Monthly Archives: October 2014

Was the 200-year Punishment of Slavery Worth Avraham’s Crime?

This week’s SBM alumni d’var torah is by Rabbi Roy Feldman.

Nedarim 32a

:אמר רבי אבהו אמר רבי אלעזר

?מפני מה נענש אברהם אבינו ונשתעבדו בניו למצרים מאתים ועשר שנים

מפני שעשה אנגרייא בת”ח

;שנאמר (בראשית יד) וירק את חניכיו ילידי ביתו

:ושמואל אמר

מפני שהפריז על מדותיו של הקב”ה

;שנא’ (בראשית טו) במה אדע כי אירשנה

:ורבי יוחנן אמר

שהפריש בני אדם מלהכנס תחת כנפי השכינה

שנאמר (בראשית יד) תן לי הנפש והרכוש קח לך וירק את חניכיו ילידי ביתו

R. Abbahu said in R. Eleazar’s name:

Why was our Father Abraham punished and his children doomed to Egyptian servitude for two hundred and ten years? Because he pressed scholars into his service, as it is written: He armed his dedicated servants born in his own house.

Samuel said: Because he went too far in testing the attributes [i.e., the promises] of the Lord, as it is written: [And he said, Lord God,] whereby shall I know that I shall inherit it?

R. Johanan said: Because he prevented men from entering beneath the wings of the Shechinah, as it is written: [And the king of Sodom said it to Abraham,] Give me the persons, and take the goods to thyself.

Why were Avraham and his progeny punished with serving the Egyptians for over two hundred years?  The sages of the Talmud offered three answers to this question, all based in this week’s Torah reading.  Let’s analyze their responses.

Rabbi Abahu and Rabbi Yohanan (whose answer we’ll interpret later) both claim that Avraham’s punishment-worthy sin was related to his actions in the war with the kings.  As the Torah narrates in Chapter 14, many kings waged war against the southern region of Canaan.  They took captive the inhabitants of Sodom, including Avraham’s nephew Lot.  When Avraham heard the news, he immediately went to battle with the kings, defeated them, and released the captives.

Rabbi Abahu claims that Avraham acted improperly in waging a war for the purpose of saving his nephew Lot.  This was not a sufficient reason to disrupt his followers, who were otherwise busy with the important task of Torah study (let’s suspend our historical awareness in order to analyze this passage on its own terms).  Perhaps if the war were intended to gain more followers for Avraham and God, as we shall see Rabbi Yohanan suggests, disturbing the scholars from their study would have been justified.

Shmuel offers a completely different explanation.  Avraham and his progeny deserved Egyptian exile and servitude on account of Avraham’s doubting God’s promise.  In Chapter 15, when God promises Avraham that his progeny shall inherit the land of Canaan, Avraham asks, “Whereby shall I know that I shall inherit it?”  Rather than accepting God’s promise, as would have been proper, Avraham seemingly has a lapse of faith in God.  According to Shmuel, it is this moment of doubting God that merits two hundred years in Egypt.

Finally, Rabbi Yohanan offers a third possibility.  He claims that Avraham lost a tremendous opportunity at the end of this war.  Instead of simply releasing the captives, Avraham ought to have released them on condition.  He should have told the king of Sodom that he was willing to release all the captives and the spoils only if they all joined him and followed in God’s ways.  The king of Sodom had given Avraham ample opportunity: he said to Avraham, “Give me the persons, and take the goods to thyself.”  Avraham refuses even the spoils, not wanting any perceived debt to the king of Sodom, but the right thing would have been to negotiate further.  That way, the people of Sodom would have become the forerunners of B’nei Yisrael, God’s chosen people.  It was Avraham’s missing this unique chance, his failure to bring all those people under God’s wing, that was worthy of punishment.

Each of these approaches attempts to offer an explanation as to what Avraham did to doom his progeny to two hundred years of exile and servitude.  What’s striking about all three answers, however, is that they hardly seem like sins at all.  Rather, they seem like human nature.

Rabbi Abahu expected Avraham to place his new leadership position above his family.  Perhaps Avraham really initiated the war in order to save his brother, but surely he saw virtue in releasing the other captives as well.  Avraham understood, probably correctly, that releasing an entire nation of captives was well worth getting scholars up from their study in order to wage war.  Rabbi Abahu claims that Avraham’s sin stemmed from his motivation for the war, but in waging war Avraham focused on the results.  The results certainly justified his actions.

