Torah Portion #48 Shof’tim

Torah Portion #48 Shof’tim (Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9)

In this Torah Portion we read about justice for the people and laws for ruling the nations. The Judgest and officers are commanded that they must judge with righteous judgement.

We also learn about the guidelines for a king concerning Torah. Other topics cover gifts for priests and Levites, a call to holy living, true and false prophets, cities of refuge, concern for justice, regulations concerning war and cleansing for unsolved murder.

Pirkei Avos

Is Torah a Burden? Part II

Chapter 6, Mishna 2(b)

By Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld

“Rabbi Yehoshua ben (son of) Levi said, on every day a heavenly voice emanates from Mount Horeb, announcing: ‘Woe to them, the people, because of the affront to the Torah.’ For anyone who does not study is called ‘rebuked,’ as the verse says ‘As a golden ring in a swine’s snout, so too is a beautiful woman who has turned from sound reason’ (Proverbs 11:22). It also says, ‘And the tablets were the handiwork of G-d, and the writing was G-d’s writing engraved on the tablets’ (Exodus 32:16). Do not read ‘charoos’ (engraved), rather ‘chairoos’ (free). For you will not find a freer person than one who is involved in the study of Torah. And all those who study Torah are uplifted, as it states, ‘From Matanah [the Israelites traveled to] Nachaliel, and from Nachaliel [to] Bamos’ (Numbers 21:19).”

Last week we discussed the comparison between one who does not study Torah to — in the words of King Solomon — a swine with a golden ring in its snout. As we explained, one who is not involved in Torah study is not sublimating the animal within him. His body and desires reign supreme, possibly even dragging his human intellect down as well, occupying it with thoughts of deviousness and lust, as inappreciatively as a pig dragging along a ring while wallowing in the garbage.

We asked that this actually seems a little too damning. We observed that our mishna does not seem to be talking about sinners per se, only people who are not studying sufficiently. If so, we are dealing with Torah-observant Jews, who do fulfill the mitzvos (commandments). If so, are they really basically animals? Doesn’t a religious lifestyle sanctify and uplift — or at least keep one out of serious trouble? Perhaps Torah study uplifts like no other mitzvah, but is someone with mitzvos alone really no better than a pig?

There is a very important distinction here — one which could make all the difference in how we relate to Judaism. There are two levels on which we can view the mitzvos — both of them valid in their own way. On the one hand the mitzvos give our lives positive structure and direction. They “force” us, so to speak, to live healthy lifestyles. Don’t become a workaholic: rest on the Sabbath. Don’t go off the deep end: marry and raise a family. Be faithful to your spouse, pray daily, get up on time, take care of your health (see Deuteronomy 4:15), give charity, etc. Most of the laws of the Torah are simply nice ways to live, giving us disciplined, but essentially normal, contented lives. On a deeper level as well, the mitzvos serve to perfect or “fix” our souls and the spiritual spheres around us.

Thus, mitzvah observance, apart from earning us reward in the World to Come, is actually the surest path to physical, spiritual, and domestic contentment — something I think we could challenge other religions and philosophies to match (all of them newer imitations, none equaling the original (as often the case)).

The above is completely valid and is something one who observes the mitzvos cannot help but appreciate. There is, however, a downside. One can easily fall in love with a “Torah lifestyle” — and just as easily forget why he is adhering to one. We can easily view our healthy and disciplined lives as just a wonderful way to live in this world — a true and steady rudder guiding us through the stress and confusion of society and life. But we will still be living in this world alone. We will see mitzvah-observance as nothing more than a reliable guide for living in this world — which to an extent it is — and fail to see beyond. And our interests and drives may be entirely this-worldly: our careers, our hobbies, our lusts. None of these are entirely forbidden by the Torah, even if they are somewhat restricted. We all accept that our lives require some discipline and structure. But for the most part, we will be drawn — to the extent the Torah allows — after the animal within.

Now enters Torah study — and the true purpose of the Torah lifestyle. A Torah lifestyle admittedly offers contentment in this world. If it really is G-d’s perfect prescription for life, we would expect the physical plane to fit in just as well as the spiritual. However, that is not the true reason G-d gave us the Torah. G-d did not give Israel the Torah in order that we live well or even piously in this world. It is so that we connect to G-d in the next one.

