
The mill owner didn’t understand his hesitation. “Are you afraid it is counterfeit?”
The holy but innocent rabbi sighed. “To tell you the truth, my wife instructed me to accept nothing less than ten rubles for my efforts…”
* * * *
Rebbe Nachman of Breslov predicted “a time when a simple good man will be as remarkable as the Baal Shem Tov was in his day” (Chayei Moharan 454). Nowadays, such a man may be yet rarer.
Indeed, the more we reflect on the quiet greatness found in simplicity, the more we realize that being a pashuter yid isn’t all that pashut.