Turning to Shmuel’s response, asking God for a sign is also human nature.  Avraham understood that God’s promise, of increased offspring and conquered land, would not happen overnight.  He simply wanted to know what the future held, how the events of God’s promise would unfold.  According to this interpretation, God’s response is not so much a punishment but an answer to Avraham as to how his progeny will end up with the land.  Rather than a lapse of faith in God, this was just Avraham trying to understand his situation.

Finally, Rabbi Yohanan expected Avraham to suddenly take on the leadership of an entire people.  Avraham had until now been successful in gathering followers based on actual buy-in for his concept.  Why take on an entire people who might not be voluntary, willing followers?  Would that not make Avraham’s job so much more difficult?  No doubt, Avraham understood that such a dramatic increase in numbers could lead to the downfall of his people.  Rather than missing the opportunity to do a great mitzvah, Avraham chose to forego this mitzvah in order to do many more mitzvot in the future.

We should also note that each sin represents a different area of Jewish practice: for Rabbi Abahu, the sin was one of interpersonal relationships (with the scholars); for Shmuel, it was one of religious faith; and for Rabbi Yohanan, it was a sin of religious practice, namely, foregoing a great mitzvah.  In each of these instances, Avraham acted according to human nature and against how God wished he would act.  The sins were not incendiary ones, ones meant to anger God or others.  They were innocent mistakes.

Notwithstanding these mistakes, Avraham is our forefather and our tradition sees him as a role model.  Perhaps that’s the reason why the rabbis specifically found these three examples, one from each area of Judaism–interpersonal relationships, religious faith, and religious practice.  In each area, human nature is often opposed to what our religion calls for.  While we strive to fulfill the demands of our tradition, we sometimes fall short, for no reason other than human nature; such was the case with Avraham.  In fact, that is precisely what makes him an ideal role model.  His relationship with the Almighty did not flounder on account of his mistakes; perhaps, it even grew.  As we proceed on each of our spiritual journeys, we sometimes make innocent mistakes.  Rather than wallowing in guilt, may we all turn to Avraham as a source of inspiration.

Rabbi Roy Feldman currently serves as Rabbinic Assistant at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun and is a proud SBM alumnus.

 

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Translating Torah, No Dictionary Required

Genesis 11:28: Haran died in the presence of his father Terach, in the land of his birthplace, in Ur Kasdim.

Rashi 11:28: “in the presence of his father” – (meaning) in the lifetime of his father. But in the midrash aggada there are those who say that he died through the agency of his father, that Terach complained about his son Avram before Nimrod about Avram having chopped up his idols and he (Nimrod) threw him (Avram) into a fiery furnace. Meanwhile, Haran sat and said in his heart: ‘If Avram wins – I’m from his side; but if Nimrod wins – I’m from his side.’ When Avram was saved, they said to Haran: “Whose side are you on?”

Haran said to them: “I’m from Avram’s side.”

They threw him into the fiery furnace and he was burnt up, and this is the meaning of Ur (=furnace) of the Kasdim.

But Menachem ben Saruk explained Ur as valley, as in Isaiah 24:15 “in the urim honor Hashem, and similarly (Isaiah 11:8) “meurat of a poisonous snake” – every hole and deep valley is called ur.

Was Terach an idol merchant, and did Avram smash his father’s idols? Was he thrown into a fiery furnace as a result, and miraculously saved? Modern Orthodox education today resolutely answers “no” to these questions, for a clear and compelling reason: many of our educators have not quite recovered from their own disillusionment on first discovering that this story is not in Chumash. Indeed, it may be that the memory of that shock – which I experienced myself – is the driving factor behind the privileging of “pshat” over “drash” in our Tanakh curricula and classrooms. It may also be past time that we got over it.

Nobody claims that every moment of Avraham’s life is explicitly recorded in Chumash. Similarly, the characters he interact]ts with had real lives outside his presence. Kedarlaomer and his allies administered an empire, and Aner and his brothers made their livings in dramatic or quotidian ways the Torah simply doesn’t bother to mention. The truth of a claim that Eshkol was a wine merchant could not be properly tested by examining whether the Torah mentions his profession, any more than the claim that Kedarlaomer hated blank verse but was madly fond of sonnets.