As we’ve discussed in past weeks, the Torah enables us to build a relationship with G-d Himself, preparing ourselves for the ultimate bliss of the World to Come. By studying Torah and observing the mitzvos we condition ourselves for godliness, making ourselves more spiritual people capable of relating to G-d in the World to Come. The mitzvos themselves condition us to an extent, but as we explained, we may observe every mitzvah religiously — we may keep the letter of the law — but basically be creatures of this world. Torah study, however, brings us directly before G-d. We contemplate and appreciate G-d’s wisdom and values, transforming ourselves into moral and spiritual human beings. Ultimately, our “swine” –the beast within — becomes transformed — into a human being in the image of G-d.

We can now understand the continuation of our mishna — that there is no one freer than the one who studies Torah. A person who merely observes the mitzvos may essentially still be a pig– a creature of this world who is basically just forced to behave by a Torah lifestyle. He will still live in this world and for this world to the extent the Torah allows. He may even view the mitzvos as a crushing burden, prohibiting much of what the animal within desires. He may be observant, but he is far from “free”.

Torah study, however, transforms us into beings in the image of G-d — ones which don’t *want* to wallow in the dirt like swine. We will understand and appreciate G-d’s wisdom and commandments. We will want to fulfill G-d’s will and get closer to Him. Whereas the mitzvah observer, whenever the Torah is not looking (or whenever a loophole can be found) will run back to the mud, the Torah student will desire the pleasures of the spirit. He will not be plagued with the inner struggle and turmoil less “human” people experience.

Pirkei Avos – Chapter 5, Mishna 17

Killing Ourselves
Chapter 5, Mishna 17
“There are four types among those who go to the study hall. [One who] goes but does not ‘do’ receives reward for the going. [One who] does but does not go receives reward for the doing. [One who] goes and does is pious. [One who] does not go and does not do is wicked.”

This week’s mishna contrasts people in regard to their study hall attendance. Before we begin, R. Samson Raphael Hirsch points out that in the time of the Mishna the Oral Tradition had not yet been committed to writing. (The Mishna in its present form was formalized only at the end of this period by Rabbi Judah the Prince (R. Yehuda HaNasi), c. 200 C.E.). Thus, the Torah was typically studied publicly and orally, at first from teacher to student and then discussed among the students. This in itself increased the dynamic, engaging nature of Torah study, contributing to its becoming the living wisdom it is today. Conversely, the possibility of any sort of advanced level of study in private was severely limited. (I hear regularly today from people in the far corners of the earth who never entered a synagogue in their lives, yet who dedicate long hours studying from an enormous assortment of on-line material.) Thus, our mishna views one who does not attend a place of study as one who has very little serious involvement in Torah study — beyond what he has been taught already and the little he can deduce on his own.

Our mishna categorizes people in terms of going to study and “doing”. The term doing is not entirely clear. It would seem to refer to what the person does after he arrives at the study hall. But if he does nothing, of what value is the traveling?

The commentator Rashi explains that one who does not do is one who listens to the lectures of others but does not actively study himself. He is rewarded for the “traveling” — going as well listening to others, but not so much for the “doing” — vigorously endeavoring to understand himself.

This is a key distinction in the eyes of the Sages, so much so that one who merely passively attends lectures is viewed as having accomplished little more than traveling to a place of study. The travel was his primary effort; sitting back and listening to someone else lecture is almost the relaxing part (bringing great heaviness to the eyelids, as we all know). True Torah study is something much grander and more intense. The Sages view achievement in Torah as coming through exertion alone.

Numbers 19 discusses certain laws of impurity relating to corpses. Verse 14 states: “This is the Torah [law]: If a man dies in a tent, anyone who enters the tent… becomes impure for seven days.” Taking the part of the verse, the Talmud comments: “This is the Torah — if a man dies:” Torah is only acquired if a person kills himself over it (Brachos 63b). Torah knowledge cannot be acquired passively. Although the initial knowledge will always come from a scholar or sacred text, understanding the material is not where the effort ends; it is where it begins. The student must then analyze, review, and internalize — often with the help of study partners and colleagues. Only then will the Torah knowledge become his own.

