Friday, August 27, 2021

The Torah abhors a curse

Then the officials shall address the troops, as follows: “Is there anyone who has built a new house but has not dedicated it? Let him go back to his home, lest he die in battle and another dedicate it. Is there anyone who has planted a vineyard but has never harvested it? Let him go back to his home, lest he die in battle and another harvest it. Is there anyone who has paid the bride-price for a wife, but who has not yet married her? Let him go back to his home, lest he die in battle and another marry her.”

The officials shall go on addressing the troops and say, “Is there anyone afraid and disheartened? Let him go back to his home, lest the courage of his comrades flag like his.”

--Deuteronomy 20:5-8

Why are the soldiers in the first three verses singled out for honorable discharge? Doesn’t the real possibility of death on the battlefield weigh equally on the minds of every combatant? Of all the innumerable tragedies, actual and potential, that may afflict fallen soldiers and their families, there must be something unique about these. No doubt, it’s especially heart-wrenching to imagine the death of a young man or woman which robs them of a new home, the fruits of a major investment, or a marriage, just before consummation. The occasional obituary for a young bride or groom killed accidentally, only days before their wedding, evokes deep sorrow, if not shock and horror. 

But aren’t all these things -- more precisely, the fear of these things -- implicit in the last verse’s catchall category of the “afraid and disheartened” who are dismissed from the battlefield? Are these simply extreme examples of distractions that can make a soldier ineffective (see Ibn Ezra and Nahmanides)?

The answer seems to lie in the fact that the Torah is less worried here about the soldier’s fear of death, or even about his death per se, than with its outcome. We send him home out of concern for the secondary impact of his death. Our fear is that if he doesn’t leave now, 
אִישׁ אַחֵר (“another”) -- the phrase is repeated in each of the three verses -- might reap what he has sown. And, in Rashi’s words, וְדָבָר שֶׁל עָגְמַת נֶפֶשׁ הוּא זֶה -- this is an unusually cruel circumstance, resulting in profound mental anguish.

But whose anguish? If he is killed, the soldier won’t feel the anguish of his loss.

As it happens, the Torah reintroduces this house-vineyard-wife triptych later in Deuteronomy within the "Tokheha," the dire warnings by Moses of severe punishments Israel will suffer if it disobeys God’s laws. Among the seemingly endless list of curses, we find identical images, down to the very same wording:

If you pay the bride-price for a wife, another man shall enjoy her. If you build a house, you shall not live in it. If you plant a vineyard, you shall not harvest it. Your ox shall be slaughtered before your eyes, but you shall not eat of it . . . Your sons and daughters shall be delivered to another people, while you look on; and your eyes shall strain for them constantly, but you shall be helpless. A people you do not know shall eat up the produce of your soil and all your gains; you shall be abused and downtrodden continually, until you are driven mad by what your eyes behold.

--Deuteronomy 28:30-34

Note the repetition of “looking” and “seeing with your own eyes” in the latter verses. The soldier killed in battle, in the earlier passage, is spared the sight of his loss, but here the victim sees his life unravel right in front of him. The loss itself is tragic, but even more cruel is having to helplessly watch the untimely death of loved ones, to experience it in real time and to suffer its aftermath; to grapple daily -- morally, philosophically, and psychologically -- with the injustice of young lives cut short with their dreams unrealized.

As tragic as these events are for the victims, the brunt of the punishment strikes those surrounding them. The dead don’t feel any pain -- if we are to believe Kohelet, they feel and know nothing. Instead, they may leave a legacy of suffering to their survivors, who must endure the idea of an untimely and unjust death. More than evil’s direct victims,
the Tokheha's curse is on those who see evil but escape -- witnesses to events so morally repugnant, events which will haunt them for the rest of their lives, that they are driven to insanity. Their Hell is a living one. A fallen soldier doesn't live to see a stranger move into his new house, harvest his vineyard, or marry his bride -- these agonies belong exclusively to those who are left behind to comprehend how such cruelties could have happened in the first place.

In allowing these special exemptions, the Torah, to the extent that it can, seeks to minimize the most morally offensive consequences of war, beyond those on the battlefield. Not that any combat death or, for that matter, any death at all, is less tragic than what Deuteronomy describes. Whether the victim is nineteen or ninety-nine, every human death is tragic, every life taken is wasted potential

In a category apart, however, are circumstances of such immeasurable cruelty, that death is not only tragic, but obscene; the mourners feel not only bereft, but cursed; where death makes a mockery of justice, undermines our confidence in a basically decent existence, and shatters the belief that "God’s kindness permeates the world.” 