Now Kedarlaomer’s taste in poetry probably played no role in Jewish history, and we might argue that anything the Torah leaves out is unimportant. This assumes that Torah is intended to be a self-sufficient, self-interpreting document that can be fully understood by those who know nothing outside the text. That assumption makes little sense in the text of Torah, which among other things seems to refer us on occasion to other books, but more importantly makes nonsense of the text of Torah. For example, the Torah does not contain a dictionary of itself, so how can one even begin translating it without appealing to a vast body of unwritten tradition?

The disillusionment we felt came rather because we felt that we had been taught the story as if it was actually in Chumash, or as if it could be easily derived from the text of Chumash. For example, one blogger, apparently a victim of such education, recently suggested that Chazal did not know that אור = Ur could be a place name, and so felt compelled to translate אור כשדים as the furnace of the Chaldeans.

Now Ur Kasdim is mentioned in Genesis 11:31 as well as 11:28. Verse 31 reads:

Terach took Avram his son, and Lot the son of Haran – the son of his son, and Sarai his daughter in-law, wife of Avram his son, and they went out with them from Ur Kasdim to go toward the Land of Canaan, and they came as far as Charan and they settled there.

Targum Yonatan translates אור in verse 28 as נורא, or furnace, but in verse 31 translates the whole phrase asדכשדאי  אורא. In any case, I don’t know any version of the story in which the entire family is thrown into the furnace, which I think means that everyone agreed that in verse 31 Ur Kasdim is simply a place name.

It should also be clear that Rashi’s telling of the story here leaves out crucial details. When, and why, did Avraham smash Terach’s idols? Why did Terach report his son to the king for this act of vandalism? How was Avraham saved from the furnace?

My suggestion is that Rashi is not deriving the story from the text here – rather, he is using the story, which he assumes his readers know independently, to explicate the text and make clear how and why Haran died. Note that he does this as well in 14:1 as an etymology for the name Amrafel, and in 14:10 to explain why it matters that the battle between the Four Kings and the Five Kings was fought in a quicksand environment.

This likely becomes obvious on reflection. Even if we take the name Ur Kasdim as referring to a fiery furnace, it tells us only how Haran died, not that Avram was saved from the same fate, let alone why he was consigned to that fate in the first place.

Here is another narrow textual source that might be suggested. In Genesis 15:7, Hashem identifies Himself as the One Who removed Avram from Ur Kasdim, and Nechemiah 9:7 makes the same claim about Him. The verb הוציא is what G-d does when He takes the Jews out of Egypt, and so perhaps there is a suggestion here that Avram needed rescuing. But none of this gets us any level of detail.

A different sort of argument notes that in the Book of Daniel Chapter 3, Shadrakh, Meishakh, and Eved Nego are thrown into a furnace for refusing to bow to the Chaldean Emperor Nebuchadnezzar, and miraculously saved. Perhaps the narrative of Avram is just a backformation, a midrashic transfer of plot elements from one character and context to another. But why this story? Why not save Avram instead by providing him with miraculous earth that turns into deadly weapons, or by angels staying the executioner’s ax, or by clearing a dry path for him across a sea?

Finally, one might suggest with Nachmanides that the story about Avram was simply a tradition among the Jews that antedated Sinai, which the Author of Torah was entitled to presume they knew. But even if we accept this, it is only a partial solution, as the story exists in many different versions, and is conspicuously missing from several early lists of the Ten Trials of Avraham (where the number 10 came from is a topic for a different week).

The right question, I think, is not what generated the story in each of many versions, but rather why each of them was seen as both fitting with and adding to the arc of Avram’s history and/or the narrative of Torah as a whole. We should focus not on the textual sources of the stories, but rather on their interpretive function, recognizing that other stories might well have served the same function. I believe that as a result we will end up in any case with a much broader set of sources.