There is a much higher goal required of us in Torah study than the basically passive task of absorbing information. We learned earlier that ideally one should study in order to “do” (Chapter 4, Mishna 6, http://www.torah.org/learning/pirkei-avos/chapter4-6.html). This certainly sounds like an active accomplishment — not unlike the “doing” of our mishna. What does it mean to study in order to do?

We explained there that studying to do does not mean in order to know how to fulfill the commandments. Most of the texts we study discuss laws and practices which have little or no relevance to our daily lives. Further, that would have Torah study as a means alone, while in truth it is an ends — and an ends like no other. Ideally, we study not merely to know, but to “do” — to make a change in ourselves and become different people. We study Torah to gain an understanding of G-d’s wisdom, and ultimately to understand and develop a relationship with G-d Himself. This requires an enormous degree of exertion, devotion and submission before G-d’s infinite wisdom. We build that relationship when we master and internalize the Torah — when it enters our hearts and minds — transforming our very beings into Torah personalities.

Thus, our mishna tells us that one who merely attends Torah classes but does little to internalize the wisdom is lacking in the most critical aspect of Torah study. He has traveled to a worthy location, and he is certainly in good company. Far better to relax with words of Torah than in front of a TV screen. But his study has at best only begun. What does he do after the lecture? Does he build on his new-found wisdom, deepening and expanding his knowledge? Does he apply it to himself? Or does he move on to greener pastures — unwilling to put in the true intellectual effort required for accomplishment in learning?

Over the years I have both observed and been involved in many Torah study programs geared for the wider community, and they have invariably foundered on this point. It is not so difficult to attract people to an enticing Torah lecture — in which a lively, engaging speaker selects some fascinating / amusing / timely topic and entertains an audience for an hour. People are more than willing to sacrifice the boob-tube for an evening to attend a Torah lecture (depending, of course, on the prime-time showings that night and the current pro-sports season) — and only some of them will doze. But when these programs invite people to actually learn for themselves — say to be paired off with an advanced study partner, the casually interested quickly fall away and pitifully few remain.

This, however, is our ultimate task when it comes to Torah study. Torah study cannot be viewed as a pastime — something one does without serious commitment and gut-wrenching effort. Sitting back and expecting to be taught — that everything should be figured out by someone else and spoon-fed to you — will hardly create a knowledgeable Jew, let alone a Torah personality. And this is for the all-too-simple reason that G-d gave us the Torah not merely as a code of laws and ethics. It is a tool: for seeking and discovering G-d and His truths, and in so doing discovering ourselves. And it must be done by us alone. G-d will not come to us, nor can anyone else truly bring Him to us. We, and only we, can take possession of the Torah, making it — and G-d — a part of our lives.

Challenges, Not Problems

Pirkei Avos

Challenges, Not Problems

Chapter 5, Mishna 14

By Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld

“There are four types of temperaments. One who is quick to become angry and quick to calm down — his gain is outweighed by his loss. One who is slow to become angry and slow to calm down — his loss is outweighed by his gain. One who is slow to become angry and quick to calm down is pious. One who is quick to become angry and slow to calm down is wicked.”

This mishna divides people into four categories based on their tempers. Note that our mishna does not measure anger using a simple linear scale. There are two primary determining factors according to the Sages — quickness to become angry, and length of time to calm down. These are quite distinct — stemming from entirely different parts of a person’s psyche. There are those who are edgy and excitable by nature, and who are easily roused to emotional outburst. Such people may by the same token forget just as quickly what it was they became excited about.

On the other hand, a person might generally be levelheaded, but be the sort to take abuse and offenses much more seriously. When threatened or insulted, he will withdraw and sulk for long periods of time — while exhibiting little or no emotion on the outside — bearing a grudge till his dying days. (Now, when the wife is the first type and the husband is the second (or vice versa of course), things could get hairy… 😉 )

The commentator Rashi adds a short comment to our mishna which I personally found eye-opening. Why is someone who is quick to anger and slow to calm down deemed wicked? Rashi inserts a few words: “Because through the anger he will come to sin, as it is stated, ‘Do not become angry and you will not sin’ (Talmud Brachos 29b).”

Rashi, in a few words, makes one thing clear: anger per se is not evil. You are not “evil” because you have a temper — or (theoretically at least) even because you exercise it. The concern is simply what it will lead to.

