Monday, May 19, 2008

Behar (Mitzvot)

For more teachings on this parashah, see the archives of this blog, below at May 2006.

“When your brother waxes poor…”

This parashah, which essentially consists of a single chapter, Leviticus 25, encapsulates the Torah’s economic philosophy. It begins with the institutions of the Sabbatical and jubilee years: the laying fallow of the soil, the freeing of Hebrew indentured servants, a general moratorium on debts (Deut 15:1-11), and the restoration of ancestral homesteads to their original owners. It continues with laws against unfair pricing in business and rules fixing the value of a field in relation to the number of years left till the jubilee. The first section (vv. 1-24) concludes with a promise of Divine blessing and abundance, despite the moratorium on agricultural labors, if those laws are observed.

The sequel to the sections about shemitah and yovel is a series of paragraphs, covering a variety of different situations, all of which begin with the words כי ימוך אחיך—“when your brother waxes poor…”: if he sells his ancestral homestead… if he sells a house within a walled city… if he goes into debt… if he sells himself into slavery to another Israelite… if he sells himself to a stranger…., etc. In all these situations, one is obligated to do whatever is necessary to extricate the person from his difficulty.

The term used here to refer to the person who helps his misfortune brother is go’el. This term, from the root גאל, is familiar to most of us from the concepts of national redemption—ge’ulat Mitzrayim / ge’ulah ha-atidah—the redemption from Egypt, or the future messianic redemption of the entire nation. In both these cases the term bears more than a touch of miraculous overtones, and is something performed by God Himself, in the context of redemptive history, or perhaps meta-history. But here the act is identified with that of a person who redeems another individual from his private predicament—who lays out cash to restore his land or his home, to buy back his freedom, etc. In the Book of Ruth (which we’ll be reading shortly, on Shavuot), Boaz performs an act of geulah for the family of his late kinsman Elimelekh by redeeming the lost property of the family plus marrying his widowed daughter-in-law, Ruth. In Numbers 35:9 ff. the goel hadam, “redeemer of the blood,” is one who is zealous to avenge the spilt blood of his relative that has been spilt through accidental manslaughter.

How ought one to understand the underlying social and economic philosophy here? The Torah’s legislation occupies an interesting position outside of the modern dichotomy of capitalism and socialism, but is if anything closer to the latter. (All this, notwithstanding those, like 19th century sociologist-economist Werner Sombart, who drew a connection between Judaism and the capitalist spirit—which may have existed de facto in the early modern world.) To be sure, there is private property, and clear halakhic definitions of who owns what. But the central rule is not that of each man looking out for himself and his immediate family, of the accumulation of wealth as the greatest aspiration of every person. Rather, the basic idea is of life as a network, a weave of obligations, of responsibilities, of caring. It’s not clear to what extent the help given by the goel is an absolute obligation, and to what extent it devolves upon whatever member of the extended family is able to help out. Thus, one who sells himself into servitude to a Gentile is to be redeemed “by one of his brothers, or his uncle, or his cousin, or other flesh from his family” (vv. 48-49).

All this is in striking contrast to the dominant mores of our times. We live in a time of ever more powerful, monolithic capitalism; of globalization, of multi-national corporations that, despite the upbeat rhetoric, and the fact that they may bring jobs and capital to far-flung parts of the world, essentially concentrate wealth, power, and decisions about the shape of our countries and our world in a small number of hands.

More important: the cultural impact of these developments is deeply negative, destructive of both true humanism and true spiritual values. The underlying philosophical assumption of such capitalism is that “man is a wolf to man”—that is, that competition, ruthlessness, the attempt to outfox the other, is not only essential to human nature, but is the most salient feature of human nature. I intend to write about this at greater length on another occasion (I submitted a proposal on this idea to the Bronfman Competition at Brandeis, which received honorable mention and was posted at their site), but it seems clear to me that one of the central features of contemporary life—so ubiquitous that we often fail to see it—is the disintegration of community, the centrality of the individual and his feelings, needs, perceptions, without any clear basis for the idea of duties and responsibilities to the larger society or polis. (Without elaborating, I see today’s far-reaching changes in the areas of sexuality and family as also stemming from this.)