We should start, of course, with understanding why G-d speaks to Avram. Providing a heroic backstory explains that well, although, as Ramban points out, it makes it harder to understand why the story is not in Chumash. Haran’s death ties into an understanding of Avraham’s life as a series of progressive akeidahs, in which every step in his religious progression is accompanied (at least so far as he knows) by the death of a beloved relative that he reluctantly bears some responsibility for (perhaps there is, or should be, a version in which angels save Haran but Avram never finds out). Casting monotheism as persecuted nonconformity explains why G-d opposed the (idolatrous) conformity pursued by the builders of the Tower of Babel (perhaps coerced conformity always tends toward the idolatrous, as it always substitutes something for God’s unique Unity).

Finally, the Rabbis identify Shadrakh, Meishakh, and Eved Nego with Chaggai, Zekhariah, and Malakhi, whom they see as the last prophets. G-d’s first and last calls to human beings are therefore paralleled. The question we must ask – and seek to answer with our lives – is whether the end of prophecy means that Avraham’s mission has in significant part been accomplished, and our task since is to bring it to completion, or whether our task is merely to prevent a reversion to totalitarian Babel. Perhaps both answers are true.

Shabbat Shalom!

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“Bnei Elohim” and Abuse of Authority

This week’s SBM alumni d’var torah is from Ezra Newman.

The story of the destruction of man as told in Parshat Noach does not start with an act of total villainy that leads directly to total destruction. Rather, a close reading of the flood narrative shows that the process is a gradual one, one that in fact starts at the end of Parshat Bereishit. There, the reader is confronted with a most unusual three verses.

:בראשית פרק ו

(א) ויהי כי החל האדם לרב על פני האדמה ובנות ילדו להם

(ב) ויראו בני האלהים את בנות האדם כי טבת הנה ויקחו להם נשים מכל אשר בחרו

(ג) ויאמר יקוק לא ידון רוחי באדם לעלם בשגם הוא בשר והיו ימיו מאה ועשרים שנה

These verses raise many questions. Who are the Bnei Elohim? Who are the Bnot Adam? What action did the Bnei Elohim and Bnot Adam do that was so sinful that it required such a seemingly harsh punishment from God? And what does the punishment have to do with the sin? And what is the connection, if there is any at all, between this story and the flood narrative which immediately follows it?

There is an argument in Bereishit Rabbah and among medieval commentators as to whether the Bnei Elohim were human beings or some sort of higher beings. If one was to argue that the Bnei Elohim were some sort of higher beings, one could theoretically understand God’s anger at their actions. However, this approach makes God’s reaction and punishment of mankind all the more confusing. The easier explanation is to say that they were human beings, albeit ones with elevated status. Rashi argues that they were sons of judges or other officers.

However, if the Bnei Elohim were regular human beings, what is so problematic about them taking wives and having children? The key to understanding this is in the second of the two verses. The second verse indicates to us that the actions of the Bnei Elohim were not based on mutual feeling. They were unilateral. The men saw beautiful women and took them, without any input from or regard for the women at all.

This is where Rashi’s explanation provides us with such a morally powerful lesson. The people performing these actions weren’t higher spiritual beings. They weren’t even people in positions of authority. They were merely sons of judges and officers. They were people who believed themselves to be in positions of authority. And they used these supposed positions of privilege to take advantage of others.

God’s response is to cut down on man’s privilege. Man up until that point had been allowed to live to a very advanced age. As one grows in age, they often grow in authority, and find their accountability lessening. God needs to put a stop to that. God decides that the only way to stop man from taking advantage of others is to curtail part of his privilege.

However, this problem does not go away, and it eventually leads to more punishment. Whether one translates “חמס” as “thievery” or something else, it still is inherently a sin of one being taking advantage of another, through their property or some other medium.

The flood is meant to stop people from taking advantage of each other. God makes a simple decision here. If there are no people, no one can take advantage of another. However, despite God’s best efforts, even after the flood we see the same problem cropping up again.

Noach, after surviving the flood and exiting the ark, gets drunk off the vineyard he plants and uncovers his nakedness. The next verse tells of how Ham, his son, takes advantage of his nakedness. But the verse is very ambiguous. It doesn’t tell us of anything specific that Ham did. It just says that he viewed his father’s nakedness. Yet for some reason this is bad enough to warrant a curse from his father.