For that matter, the Pentateuch nowhere states “And the L-rd said unto Moses saying, speak unto the Children of Israel saying, thou shalt not get angry” — though we might almost expect to find such warm, fuzzy, feel-good imperatives in the Torah. And the Torah does not “forbid” anger for a very simple reason: for some people, that is their nature — and the Torah does not ask us to change nature. Just as we must not tamper with the nature of physical world by damaging the environment, we are not expected to alter the inherent nature of our souls. If a person has a temper, he is not supposed to freeze himself and cut out a part of his essence. He must accept himself for whom he is and work *with* his anger.

The Talmud writes that if someone was born under the planet Mars (which astrologically signifies a thirst for bloodshed, Mars being the red planet), he can be a bandit, a doctor, a shochet (one who ritually slaughters animals, making them kosher), or a mohel (one who performs circumcisions) (Shabbos 156a). Such a person has a predilection towards blood. He will not be happy as an accountant. What should he do with himself? Find a positive outlet for his drives. Violent tendencies are not “bad” per se (we would call them “challenges” nowadays). They certainly harbor dangerous manifestations, but they are a part of the G-d-given natures of certain people, and G-d, as we know, makes no mistakes.

Thus, if a person’s tendency leans towards aggressive and physical behavior, he must recognize his nature and *use* it. If he fails, he will satisfy his lust with crime and violence (or at best, boxing). If he succeeds, he will use the same very hands to heal others or prepare kosher meat, performing an admirable, respectable service to society.

(The Sages likewise point out that both Esau and David were of red complexion, signifying blood. The difference, say the Sages, is that Esau killed in war and conquest while David killed justly, and ultimately his battles were acts of peace and G-dly service. (See Bereishis Rabbah 63.))

Anger is no different. It is not a “bad” trait — though it certainly is a dangerous one. Someone who is just not easygoing, who takes insubordination and discord seriously — and there are many things in life which *should* be taken seriously — is never going to be a pushover. He has a nature he will never fully keep under lock and key. How is he to positively channel it?

First of all, we must distinguish clearly between anger and rage. Anger is — or can be — a controlled, deliberate, and directed response to sin and injustice. Rage is blind and mindless. A person who loses control of himself sheds his godly image altogether: he is no longer a human being in the eyes of the Sages. The Talmud writes that one who tears his clothes and destroys his property in his fury is as one who worships idols (Shabbos 105b). Rage is destructive and animalistic. Everything must be just his way or he’ll “lose it.” That is self-worship tantamount to idolatry, wholly missing the point that G-d and not we runs the world, and that our greatness stems from our resemblance to G-d alone.

Anger, to the extent that it is human nature, is something quite different. There are those who are fighters and zealots — many of Israel’s greatest leaders have been. But they must know what to fight for and why. And they must see it as G-d’s battle rather than their personal vendetta. Anger and fierceness can be used in many contexts — in determined and relentless pursuit of one’s own mastery of the Torah, in stubbornly upholding Jewish values in the presence of apathy and agnosticism, and in battle against falsifiers of Torah tradition. The key is sublimation — in consciously deciding *what* to be stubborn about and in focusing one’s fervor on what truly counts. Ultimately, such a person will not be “angry” at all. His anger will not be his own; it will be none other than a reflection of G-d’s anger — and of G-d’s will.

The Torah (Numbers 25) describes to us how Pinchas (Phinehas), for zealously murdering perpetrators of an immoral act, received a personal greeting from G-d. How did G-d greet this man of blood and vengeance? “Behold I extend to him My covenant of peace” (v. 12). G-d saw Pinchas not as a man of violence but a man of peace — a fighter for peace to be sure, but a man of peace nonetheless.

People with tempers have a much greater obligation than the rest of us. They possess iron wills and furious passions. If misused they are capable of terrible acts of physical and verbal abuse. If used properly they will use their very same nature in fierce and valiant struggle for Torah — and ultimately they will be numbered among the pious of Israel.


Text Copyright © 2006 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org.

Simchat Torah

The Simchat Torah Evening Service

A time to dance with the Torah.