For such evils, the Torah has no tolerance. Given the opportunity, we are obligated to deny death, at its most sinister, a needless victory.

Thursday, November 26, 2020

Jacob's stone(s)

 וַיִּפְגַּ֨ע בַּמָּק֜וֹם וַיָּ֤לֶן שָׁם֙ כִּי־בָ֣א הַשֶּׁ֔מֶשׁ וַיִּקַּח֙ מֵאַבְנֵ֣י הַמָּק֔וֹם וַיָּ֖שֶׂם מְרַֽאֲשֹׁתָ֑יו וַיִּשְׁכַּ֖ב בַּמָּק֥וֹם הַהֽוּא׃

וַיַּשְׁכֵּ֨ם יַעֲקֹ֜ב בַּבֹּ֗קֶר וַיִּקַּ֤ח אֶת־הָאֶ֙בֶן֙ אֲשֶׁר־שָׂ֣ם מְרַֽאֲשֹׁתָ֔יו וַיָּ֥שֶׂם אֹתָ֖הּ מַצֵּבָ֑ה וַיִּצֹ֥ק שֶׁ֖מֶן עַל־רֹאשָֽׁהּ׃

For students of Rashi's commentary on the Torah, these verses evoke the image of Jacob's quarreling stones. Each stone demanded, "upon me let this righteous man lie his head," until God fused them together (Rashi, Gen. 28:11 following Bereshit Rabba and Hulin 91b). 

A memorable story by itself -- with an echo of long-forgotten Israelite mythology -- this midrash is also an affecting metaphor for the twelve tribes of Israel uniting under the banner of their forefather Jacob (for the tradition of twelve stones and its explicit symbolism, see Bereshit Rabba and Pirke de-Rabbi Eliezer).

The peshat-oriented exegetes (e.g., Rashbam, Ibn Ezra, Bekhor Shor), of course, don't feel bound to read מֵאַבְנֵ֣י הַמָּק֔וֹם as multiple stones; Jacob took only one stone, they say, of many in the area. (Interestingly, the King James Version translation follows Rashi: "and he took of the stones of that place, and put them for his pillows, and lay down in that place to sleep.")

The Torah records a story about a random rock because of its special destiny. After sleeping beside it, and awaking from his famous dream, Jacob dedicates the rock as a מצבה (a stele or monument), anoints it with oil (an act of consecration) and vows that upon his safe return from Haran he will sacrifice thanksgiving offerings to God in that very spot, the site of a future temple.

But why did Jacob need a stone in the first place? וַיָּ֖שֶׂם מְרַֽאֲשֹׁתָ֑יו may seem to suggest he wanted to prop up his head on a stone pillow. And on one level, this makes sense. Jacob later says that he escaped from Esau carrying only his walking stick (Gen. 32:10); while likely poetic hyperbole, Jacob would certainly not have had time to pack unnecessary belongings like cushions or extra garments to pad his campsite. A pillow of stone befits his desperate and spartan condition at the time.

Still, the word מְרַאֲשׁוֹת in the Bible doesn't always, or possibly ever, mean "under the head." Instead, it appears to mean "beside the head." The biblical usage includes, for example, the following (I Samuel 26:7, 11-12): וַחֲנִית֥וֹ מְעוּכָֽה־בָאָ֖רֶץ מְרַאֲשֹׁתָ֑יו -- "his spear stuck in the ground at his head" -- definitely not under his head! (see also Mandelkern's Concordance, p. 1065, which defines מְרַאֲשׁוֹת as "the opposite of מַרְגְּלֹתָיו," the latter meaning at the legs, rather than under the legs).

It's very likely that Jacob's stone, or stones, were for warmth. Ancient travelers sleeping outside in the cool night air, especially in the desert, could take advantage of the heat that radiates, well into the night, from sunbaked rocks. Jacob may have also deliberately avoided lighting a fire at night so as not to draw attention from Esau and his men who, Jacob would have feared, were already pursuing him. 

If so, then the Midrash, rather than the peshat commentaries, may have gotten it right after all. For maximum radiant heat, Jacob would no doubt have gathered as many large stones as he could.