What Ham did is a different form of taking advantage than what we saw with the Bnei Elohim. Ham is not inherently in any particular position of privilege. His father is the one who has degraded himself. Yet Ham’s actions were inappropriate not because of what he did, but rather what he didn’t do. Ham’s brothers, Shem and Yafet, go out of their way to help their father, to cover up his nakedness, after he has lowered himself to such a state. Yet Ham does not think of helping his father. Instead he runs to tell his brothers. One can imagine him reacting as if he had seen something very funny, running to tell his brothers while giggling “come, look at this!”

In the past couple of weeks, we have sadly seen the problem of taking advantage of others become a major issue in the Modern Orthodox community. It is incumbent upon us to remember that we, as human beings, have no right to take advantage of others. This applies whether we are in a position of authority, or even if someone around us has done something degrading to themselves. Our constant thoughts need to be on how we can help others and make their lives better, not selfishly on how we can help ourselves and make our own lives better. Even if a person uncovers their own nakedness, that does not give another the right to exploit it.

Ezra Newman is from Silver Spring, MD and is a junior at Cornell University majoring in Near Eastern Studies.

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Understanding the Tower of Babel through Visual Art

The fourteenth-century Flemish painter Jan Beerbohm (born in Germany, Beerbohm emigrated to Flanders to study under Rubens) considered “The Tower of Babel” his masterpiece. In that work, the partially built tower, which looks like a blade aimed at the heavens, is surrounded by scenes of pastoral calm and interpersonal beauty. Two lovers carry bricks together through a field of flowers; children play cooperative games, some of them helping to mix mortar; a son helps an aged father push a wheelbarrow. The Edenic perfection of the scene, however, is marred by a thick streak of gray paint down the right side of the painting.

Some critics argue that the streak is an accidental error and should be scraped off, restoring the picture to the aesthetic perfection Beerbohm intended. Others, however, point out that Beerbohm was deeply religious, while the painting allots such beauty to the Babel culture that G-d Himself seems petulant to have disrupted it. The gray streak, they claim, was a deliberate effort to show that the portrait was superficial, that the culture must have been flawed in some presently unrecognized way. Some more pious critics concede the implausibility of this thesis, but argue instead that after the streak occurred accidentally, Beerbohm recognized it as a Divine message and left it intact. Finally, some moderns have suggested that the gray represents conformity, that the flaw of the Babel culture was that all its creativity was directed toward a communal project which left no room for individuality. They point out that the characters are seen only from the back, and that all of them wear identical clothing.

In 1952, Eric Bar Ilan transformed Beerbohm’s work by reimagining the Tower as a windmill. Here the tower itself is unremarkable, but the blades of the unassembled rotor are planted vertically so that they stab both into the ground and toward the heavens.

Most interpreters understand the mill as representing industry, like “the brick that replaced rock” in the Tower’s construction. Perhaps this is a Cold War image, and G-d intervenes lest humanity develop the technological capacity to destroy itself. In that case He seems not to have succeeded in the long run.

To my mind, however, Bar Ilan’s work actually refers to the windmill in Orwell’s Animal Farm that the dictatorial pig Napoleon has the animals continually build, but stealthily pulls down whenever it nears completion. Napoleon’s windmill represents a strategy of the totalitarian state, which is to justify current suffering and cruelty by subordinating the present to a messianic future. Bar Ilan creatively argues that the architects never intended that the Tower reach the heavens; rather, they deliberately set their population an infinite task. G-d in this vision is a liberator. Bar Ilan’s work tracks the Rabbinic reading of Babel as the birthplace of Nimrod’s empire, with Avraham Avinu as the persecuted dissenter.

A more esoteric literary reference is at the heart of a recent installation piece by the punk kabbalist Hava N., who builds her Tower out of piles of paper. On each paper is written either “brick” or “mortar,” in a pattern roughly parallel to standard bricklaying. Another pile, off to the side, is composed of papers labeled “rock,” and next to it is a sort of puddle of “tars.” Finally there is a single scrap on its own labeled “Ragle Gumm.”

Ragle Gumm is the protagonist of Phillip K. Dick’s “Time Out of Joint,” which memorably notes that “Ragle Gumm was going sane.” Gumm’s developing sanity involved recognizing that the world he experienced as physical actually consisted of pieces of paper with words written on them. He had been conditioned to see the reality described by those words whenever he read them.