By Rabbi Ronald H. Isaacs

The Simchat Torah service is joyous by nature. Many congregations go beyond the basics that are described here. The dancing with the Torah (hakafot) can be quite extensive. Some liberal congregations have bands playing klezmer or other Jewish music during the dancing with the Torah. A number of congregations unroll the entire Torah scroll as part of the evening service. The entire congregation stands in a circle as the Torah is unrolled and everyone gets an opportunity to hold part of the unrolled scroll. People search the scroll for their Bar or Bat Miitzvah portion. Unusual or important parts of the text are pointed out.

Excerpted from Every Person’s Guide to Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, and Simchat Torah. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. Copyright 2000Jason Aronson, Inc.

The festivities of Simchat Torah begin in the evening with the Maariv service. After the recitation of the Amidah, the hakafot (Torah processionals) are begun with the recital of attah hareita, a collection of biblical verses in praise of God and the Torah. Each verse is read by the reader and then repeated by the worshipers in the congregation. In some communities each verse is read by a different member of the congregation and then repeated by the entire congregation.

dancing with the Torah

Photo Credit: simhony.dan@gmail.com

After the recitation of the attah hareita, all of the Torah scrolls are removed from the Ark and carried in procession in the synagogue. This is done seven times, and in each procession each Torah is given to a different person so that as many people as possible should have an opportunity to participate.

In traditional settings, all kohanim and leviim–priests and Levites–are honored first, followed by Israelites. Each procession is done to the chanting of prescribed hymns. To these are added songs and hymns of a joyous nature. Children, too, are invited to participate, often carrying specially created smaller Torah scrolls.

It is also customary to hand out flags for children to carry, supposedly reminiscent of the tribal flags under which the Israelites marched in the desert. Another custom is to put an apple on top of the flag, or an apple with a hole carved out for a lighted candle-again, to evoke images of Torah as light.

It is considered a great honor to carry a Torah scroll, and everyone who is capable enjoys the opportunity to participate. Dancing in the synagogue sanctuary is often an important part of the festive processions as well, and in some synagogues the scrolls are carried out of doors, adding a wonderful spiritual dimension to the festivities.

After the seven hakafot, all of the Torah scrolls are returned to the Ark except for one. Custom varies about what is read on the night of Simchat Torah. In some places any portion that the scroll happens to be rolled to is read. The more traditional prevailing custom is to read Vezot HaBeracha(Deuteronomy 33), allowing three aliyot. Then the Torah is returned and the service is concluded.

Maharal

Chapter 3: Mishna 6: Part 2

This idea (that one who is intimately connected to G-d escapes the limitations and control imposed upon him by physical systems) is embodied in the statement of Rabbi Yossi (Tr. Avodah Zarah 5a): “The Jewish people accepted the Torah [only] so that the Angel of Death, other nation[s], and other ‘tongues’ (cultures) should have no power over them, as it is written (Psalms 82:6-8) ‘I had said, you are Angels, all of you sons of the most High. Nevertheless, you shall die like a man, and fall as one man, O princes.’

The power of the “Angel of Death” represents the process of nature to which man is subjected, for death is a fundamental component of the natural, physical system. The power of nations and culture represents the governmental and social systems to which man is subjected. One who subjects himself to the burden of Torah, which is a Divine system, emancipates himself from being controlled by the natural and human systems (even as he must remain involved in them).

This idea is also taught in Chapter 6 (Mishna 2) ” ‘The tablets are the writing of G-d, engraved (charut)…,’ (Shemoth 32:16). Don’t pronounce it “charut” (engraved) but “cheirut” (emancipated), for there is no one who is free save one is involved in Torah, which elevates him…”. This Mishna explains to us that one who is involved in Torah elevates himself above the level of the natural system, which regulates the world (in a fixed and compelling way), and above the level of human regulation of society, neither of which are inherently natural (because there is no specific form of government, and no specific set of societal norms which are fundamentally compelling). This elevation frees man from the two systems which can exert control over him (within the physical system).

We still need to understand why it is that one who is involved in Torah achieves this elevation above the natural, physical world. “Sechel” (we have explained this to mean the spiritual/intellectual dimension of man) rises above the material world, which frees man from being regulated by the natural and societal systems, both of which emanate from Olam HaZeh” (the ephemeral, material world, which was created temporarily to enable man to prepare for the eternal “world to come”). One who is involved in Torah transcends the level of Olam HaZeh. Therefore the burdens of government and livelihood are removed from him.

