Friday, May 25, 2007

Naso (Rashi)

With grief and sorrow we pass on the tragic news of the untimely death of Reb Dovid Zeller, one of the new-old school of Torah teachers who brought people closer to God and Judaism through song and story. The funeral will be at 3 pm this afternoon (Friday May 25) at the Shirat Shlomo synagogue in Efrat.

For more teachings on this and succeeding parshiyot, please see the archives of my blog for June 2006. While I am away, Hitzei Yehonatan will not be sent by email, but may be posted on the blog.

“A Person does not sin unless there enters him a spirit of foolishness”

Although I am leaving Sunday night for a four-week teaching trip to the United States, I did not wish to let Shabbat pass without sharing a short teaching on the parsha. This is particularly so because Naso is both one of the longest and richest parshiyot of the Torah (the longest single one, in number of verses), and traditionally, because it always falls on the first Shabbat after Shavuot, it is a favorite of sermonizers. I have chosen one comment by Rashi about the sotah, the woman suspected of adultery (a very problematic chapter, which I have discussed at length other years; see my blog):

Num 5:12. “When a man’s wife goes astray, and she commits a trespass against him.” Rashi: “When his wife goes astray…” Our Rabbis taught [Tanhuma, ad loc.], that adulterers do not do so unless a spirit of foolishness enters into them, as is written, “When she commits a trespass” (a pun on תשטה and שטות), and it is written of him, “He who commits adultery has no heart” (Prov 6:32).

What is the connection between sin and foolishness? We generally think of sexual sin as motivated by lust and desire as entities in their own right. We think of desire as something that “sweeps one off one’s feet” or “grabs one by the neck”—that is, as a force that cannot be resisted. Indeed, romantic attraction is much celebrated by our culture. A person capable of grand passion—whether moral or not—is seen as somehow better than others, more vital, full of positive energy, as in some sense to be envied.

In what sense, then, is it foolishness? (a) Judaism believes in the possibility of self-control. The constant struggle between will and impulse (Rambam describes the ideal human type as one who “rules his Urge, and his Urge does not rule him”) is a given of the human condition; the good person, when confronted with temptation, will marshal his inner forces to resist it. (I know that it’s fashionable today to quote the Mei Shiloah, who says that at times, no matter what one does, a given desire may overwhelm one, and that in such a case this act, even if a sin, is somehow “God’s will,” a “transgression for His sake,” but this statement—itself highly problematic—is blown up out of proportion. More than one of the Izhbitzer’s latter-day devotees has come to a bad end.)

(b) It is foolishness because, somewhere along the line, the adulterer makes a conscious decision to surrender to his desires; it’s never “bigger than both of us,” but always a deliberate choice. Sin is sweet, attractive, promising pleasure of an intensity and kind that are unique and “irresistible.” But ultimately, it is a foolish, mistaken choice, short-sighted.

(c) This relates to the next fact: that the sinner always thinks he can get away with it. I won’t even refer to the religious dimension: that for one who believes in an all-seeing, omniscient God, who rewards and punishes, this is foolishness. But even on the human plane, sinners and criminals sooner or later betray themselves. The wounded party in the marriage (or marriages) senses that something is amiss: the proverbial lipstick on the collar, the phone number scribbled on a piece of paper, the unaccounted expense on a credit card, the strange absences, or more than all these, the emotional dissimulation—sooner or later the truth emerges, and wreaks havoc with family life.

(d) Wisdom, in Judaism, is seen as implying a certain moral position. Wisdom and conscious evil are seen as incompatible; the philandering professor of ethics is seen as an anomaly. To relate to the initial question: Why does a person chose to engage in adultery? Love affairs do not simply come from a naked impulse, dissociated from any context, but come from boredom—a kind of quest for meaning and excitement, for intense feeling in life—usually, when other things are or seem empty. This may explain a seeming non sequitur in Rambam who, at the end of the Laws of Forbidden Intercourse (Issurei Biah 22.21), says that lascivious thoughts only dwell in a person whose heart is empty of wisdom; that is, when a person doesn’t have loftier, more sublime thoughts with which to fill his consciousness and his interest.

(e) Finally, I would suggest one more sense in which sexual sin is rooted in a kind of foolishness: namely, a confusion between intellectual-spiritual-emotional connection between people, and the specifically sexual. (And here I am speaking as a modern person, and not through the Rambam, a medieval man who looked down on woman). Friendships between the sexes, warm human interaction, camaraderie, are all potentially positive sources of joy in life; but (except within the context of a committed, life-sharing relationship) are not to be confused with the physical.

In the second part of his comment, Rashi returns to the peshat, the literal meaning of this verse. Notwithstanding the human insight and ethics and depth of the above comment, in the final analysis it is based upon a double entendre, a similarity of sound between the words, and is not the proper linguistic sense of the verse. Thus, Rashi feels it is his duty to explain the literal level as well:

And the literal sense of the verse, “when she goes astray”: she strays from the paths of modesty and becomes suspect in his eyes, as in “turn away from it [the evil path] and pass on” (Prov 4:15) and “let not your heart go astray after her ways” (7:25).


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