What is N.’s piece saying? Perhaps, as Rabbi Nachman Levine has argued elsewhere, the Tower itself is a metaphor for language, the ultimate human construction. G-d creates through speech, and asserts control by naming; it is only through the language of power and the power of language that human beings might even imagine challenging Him. Words are more real than things.

But I think that doesn’t go far enough. Hava N.’s deeper point is that the post-Babel world is insane because it sees language as arbitrary. If language is arbitrary, why does G-d name things? Why does He care what names Adam gave the animals? To go sane is to resonate to the language of Creation.

For a Jewish mystic, this is not wholly a good thing. The truly sane understand that only the undifferentiated G-d exists, and that all distinction is illusion. But G-d has given us that illusion, and we do not necessarily gain by losing the capacity to see it, as if we had only x-ray vision.

For Maimonides, human beings fell when Eve exchanged truth for beauty. But perhaps we can suggest a more generous reading. Eve fell by mistaking beauty for truth, but there is value in recognizing beauty while acknowledging that it is illusory. Genesis 2:9 writes that G-d brought forth in the Garden “all trees nechmad l’mar’eh,” after all, whereas Eve saw the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil as “nechmad lehaskil.

Shabbat shalom!

P.S. All visual and plastic artists and artworks cited in the above d’var Torah are fictional. (Reprinted from 2013)

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The Origins of Human Deception and Divine Disclosure in Sefer Bereishit

Beginning with this week’s parsha, we are proud and honored to be publishing CMTL alumni divrei torah every week. This week’s dvar torah is by Aliza Libman Baronofsky

Is it in the nature of humans to be truthful?

The human beings created in Genesis Chapter 2 blame others. They lie. They obfuscate. How could beings infused with the Divine spirit stray so rapidly and so completely?

I suggest that the theme of human deceit and trickery pervading the book of Genesis parallels the episodes where God discloses, reveals, and lays plain his goals, objectives and plans. God discloses; people deceive. With proper treatment, these four words can form an overarching schema that underlies and informs every story in the book.

The first critical scene of human deception occurs after Adam and Chava eat the fruit. In a childlike manner, they hide from God (Genesis 3:8):

ויתחבא האדם ואשתו, מפני יהוה אלהים, בתוך, עץ הגן

Do they think they can do so successfully? Or is the impulse to run away from one’s mistakes an innate characteristic? Adam has not been conditioned in this regard. He knows nothing of consequence and punishment, yet he hides to cover his tracks.

When God pursues Adam and says “איכה”, “Where are you?,” he responds “את-קלך שמעתי בגן” “I heard your voice in the Garden.” The wordplay is striking. Most other places the words “שמע” and ”קול” appear juxtaposed, they refer to heeding or listening, most notably in 3:17. Hashem punishes Adam because he listened to his wife (“שמעת לקול אשתך”) when he should have listened to God, a fact that becomes readily apparently when Adam hears the voice of God (“את-קלך שמעתי”). 

Further, when Adam and Chava eat from the tree, God expresses a concern that they have become like divine beings (Genesis 3:22): “הן האדם היה כאחד ממנו, לדעת, טוב ורע” Knowledge of good and evil makes us become divine. How is this then connected to the human impulse to lie, to hide, to blame others?

The second critical story of human deception comes to expand on and illuminate its predecessor. In Genesis 3, one could argue that Adam did not actually lie, strictly speaking. He hides from God and blames his wife. But he does not actually lie.

In Genesis 4, God intervenes early, but the humans don’t act any better. When Cain’s sacrifice is rejected by the Lord, God speaks to him. Psukim 6-7 are incredibly difficult to interpret but amount to some sort of warning by God to Cain to avoid sin, which is lying in wait. Just as God told Adam and Chava to refrain from eating from the Tree of Knowledge, he warns their son Cain to avoid the temptations of jealousy.

The story plays out in a predictable way. Cain, like his parents, gives in to sin. God asks him, too, a question by way of confrontation. Cain, too, gives an answer that is meant to deflect his guilt. The famous “השמר אחי אנכי” – “Am I my brother’s keeper?” can be seen as more deceptive than his parents’ reply – Adam and Chava blame others for their wrongdoing, but don’t attempt to cover it up. Once they realize they cannot hide from God, the jig is up and they don’t deny what they ate.