Even though a person can’t exist without a livelihood, and he needs to work in order to have the resources necessary to be involved in Torah, he, nevertheless, doesn’t carry the BURDEN of a livelihood. When he accepts upon himself the burden of Torah, his livelihood will come to him without difficulty. This is because of his intimate connection with G-d, which raises him above the level of Olam HaZeh (the physical system, the nature of which imposes a struggle to earn ones livelihood).

But if he relieves himself from the burden of Torah, he is gravitating towards Olam HaZeh, the material world, by opting out of an existence in a higher level system. By rooting himself in the material dimension, the natural consequence is that he is subjected to controls and regulations inherent in that world, the burdens of government and livelihood.

When you understand “chochmah” very well (these are code words in the Maharal for the introduction of Kabbalistic concepts) you will understand how it is that one who accepts the burden of Torah has the burdens of government and livelihood removed from him. In the Beith Hamikdash, the Shulchan (Table) was in the north, and it symbolized royalty, which represents the regulation of governmental systems in this world. The Menorah was in the south, and it had seven branches, which represents the seven days of creation, the system of nature in the world. (The number seven always represents a natural cycle, encompassing the totality of the physical world.) This is known to those versed in “chochmah.” These two items of the Temple were situated in the Heichal (the main hall of the Holy Temple) which represents the material world. The Torah, on the other hand was kept in the Aron (the Ark), which was in the Holy of Holies, which symbolizes the metaphysical, upper world.

It should be understood that the burden of livelihood and the burden of government themselves are two distinct categories, the former emanating from the system of nature, and the latter system emanating from human consensus and dictates. The Torah transcends both systems, and frees man from their control and limitations, when he subjects himself to the system of the Torah. This was enough of an explanation to those who understand.

(With this concluding line, the Maharal again implies the Kabbalistic nature of these last ideas. Our Rabbis teach us that transmission of Kabalistic ideas is done by giving them over in vague terms, rather than spelling them out in detail, making proper understanding available only to those properly equipped to “fill in the blanks.”)

The class is taught by Rabbi Shaya Karlinsky,Dean of Darche Noam Institutions, YeshivatDarche Noam/Shapell’s and Midreshet Rachel for Women.

 

G-d Striking Back, Part I

Pirkei Avos

G-d Striking Back, Part I

Chapter 5, Mishna 11(a)

By Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld

“Pestilence comes to the world for death penalties mentioned in the Torah which are not in the hands of the courts [to administer] and for [the forbidden use of] Sabbatical year produce. The sword comes to the world for the delay of justice, the perversion of justice, and for those who expound the Torah not in accordance with Jewish law. Wild beasts come to the world for false oaths and the desecration of G-d’s Name. Exile comes to the world for idolatry, adultery, murder, and the working of the earth on the Sabbatical year.”

This mishna is a continuation of the previous. The previous mishna began a list of seven types of punishments for various transgressions and enumerated the first three. This mishna continues with the remaining four punishments. As we will continue to see, G-d does not merely punish; He instructs. G-d, in His infinite wisdom, punishes in such a way as to reveal the true nature of the evil perpetrated, truly instructing and admonishing us to mend our ways.

The first punishment listed is pestilence. It is meted out for acts punishable by death but which the courts are unauthorized to judge. This may occur in times and places in which Jewish courts are not functional, where there is insufficient evidence to deliver a guilty verdict, or for sins for which the Torah prescribes death at the hands of Heaven rather than the hands of man.

Pestilence is also meted out for the misuse of seventh year fruit. The Torah prescribes a seven year agricultural cycle in the Land of Israel. For the first six years of the cycle, various tithes were given to the Priests, Levites and poor, depending upon the year. The seventh year of the cycle, known as the Shemittah year (literally, the “slipping away” year), is the culmination. It is a year in which it is forbidden to cultivate the fields, and produce which grows spontaneously attains a level of sanctity. Such produce does not belong to anyone: G-d reminds us that our fields are not truly ours. The field’s owner can take a portion of it into his home for personal use, but most of it is left in the field, available to strangers and animals, both wild and domesticated.

In addition, such produce must be treated in accordance with its sanctity. It may not be wasted or consumed in an unusual manner, and it cannot be sold for profit (even after a person acquires it from its “ownerless” state in the field).

