Monday, August 04, 2008

Masei (Mitzvot)

For more teachings on this parashah, see the archives to this blog, at July 2006.

Cities of Refuge

This parashah, the third among those set on the eve of our forefathers entering the Land of Israel, is devoted almost exclusively to various aspects of settling the Land—that is, following a recapitulation of the various stations of the people’s journey in the desert, from which it derives its title, “travels.” Thus, there is a general command to take possession of the land; the boundaries of Eretz Yisrael, outlined in detail, starting clockwise from the south-eastern corner near the Dead Sea; a list of the princes charged with supervising the division of the Land among the different tribes; the establishment of Levitical cities in each tribal territory; the law of the cities of refuge; and a rider to the “daughters of Zelophehad” rule granting daughters land-inheritance where there are no sons: namely, that they must marry within their own tribe.

While none of these mitzvot as such applies to future generations, the law of the cities of refuge (Num 35:9-34; compare its reiteration in Deut 19:1-10, and the listing of the cities in Deut 4:41-43 and Joshua 20), set up as a place for unintentional murderers to flee, involves several significant principles. There are two different rationales given for this somewhat peculiar institution:

On the one hand, it serves to protect the accidental killer from avengers, from members of his victim’s family who see themselves as performing the duty of goel ha-dam, lit., “redeemer of the blood.” This notion is rooted in the idea that blood that has been spilled, even without malice forethought, cries out for revenge—a notion tied in perhaps with concepts of family honor and duty. It is an almost cosmic law, perhaps connected with the Noachide verse that “he who spills the blood of a man, by man shall his blood be spilled,” or that spilled blood somehow contaminates the land. In any event, the Torah seems to accept the avenger as almost a natural force; there is a certain acceptance of the human impulse for vengeance, destructive and unruly as it may be, as a part of human nature which cannot be curbed by either education or legislation, and which even carries a certain primitive kind of justice. Instead, the Torah is concerned with providing a safe haven for the unintentional manslaughterer. This is in stark contrast to our own society, in which any avenger would be subject to the same sanctions as any other murderer, and people are taught to regard such vigilantism as a bad thing.

In general, while trying to instill people with a certain degree of inner control over their more chaotic impulses, a strong conscience or “super-ego,” the Torah also legislates mechanisms to protect potential victims of such impulses, which in the final analysis it sees as part of human nature. This outlook is also reflected in the halakhic rules controlling the potential for chaos in unfettered sexual instincts. Rather than relying on inner restraints, on an internalized social code, to insure that men and women will behave properly in mixed social settings, there are strong rules against physical contact and yihud, so as to avoid situations in which temptation might arise or be acted upon.

But there is a second aspect to the city of refuge as well, a more theoretical one: namely, the tension between intentionality and action. Is such a person to be considered a murderer at all? On the one hand, he has caused another person to die: his action, which resulted in bloodshed, is perhaps the worst sin a person can commit: cutting short the life of another person, who is a unique embodiment of the Divine image. On the other hand, it was unintentional, an accident; his motivation and his heart were pure. It is the sort if thing “that could happen to anyone.” There’s no point trying to teach him to be gentle and non-violent, because he is so already. Nevertheless, on some level the act he committed was a grave sin; his confinement to the city of refuge is thus an act of atonement—a point suggested by the fact that he must remain there “until the death of the high priest”—the central, symbolically exculpatory figure for the entire nation.

The underlying view implied in the institution of ir miklat is also found in the concept of shegagah, the sin-offering brought to atone for certain kinds of unintentional sin. The idea implied here is that things are not “either-or”: on one level, acts are significant in themselves, even if their result was totally unintended—particularly if its fatal consequences might have prevented by greater caution (e.g., in the case given, making certain that the axe-head was securely fastened to the handle); on the other hand, without intentionality a person clearly cannot be said to “own” a given act; hence, the Torah greatly diminishes the significances of acts done by mistake.

In general, Judaism tends to be a religion of deed, not thought. A person can meditate all day long about God, enter into a state of ecstasy contemplating His infinity and ineffability, but if he doesn’t stand up and recite Prayer, read the Shema, don tefillin, and so forth, he hasn’t discharged his duty of engaging in service of God. As Habad and other Hasidic thinkers put it: given that we are creatures with souls embodied in a garment of flesh, marked by the unique capacity for speech, our Divine service must be an amalgam of thought, speech, and deed. In purely halakhic terms, too, the act takes ontological priority over its rationales (ta’amei hamitzvot) and is independent of it. Or, to bring an example from the realm of human relations: a man may be lovesick over a certain woman, standing in the street gazing at her window for hours, but if he doesn’t perform acts of love and caring towards her, she cannot know that she loves him. All this is very different from today’s post-modern Zeitgeist, that seems to emphasize “consciousness” above all else, seemingly unaware of the pitfalls involved.