The individual is taught from an ever earlier age to see him/herself in largely individual terms, as competing in life with others. I understand that some schools in the United States deliberately break up and reshuffle classes every year, so that students will not form deep, long-term friendships that might interfere with their developing of the competitive instincts needed to “succeed” in our society—the ability to go for the jugular. (I guess that by this standard the Baal Shem Tov or the Hafetz Hayyim would be considered outstanding failures.) All this is justified as the pursuit of “excellence” and “achievement”—as if these were the only conceivable goals in life.

Incidentally, the widespread notion that both the dictatorial nature of Soviet communism and its subsequent fall somehow “prove” that socialism is unworkable and against human nature, in fact proves nothing of the kind (viz. Fukayama and others). Recent events in Russia would suggest that the faults of the USSR have as much to do with the Russian national character and its political tradition, harkening back to the days of the Czars, as they do with Marxist-Leninism.

Of course, things are not all black and white. The ideal of mutual caring and responsibility is still very much alive in many circles, and inter alia is still inculcated to an extent within religious Jewry. A few examples: this week I heard about a woman I’ve known for some time, well past retirement age, who explained that works full-time as a consultant from her home, not only because she enjoys using her skills and knowledge, but also in order to earn money needed to help various members of her extended family. Within my own extended family, I am reminded of the case of a young woman with over a dozen children, all still at home, whose husband died of leukemia before the age of 40. The brother-in-law (who had been the hevruta and best friend of the deceased husband) supported the widow, so that she could devote herself to raising her children without economic worries. A third example relates to Moshe Klibanov (see HY VIII: Aharei-Kedoshim), whose first yahrzeit was observed this week by our community. One of the things mentioned about him at the azkarah was that, while his own economic situation was far from being prosperous, he never turned away anyone who asked for help empty-handed, even when he himself had virtually nothing. Perhaps these stories are not so unusual, after all; perhaps the idea of helping one’s extended family in time of need is a natural human response, and the idea of turning a deaf ear and a cold shoulder, of “social Darwinism” taught by a certain version of capitalism, is that which is alien to human nature.



I am beginning, somewhat belatedly, a new series: comments and insights on the Mishnaic tractate of Avot, better known as Pirkei Avot, “Ethics of the Fathers,” which is customarily read during the summer months, and especially between Pesah and Shavuot. In Ashkenazic practice it is read following Minhah of Shabbat; among some Sephardim, it is read at the end of Musaf. One chapter is read each week; a sixth chapter, known as Beraita Kinyan Torah, which is not strictly speaking part of the Mishnaic tractate, is read on the sixth week, so as to complete the cycle of six non-festival weeks between Pesah and Shavuot, as well as to serve as a kind of introduction to Shavuot, the festival of Giving (or, some would say, Receiving) the Torah. The cycle is repeated a second time between Shavuot and the 17th of Tammuz; a third time between 17th of Tammuz and Rosh Hodesh Elul; and yet a fourth time, albeit truncated and doubling over the final chapters, during the month of Elul.

Our presentation will be keyed to this cycle: each week we will discuss a few mishnayot from the reading for that week, proceeding chapter by chapter, and returning where we left off in subsequent cycles. Hopefully, by the end of the summer we will have covered a good part of this well-loved little book.

An introductory comment: the tractate as a whole serves two distinct purposes. The first, more familiar and obvious to most, is to present a series of epigrams about life, morality, Torah, how a person ought to behave—brief but profound sayings that the various Sages were in the habit of repeating, perhaps as a kind of “summing up” of their life philosophy: hence its popular English title, “Ethics of the Fathers.” The second and more central aim of the tractate is to authenticate the Oral Torah by enumerating the links in the chain of tradition, thereby showing its ultimate roots in Sinai. This is especially clear in the opening mishnah, but may be seen in the organization of the tractate as a whole, which presents quite a complete listing of the generations of the Sages, with brief epigrams cited in the name of each one. Thus, following the introductory mishnah, the first chapter is organized around the zugot, the pairs of senior sages, nasi and av bet din, from the Great Assembly that existed in the earliest days of the Return to Zion, down to Hillel and Shammai. The second chapter centers upon Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai and his five disciples, the key figures in establishing the Torah center in Yavneh following the Destruction of the Second Temple. And so forth.