The two sins might seem unrelated, but they both involve trespass onto the parts of the divine that are not ours by right. This explains God’s comments in 3:22 as well as the terrible nature of Cain’s sin – only God decides who may live and who may die. In both stories, therefore people wish to be like God in precisely the ways that are not permitted to them, while refraining from emulating His straightforward honesty.

From these early stories, it would seem that the urge to lie, to deny, and to cover one’s tracks is primal. These urges are an animal part of human existence that derive from a desire for self-preservation. And because these urges are instinct, they can presumably be overcome by those with the self-control that God demands of man. God himself tells Cain, “הלוא אם-תיטיב, שאת”, which can be interpreted as a promise that if people try, they can conquer their emotions. After all, Cain is at this moment angry that his offering was not accepted. God has come to intervene because of Cain’s emotional state. He is telling Cain, “You know what the right thing to do is.” Yet Cain knowingly chooses the wrong thing and believes, for a time, that he can successfully cover it up.

Alternatively, we can posit that if humans had never eaten of the Tree of Knowledge, they would not have known that they could lie, and would have remained in the garden, with eternal life, but without the divine knowledge of good and evil. In this second scenario, humans would have been both more like the animals they rule (lacking the knowledge from the Tree) but also more divine in their purer existence in the garden.

As we read the rest of Sefer Bereishit, we see this template repeated: God clarifies the criteria for success and warns people not to violate the boundaries He has set out, but His creations lie and trick and cheat, resulting in their centuries of slavery in Egypt.

Is there a remedy to our baser instincts or are we doomed to sin, to lie and to cover up? Certainly, we can conclude by suggesting that God is truth, and the pursuit of God is therefore the pursuit of truth. Towards the end of this week’s parsha, we begin to see this remedy pursued in the description of the birth of Enoch: “’אז הוחל, לקרא בשם ה” (Genesis 4:26). We must call out in the name of the Lord and strive to be like Him in the ways that are permitted to us. With Rosh Hashana not far in our rearview mirror, it behooves us to focus on honesty, including straightforwardness and integrity in our personal relationships and business dealings, for these are the lessons of Sefer Bereishit that we should internalize.

Aliza Libman Baronofsky (SBM’06) teaches Chumash and math at the Maimonides School in Brookline,  MA.

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A Talmudic Motion to Retry the Snake

G-d to Adam: Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?!

Adam: The woman that you placed together with me – she gave me from the tree, and I ate.

G-d to Eve: What have you done!?

Eve: The snake seduced-me-astray, and I ate.

G-d to the snake: Because you did this, you are cursed . . .

There is a rhythm to this dialogue, of increasing impatience. G-d asks Adam an extended question, receives an extended answer; asks Eve a curt question, receives a curt response; asks the snake no question at all, and no response is recorded. Read k’b’yakhol (as if it were possible) psychologically, the Torah makes no statement about relative guilt or innocence. The snake receives no opportunity to defend itself simply because G-d has heard too many excuses already. Anyway, all three defendants are punished, and we have no way of knowing whether Adam and Eve’s displacements of responsibility lessened or worsened their punishments.

Or: The snake had nothing to say in self-defense. Or: The snake sincerely repented and was prepared to accept the consequences of its actions. Or: The snake was unwilling to legitimate what it saw as an unjust and biased forum by speaking. Or: The snake was so powerful a rhetor that G-d could not allow it to speak, lest He be swayed, or: lest the audience in His court be corrupted, (fallen angels are not unknown to Jewish tradition). But are those fears legitimate reasons to silence a defendant? In this, the first trial in history, should the Judge of all the land not do justice?

Rav Shmuel bar Natan, citing Rabbi Yonatan (Sanhedrin 29a), goes yet one step further. “How do we know that one does not make arguments on behalf of a seducer-to-idolatry? From the primeval snake.” Not only did the snake not get to speak in self-defense, G-d did not argue on its behalf. The clear implication is that G-d had valid arguments to make for the defense, but did not make them, and G-d’s behavior is a proper model for our own behavior in trials of seducers-to-idolatry. Perhaps the intention is that one should not make purely technical arguments on behalf of a seducer-to-idolatry, but of course one must make arguments that suggest the accusation is false. Still, this is dangerous territory.