Jacob's descendants, an imperfect union of often warring tribes, are fortunate that those honor-hungry, self-centered stones ultimately, if involuntarily, made peace with each other.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Tikkun Olam is a great idea. It's just not in Alenu.

Re. the correct spelling of le-taken olam in the Alenu prayer, Mitchell First has written convincingly on this topic. The earliest textual evidence certainly points to לתכן instead of the prevalent לתקן.

I would add, however, that the strongest proof for לתכן is contextual rather than from textual variants -- that is, from the Musaf prayer itself and from related biblical verses that the author seems to be drawing from.

The expression לתכן עולם appears to allude to the second Ketuvim verse of Malkhuyot (Ps. 93:1): ה מָלָךְ֮ גֵּא֪וּת לָ֫בֵ֥שׁ לָבֵ֣שׁ ה עֹ֣ז הִתְאַזָּ֑ר אַף־תִּכּ֥וֹן תֵּ֝בֵ֗ל בַּל־תִּמּֽוֹט

More precisely, לתכן עולם במלכות ש-די is a compound phrase constructed from the last words of that verse -- לתכן עולם follows תִּכּ֥וֹן תֵּ֝בֵ֗ל -- combined with the biblical usage תכון מלכות (e.g., I Sam. 20:31; I Kings 2:12), which is to establish a permanent dynasty or kingdom. 

But no matter how you spell the word in Alenu, the current usage of Tikkun Olam represents an effort that is much easier to implement than bringing God's kingdom down to earth.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

For the Love of God

(Slightly revised version of essay posted on Times of Israel)


In a year defined by its compound anxieties — medical, racial, political, environmental, and economic — we are in last days of the most anxious month on the Jewish calendar. Without much of an independent identity, Elul is the final stretch of the religious year and a prelude to the impending Days of Awe. Traditionally, it is a time of increased religious vigilance, including heightened introspection, Selichot (penitential prayers), revisiting personal and communal moral standards, and stricter observance, all in anticipation of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. 

But there’s more to Elul, even in a year like this one, than brooding over the prior year’s shortcomings or worrying about the weeks and months ahead. For the sensitive religious soul, this season can also be a time of deep spiritual yearning and an intensified love for the divine. A memorable epigram, citing the Song of Songs (6:3), literally spells this out: “’I am for my beloved, and my beloved is for me’ — this is an acronym for ‘Elul.’”

Love and fear often come in tandem. And in Jewish thought, love of God and fear of God are considered opposite but conjoined poles of a unified response to divinity: “And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God demand of you? Only this: to fear the Lord your God, to walk only in His paths, to love him . . .” (Deuteronomy 10:12).

The traditional Siddur for children begins (right after Modeh Ani) with a declaration — “the beginning of wisdom is the fear of God” (Psalms 111:10) — that places awe and reverence for divinity at the epicenter of intellectual achievement. And the second verse of Shema, almost a credo of Jewish faith, is the commandment to love God.

While both mitzvot are somewhat amorphous, fear of God may be the easier of the two to grasp and to implement. But how can the Torah mandate loving God? What does it mean in practice?

In the very first chapters of his Mishneh Torah code, Maimonides lists love and fear of God as distinct but tightly coupled commandments. Characteristically, he intellectualizes the effort required to fulfill them. Maimonides states that love and fear of the divine, properly observed, arises from an appreciation of God’s majesty and man’s humility. And this can only be accomplished by means of study; specifically, training in physics and metaphysics: “One can only love God by the knowledge with which one knows Him. According to the knowledge, will be the love . . . a person ought therefore to devote himself to understanding those sciences and studies which will inform him concerning his Master” (Laws of Repentance 10:6). Such learning, Maimonides assures us, will ultimately result in an obsessive love for God (in an unexpected near-poetic flourish, he compares it to romantic infatuation) and a concomitant feeling of smallness within the vastness of the universe. This sense of humility is what the Torah means by fearing God.

Note that the type of fear that God demands, for Maimonides, is not the fear of punishment (in fact, he rejected the concept of divine retribution by suffering in the afterlife). He has little patience for those who worship exclusively out of fear, as commonly understood, or for the expectation of reward. Rather, he says, one who worships God as intended, out of love, “does what is true because it is true” (ibid., 10:2).