Chapter One

1. Moses received the Torah at Sinai, and gave it to Joshua, and Joshua to the Elders, and the Elders to the prophets, and the prophets gave it to the Men of the Great Assembly. They said three things: Be moderate [or: deliberate] in judgment; raise up many disciples; and make a fence for the Torah.

The underlying concept of this tractate, as mentioned earlier, is shalshelet hadorot—the chain of the tradition through the generations. Rav Soloveitchik often repeated the idea that Judaism, more so than it is a religion of revelation, is a religion of a “Masorah community,” of received tradition, of faith in our predecessors, who have passed down the tradition as they received it. Reportedly, when the Rav gave semikhah to his students, he would say, “You are now charged with passing on the tradition of Torah as you have received it.” In such a community, being able to say “I do such-and-such in this way because I saw my father / my teacher doing it thus” is one of the more powerful arguments that may be evoked; more so, even, than saying “It is written thus in such-and-such a book.” In much the same way, we are expected to pass it on; hence, the essential act of Talmud Torah (e.g. in Rambam, Talmud Torah 1.1-2), more so than for a person to himself study at fixed times, is for each father to teach his children.

And tradition, most essentially, means Torah sheba’al peh, the Oral Torah, which is intimately bound with the process of human transmission, of teaching, of the relationship of direct contact between rebbe and talmid, mentor and disciple. Note: this involves, not only the actual contents of what is taught, but the very being of the teacher, a certain way of being in the world, a model to be emulated, that is somehow also transmitted through this process.

One of the reasons for emphasizing the authenticity of the tradition is that the Sages were well aware of the gap between the written Torah and the traditions of Oral Torah; they realized that the laws found in the Oral Torah often seemed like a tour de force, presenting concepts and practices whose connection with the scriptural text often seemed tenuous at best (“the laws of Shabbat are like mountains hanging from a hair; the laws of releasing oaths are as if suspended in mid-air”—Mishnah Hagiggah 1.8). Hence, the exegetical reasoning that fill many pages of the Talmud, combined with the faith in the chain of tradition, were crucial to support its validity.

We now turn to the second half of this mishnah, the saying quoted in the name of the Men of the Great Assembly (itself a rather ambiguous group, whose historicity has been questioned by some). Note that all three clauses of this saying are addressed, not to everyman, but specifically to the Sages, to those who function in capacities of Torah leadership among the people—in brief, the members of the Sanhedrin. (This pattern may be seen in many other saying in Avot, which is a mélange of internal discourse among the leadership, and epigrams of more general purport.) The first phrase (“be deliberate in judgment”) refers to the process of judgment itself; “raising up many disciples” relates to teaching, the quintessential activity of the ”chain of tradition” described earlier; while “making a fence for the Torah” alludes to the legislative function of the Rabbis, to protecting the integrity of the Torah and its observance by various precautionary measures (e.g., muktzeh and Rabbinically prohibited labors as a kind of “fence” around Shabbat laws; separate sets of dishes and other kitchen utensils as a fence around kashrut; the avoidance of close physical contact or intimate situations between the sexes as a “fence” against sexual license; etc.). All this is based upon a keen sense of the psychology of temptation.

2. Shimon the Righteous was among the remnants of the Great Assembly. He said: The world stands upon three things: the Torah, on the Divine service, ad on the practice of acts of kindness.

Here, too, we have a list of three central ideas: a list of those things that are most essential to the existence of the world, namely, three central areas of Divine service (based on the notion that the universe itself was created for the sake of man’s, or more specifically Israel’s, service of God). These three might also be described as three dimensions of human spiritual-cultural activity: the intellectual; the spiritual-theological-devotional; and the ethical-inter-personal.

Note that none of these can exist without the other two. Thus this mishnah, in addition to identifying these fundaments as such, is also about the importance of harmony or balance. The image of the world standing on these things is a concrete physical one: a three-legged stool, the minimum number needed for any kind of stability. Or, one might say that these three represent not only polarities, but also built-in checks and balances (as in the three branches of government in the US system). Each of the two balances a certain potential for excess that exists in the third; each one by itself counterbalances the drawbacks of the other two.

