"And G-d saw their deeds because they turned from their evil ways" (3:10). Even though the people of Ninveh had fasted and worn sackcloth, G-d was unimpressed with such external signs of observance. That is the all too easy part. It was only when they took the much more difficult and important step of turning away from their evil path and from chamas (violence) that G-d decided not to destroy the mighty city of Ninveh. To impress and influence G-d requires ethical improvement. This is basic Judaism 101. It is well known that Yom Kippur can only help atone for sins between man and G-d. Sins between man and man; gossip, not declaring income, business impropriety, being unfriendly, are beyond the reach of Yom Kippur. Only true reconciliation (plus restitution of funds) can help grant atonement. G-d has given us free choice and if we choose not to treat those treated in the image of G-d well there is kv'yachol nothing that G-d can do to help us. However what is perhaps less well known is, as our commentaries point out, that reconciliation amongst our fellow man is a pre-requisite for atonement for our sins between man and G-d. In other words if we do not apologize for slandering a friend, for our lack of sensitivity to our employees, to yelling at our spouse then all the al chets in the world will not help for violating laws such as Shabbat, kashrut or lackadaisical davening. This is a scary thought indeed.
The path to G-d goes through man. "Tear your hearts and not your clothes" the hafTorah of Shabbat Shuva proclaims. The navi (prophet) is not telling us that we must first rip our hearts and then our clothes; that ritual unaccompanied by ethic is meaningless, that the focus must be on real internal change - the heart- and not external acts - the clothes. Rather the navi tells us we are not to rip our clothes at all. Forget about the clothes just focus on the heart.
Meaningless ritual is not only meaningless it is actually counter productive. It is in reality bad and we would be better off not to do it. By focusing on ritual we often obscure the need for improvement of our character traits. The challenge facing the contemporary traditional world is not - as it was 50 years ago - Shabbat, kashrut , mikve or even Talmud Torah. Thank G-d these crucial areas are flourishing. The areas that our community needs to work on are our excessive focus on materialism, our lack of spirituality, our business ethics, jealousy, strife, divisiveness within our community (See Rambam, Laws of Teshuva 7:3). It is all too easy and even counterproductive to focus on even higher standards of kashrut or more meticulous observance of Shabbat unless and until we work on bringing our areas of weakness to a higher level. By focusing almost exclusively on increased ritual we will mistakenly feel good about our religiosity. After all look at our rituals, we say, as we conveniently ignore our many ethical shortcomings.
Judaism requires a proper balance between ritual and ethic and if we go too high in one area we are bound to sink to unacceptable lows in the other. It is this lack of balance that led our prophets to condemn (meaningless) ritual in the strongest of terms such as "your new moons and holidays my soul hates" "Who asked of you to trample in my courtyards" (Isaiah 1:13). The navi Yirmiyahu even goes so far as to state an apparent falsehood that G-d did not "command them concerning burnt offerings or sacrifices" (7:22). Yes tearing our clothes can be a bad thing.
Rav Yochanan ben Zackai the saviour of Rabbinic Judaism taught that a good heart is the best path for it includes it all (Avot 2:13). Thus it should come as no surprise that the Talmud in extolling the virtues of this great Rabbi tells us "that he was always the first to extend greeting to all, even a heathen in the marketplace. The mark of a religious Jew is a good heart. The way to keep our heart healthy is to greet all with a smile. Gmar Chatima Tova .