(There is an additional Rabbinical decree forbidding the produce of all annuals (plants which live only one year or season) for fear that people would plant them and claim they grew spontaneously. There’s also a more recent (and relevant) dispute regarding produce grown by Gentiles in the Holy Land, if that too has sanctity. Needless to say, in modern Israel there has been a great revival of and renewed interest in what for millennia had been a scholarly, academic topic. Incidentally, a Sabbatical year just began here in Israel this Rosh Hashanah.)

This mishna refers to the misuse of seventh year produce through acts such as hoarding it or doing business with it. Such is a denial of the sacred nature of such produce. It is a form of treating the sacred as mundane, ignoring the fact that G-d imbues this world with sanctity, and of shirking our obligation to use G-d’s world in the manner He prescribed.

Pestilence is an unusual sort of punishment — at least for a G-d of absolute justice. Epidemics typically affect entire geographical areas. A large number of people in a single area may suffer — the good, the bad, and the indifferent. Justice seems to be indiscriminate, not — as we would expect — fine-tuned to the precise needs of each individual.

The Sages state similarly: “When destructive forces are given permission to smite, they do not distinguish between righteous and wicked” (Mechilta 11). If so, we should be surprised that a G-d of absolute justice sometimes strikes man with plague and epidemic (as well as hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes, etc.). Wouldn’t we expect G-d’s justice to be precise and discriminating, involving “pinpoint attacks” against the deserving alone?

In truth, G-d never strikes someone entirely undeserving. If a person fully deserves to live, he or she will be spared regardless of the danger surrounding him. If so, why do epidemics, as well as other catastrophes, kill vast numbers of people at once — many of whose sin seems to have been nothing more than being in the wrong place at the wrong time? Do we have to say that every single person struck by pestilence was a sinner in secret? Or must we say — as the Sages imply above — that G-d sometimes punishes in broad strokes, sweeping away innocents in the process?

This difficulty can be explained (to a small degree) through the concept known as G-d’s slowness to anger. Consider the following scenario: Person A is a perfectly okay human being. He has his own share of faults and failings — as do we all — but he is hardly a person G-d would strike down as a sinner. However, let’s say person A lives in city X, whose residents are all succumbing to a highly-contagious disease. There’s a 95% chance that anyone who drinks the water of city X will catch disease Q (hope this multi-variable math isn’t scaring anyone off). 😉 Now, person A isn’t perfect. He has many outstanding sins for which he must one day make amends. Will G-d, so to speak, “go out of His way” to save person A?

This enters the realm of G-d’s “patience”. G-d ordinarily grants us long lifetimes to improve ourselves and come closer to Him. Yet more often than not, we fail to use our lives in the manner we should: We leave G-d many outstanding debts. Nevertheless, G-d is not so quick to demand compensation: we live in constant overdraft. We learned earlier, “Whoever wants to borrow may come borrow” (3:20; http://www.torah.org/learning/pirkei-avos/chapter3-20.html). G-d often waits a lifetime, using His many messengers to gradually coax us and cajole us to repentance.

Assume, however, such a person enters city X. If the (G-d-created) laws of nature would have such a person die, G-d will most likely not bend those laws in order to save him. G-d allows the world to run according to nature. If He sees to it that pestilence or some other disaster strike, only the truly righteous will survive.

Presented above was only one of many approaches to the perennial question of why the good suffer. We’ve discussed this at greater length in the past (see for example 3:19 (http://www.torah.org/learning/pirkei-avos/chapter3-19b.html)), and I won’t pretend any of us would be satisfied with today’s approach alone — although it certainly provides us with some valuable food for thought. Nevertheless, for our present purposes, I’d like to leave this issue aside in the interests of moving on. Right now we have a more basic question to deal with, which I’d like to raise today and then save for the next installment.

Even if we accept the above premise — that G-d applies far more justice than is readily evident even during times of catastrophe, why in the first place does G-d wield such destructive weapons? Why bring about a plague — one which endangers so many “innocents” — people who, while not perfect, would have otherwise been granted many more years of life? It is almost as if G-d is lashing out in uncontrolled anger at everyone and everything around. What is the perfect justice behind such seemingly erratic behavior?

A closer look at the sins of our mishna holds the key to the answer. We will pick this up G-d willing next week. Stay tuned! 🙂


Text Copyright © 2005 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org.