As always, Maimonides sets the bar high -- and in this case, by his own standards, possibly too high. His definition of love and fear of God is so consciously elitist as to be out of reach for most people: “This standard [to worship God from love],” he concedes, “is indeed a very high one; not every sage attained it.” (Note, however: Rather than the conclusion of an intellectual journey, the biblical meaning of “loving” God is to commit to worship Him exclusively, and to observe the mitzvot – in short, “to walk only in His paths”).

On this and many other matters, both philosophical and halakhic, Maimonides had his detractors. It also goes without saying that Maimonidean (unsurprisingly, largely Aristotelian) physics, as summarized in the earliest chapters of Mishneh Torah, is hopelessly out of date.

But the idea that loving God must begin, logically and practically, with a love for the truth, is a timeless one that must be at the foundation of our spiritual lives. In pledging their loyalty and love to God, religious people should never be asked, or ask themselves, to forsake science and fact. And if the beginning of wisdom is the fear of God, human wisdom itself, both secular and divine, is only possible with an irrevocable commitment to the truth.

Friday, April 24, 2020

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik on Jewish ethics and the State of Israel (1959) - an excerpt

I've transcribed a section of a recorded lecture by R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, “Religious Definitions of Man and his Social Institutions, Part 3” (1959)

The excerpt below begins at 33:29. For the sake of clarity 
I've made minor edits, generally indicated by square brackets. A useful historical background, summary, and analysis by Alan Brill can be found here.

[Judaism] insisted upon full axiological democracy. You see, this is the kind of democracy which modern man does not understand. Modern man understands political democracy and also understands, perhaps, economic democracy – as the socialist countries, so to [speak], claim to understand; [though] perhaps it isn’t true. He doesn't understand democracy axiologically, as to the worth of the person. That the great scholar, the scientist, and the little person have the same worth, modern man did not understand, I don’t believe I understand, and perhaps no one understands. But Judaism insisted upon it. Judaism was both realistic, at times, and at times it was simply daydreaming, completely caught in the web of fantasy and imagination. But it was a beautiful fantasy, at least.

I will tell you frankly. Now, with the emergence of the State of Israel, I utter one prayer. And simply, many times, my mind is disturbed. We have a beautiful ethic. And, it is hard to say that we were angels but, more or less, the pages of our history are not as stained with blood and tears and injustice and brutality, as are the pages of the history of European society, to take feudal times or medieval times. The simple reason is not, perhaps, because we are superior to them, [but that] we simply did not encounter the challenge. We never had a state. We never had political problems. […]

A private person, a weak person, a persecuted person, a person who [had no] say could not commit the injustices which, for instance, France or Germany or feudal England committed in the middle ages. But, many times I ask, what if our history had been different, had taken a different course? What if we had been a state in the middle ages, how would we have acted? Just like the feudal lords? Or would we have acted differently because of Judaic ethics? I have no answer to that. Who knows? To say hypothetically how we would have acted is ridiculous. Now, with the State of Israel, we are facing the test. Will we behave like any other state, ethically?

Basically, no state is ethical. I believe that statehood itself implies an intrinsic contradiction to ethics; [even] the best one. Will we act differently or will we restrain ourselves from engaging in certain [practices] which are in conflict with basic Judaic ethics? Or will we yield to temptation? Of course, a few experiences are not very [re]assuring, I must tell you. Others, somehow, hold out hope. I don’t know. But, to me, this is the basic problem with which we, the Diaspora Jews, are faced with regard to the State of Israel. [...] The problem is, here we have an opportunity – the Jews are the rulers, they legislate the laws, they are the masters, so to [speak]. We have never been masters, obviously. We have always been the subordinates. Always. Since the destruction of the Second Temple 1900 years ago. It’s quite a long time. Now, we are the masters. Of course, in a small land, on a narrow strip along the eastern Mediterranean. Will we act like masters or will we understand that Judaism does not know the concept of master and slave, victor and vanquished, powerful and weak? This is my problem with regard to the State of Israel.

The whole of Jewish history will be interpreted in terms of what the State of Israel will do in the next fifty years. If the State of Israel will not live up to the great hopes and challenges of Judaic ethics – I am not speaking now of economics and science, this is a secondary problem to me – then the whole of Jewish history will appear in a different light. People will reinterpret Jewish history. So the Jews were nice and decent? This is simply because they didn’t have the opportunity to be wicked. But as soon as they got the opportunity, they proved to the world that they are not better than anybody else.