Yet on another level what makes us human is our consciousness, our intentionality, not our acts considered merely in themselves. (See Avivah Zornberg’s discussion of the dilemma of the human condition, “swarming” vs. “standing,” in the opening chapter of her Genesis, The Beginning of Desire.) Perhaps we can conclude by saying that, while both are important, ma’aseh is of prior concern; while, regarding negative acts, absence of intent cannot but be a major mitigating factor.


Chapter Two

We will begin with a saying from the earlier part of the chapter, which contains several sayings of Hillel the Elder:

2. 5. He [Hillel] used to say: A coarse person cannot be sin-fearing, nor an ignorant man pious. The shy person cannot learn, nor the imperious one teach. Nor do all those who engage in much trade become wise; and where there is no man, strive to be a man.

This brief saying contains several important insights about human nature. First, a certain connection is drawn between refinement and intellect, and ethical and spiritual virtue: namely, that true piety or fear of God cannot exist in the absence of general menschlichkeit and a certain minimal cultural standard. I don’t think this is intellectual snobbery; rather, the idea that one needs a certain minimal store of knowledge and intelligence, the ability to evaluate the subtleties and complexities of situations one may encounter in life, to be a truly religious man. This is in contrast to the medieval Christian idea of the “holy fool” (also celebrated in Hasidism, as in R. Nahman of Bratslav’s tale of The Wise Man and the Simpleton).

The first two terms in this mishnah reflect a certain order: the bor, the coarse person, cannot even be “fearful of sin,” the lowest level of piety; while the am ha-aretz is defined as unlettered, but not outright boorish: he, it is implied, may fear sin, even be punctilious about avoiding transgression on a certain minimal level, but he cannot be truly pious, which require something more.

The next two phrases also complement one another: the shy student will be embarrassed to ask questions or admit that he doesn’t understand something and requires needs further explanation, and therefore will fail to learn properly; the overbearing, strict teacher will frighten even the normal student from asking questions or admitting his own ignorance, through fear of mockery and acerbic tongue-lashing. (Interestingly, some of the greatest Torah teachers, of both ancient and recent times, were known for their ferocity in the classroom; if they nevertheless raised generations of students, I believe it was despite, not because of, this quality.)

The fifth phrase, “not all those that engage much in trade become wise,” can be read in two ways. On the one hand, that people often associate wealth and worldly success with wisdom; the mishnah cautions us that this isn’t so, that the self-made millionaire can still be stupid in every area of life but making money. And, to the contrary: there may be the proverbial geniuses starving in garrets. Alternatively, one might think that those who engage in trade, and thus travel a lot and get to meet different peoples and see different countries, will gain wisdom from this; our mishnah comments, “It ain’t necessarily so.”

Finally, the sixth clause, “In a place where there is no man, strive to be a man,” seems to me to caution against excessive self-effacement. A person may think: I’m not good enough to lead communal prayer/give a Devar Torah in public/head a committee (etc.) One must understand that no one is born a professor, a prime minister, a rosh yeshivah, or even a pope (lehavdil). Everyone is “just a person” who gradually learns to do whatever they do, largely through doing it. (I am reminded of a friend of mine who, at a certain point in middle age, found himself buying a home in a comfortable suburban neighborhood suitable to those of his professional status lived, and remarking with astonishment that “In the ‘60s, this is where our friends’ parents lived!” This same person, when named to an endowed chair at his university, commented with some wonder that ‘This was the chair that my mentor A used to fill!”) It was this same message that Rabbi Nathan Kamanetsky tried to convey in writing his father’s biography, The Making of a Gadol. The ultra-Orthodox world was too much enthralled in the mystique of the “gadol” to accept this message with grace.

We turn from here to the five disciples of Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai, and their various summa bonum. The following are the words of the disciple described as the most brilliant and creative of all, the “constantly flowing spring,” R. Eleazar ben Arakh:

2. 14. Rabbi Eleazar son of Arakh said: You should be diligent in learning Torah, and know what to answer an apikorus [heretic], and know before whom you labor; [and know] that your employer may be relied upon to reward you for your labors.

The final phrase is a kind of coda. The three basic “mottos” all relate to the central value of learning Torah, and what one must learn from it. First, that one must, quite simply, be diligent, apply oneself. Second, one must know how to answer a “heretic.” This requires a certain openness, rather different talents than those required of a sage who addresses the committed and convinced. One must be aware of the existence of people who think differently, who have wildly divergent views from those of the tradition, and respect them enough to at least engage their reasoning seriously, if only to then know how to persuade them by reasoning and argumentation. Third, one must know “before whom you labor.” Kehati reads sees this as a general imperative to “know God”: a kind of Maimonidean amor dei intellectualus, the love of God that comes about via cognition. Or perhaps this is related to the final phrase: know before whom you labor {i.e. God} because he may be relied upon in the end to reward you for your efforts, tedious, burdensome, and heavy as they may seem at times.


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