I am reminded of a Hasidic saying—what they call a sharfer vort, “a sharp word”— I heard once from Rav Adin Steinsaltz. In the original Yiddish: “M’darf zein klug, und frum, und gutt. Klug alayn ist a ganiff; frum alyn ist a galakh; gutt alayn ist a noyef!” This translates, roughly, to: “A person needs to be clever, and pious, and good. One who is clever alone can be a thief! One who is pious alone is tantamount to a [Christian] priest; one who is good alone [i.e., kind-hearted, with a tendency towards sentimentality] can be an adulterer!” In essence, this saying is about the same three fundaments: Klug is Torah; frum is Divine service, worship, taken by itself; and gutt alone is deeds of kindness.

Of course, we have always had personalities or movements in Judaism that primarily emphasize one or another of these three: there is the talmid hakham, the scholar, devoted exclusively to study of Torah, who is a walking repository of knowledge and erudition; there is the ba’al avodah, the pietist who has cultivated the soul attitude characteristic of prayer as the central paradigm for his religious life (the conventional wisdom is that the debate between Hasidism and Mitnaggedism was essentially as to which of these two models I most central); and then there is the ba’al hesed, the man (or woman) devoted to deeds of human kindness and caring, who is always visiting the sick, arranging help for the indigent, inviting the lonely, attending every funeral, shivah, brit and wedding, etc. etc. (Gershom Scholem has a little essay entitled “Three Types of Jewish Piety” in which he elaborates upon three different, but related models).

Chapter Three

And a brief taste of Chapter Three, this week’s chapter. I don’t have a clear sense of the organizing principle underlying the specific choice of sages quoted here, so I will go straight into the first mishnah without further ado:

Akavia ben Mehalallel said: Look at three things and you shall not come to sin. Know from whence you come, to where you are going, and before whom you will need to give an accounting. From whence did you come? From a putrid drop [of semen]. To where are you going? To a place of earth and worms. And before whom will you need to give an accounting? Before the King of Kings, the Holy One blessed be He.

Whenever I read this mishnah, I see in my mind’s eye the Jew from the Hevra Kaddisha of Kehillat Jerusalem, who chants this mishnah in a lugubrious voice at the end of every funeral,. Interestingly, the opening mishnah of Chapter 2 is concerned with the selfsame question: “Rabbi [i.e., Judah the Prince] said: Look at three things, and you shall not come to sin. Know what is above you: a seeing eye, a hearing ear, and all your deeds recorded in a book.”

What is the difference between these two formulations? The mishnah in Chapter 3 is what might be called “powerful medicine,” administered when all else fails, pulling man into line morally and spiritually by reminding him of his mortality and attempting to arouse disgust and contempt for life itself, with all its pleasures and pains and loves and hatreds. We all owe our existence to the almost random event of a particular act of love or lust which, possibly without any deliberate intention, led to our conception. (King David is portrayed by the midrash as being drive half-mad by this fact; see Lev Rab. 14.5, elaborating on Ps 51:7; and see HY III: Tazria-Metzora= Tazria-Metzora [Midrash]). And, at the other end of life, we will all end up with our body moldering in the grave.

Yet these thoughts, taken by themselves, might well lead one to despair, or to its seeming flip side—hedonism; living for the present moment; cynicism about any absolute truth or values. Without “the fear of God”—which I interpret to mean, not only fear in the literal sense, or even awe of the Divine majesty, but the basic sense of norms and ethics rooted in the presence in the universe of a Creator—there is no firm basis for morality. Of course, there are many good men who call themselves atheists and agnostics, just as there are many pious and outwardly “religious” scoundrels, and many wise men have worked hard and written thick tomes to provide a secular basis fur moral philosophy—but the end result remains shaky and tenuous.

The mishnah in Chapter 2 arrives at the same conclusion, but without invoking the stark and gruesome images of our physical mortality. As the Rav puts it in Halakhic Man, the two mishnayot might be compared to the healthy-minded, confident approach of “halakhic man,” as against the preoccupation with death and sin and pietistic stock-taking that are the stock in trade of certain Musar schools. He concludes with the caustic observation that strong medicine is needed only for the sick, not the healthy.


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