The Talmud relates Rav Shmuel bar Natan’s position to a statement of Rabbi Simlai, but Rabbi Simlai seems to point in quite different directions: “The snake had many arguments to make, but did not make them. Why did The Holy Blessed One not make the arguments for him? Because he did not make the arguments.” Here it seems clear that the snake chose not to speak. But what is the sense of G-d being silent because the snake was? Had the snake spoken, no Divine argument would have been necessary!

The common assumption of Rav Shmuel bar Natan and Rabbi Simlai is that there is a technically valid defense for the snake. If the snake represents the eternal yetzer hora, perhaps that defense should remain unstated. But the Talmud chooses to state it nonetheless. “What could he have said? ‘If the words of the master and the words of the disciple contradict, whose words must one heed? The words of the disciple.’” Human beings always have the direct responsibility to obey G-d, and nothing anyone says should be able to persuade them otherwise. We sin only when we choose to be persuaded, and no one else should be held responsible for our choices.

This allows a new explanation of Rav Shmuel bar Natan. Perhaps the only argument that we may not make on behalf of a seducer-to-idolatry is that he—and by implication, we—cannot be held to account for the effects of our own decisions on those of other people. Freedom and influence can coexist.

Tosafot point out, however, that every talmudically knowledgeable seducer-to-sin can now make the argument themselves. Surely we cannot wish to punish only the ignorant seducers! Their response is that the snake had not been directly commanded not to seduce-to-idolatry, and so could be held liable only for consequences, whereas post-Sinai Jews have been so commanded, and so are liable for disobeying   G-d regardless of the success of their attempts at seduction. (This may be hyper-technical casuistry, or fascinating moral philosophy, or both.)

But Tosafot’s position is difficult to square with the Talmud’s use of this argument elsewhere as the basis for the rule אין שליח לדבר עבירה, which exempts principals for crimes committed by agents at their behest.

A note to Siftei Kohen (Choshen Mishpat 32:3) brings this discussion back to our narrative. If a principal sends an agent to damage someone else’s property, only the agent can be sued. But does the principal have any moral responsibility? The note argues:

  1. moral responsibility is idiomatically described as חייב בדיני שמים (liable in the Heavenly court);
  2. the snake was surely tried in the Heavenly court;
  3. the Talmud says that this argument would have worked to get the snake acquitted.

Therefore the argument works in Heavenly court, and so principals do not bear even moral responsibility for the damage caused by their agents.

A note to Mishneh l’Melekh (Laws of Murder 2:2) sharply limits this claim. It argues (on the basis of Kiddushin 43a) that principals escape moral responsibility only if the agent directly and immediately derives benefit from sin, and they do not, as for example when the agent eats a forbidden food: “We have never found in the Torah that A benefits and B is held liable.”

But this seems morally tone-deaf. The evil of the seducer-to-sin is magnified, not diminished, when the seducer has no motive other than causing the agent to sin. Moreover, both notes to my mind are literarily tone-deaf. The core assumption of Rav Shmuel bar Natan is that the trial of the snake is a valid model for human justice.

Tosafot and Ritva offer additional qualifications. Tosafot notes that the principal is liable for an agent’s sin of meilah (misuse of sanctified objects) because the sin actually happens before the benefit, when the object is picked up with malicious intent. Ritva asserts that the principal is liable if the seduction took the form of action rather than mere speech.

Rabbi Meir Shapiro dazzlingly reads these legal discussions into our narrative. His starting point is that since the Torah describes the snake as the slyest of creatures, it would certainly have thought of all available legal arguments, and made them. So why did it mistakenly believe that this argument was unavailable?

In Genesis 3:3, Eve tells the snake that G-d had ordered the humans not to touch the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil lest they die. (She was apparently misinformed by Adam, who disastrously added a “Rabbinic” prohibition when instructing her without making clear that he had done so.) Why is this error relevant to the story? Rabbinic tradition records that the snake physically shoved Eve against the tree. When she did not die, she lost faith, and was willing to eat too.

What the snake correctly guessed, and Eve did not, was that G-d did not mean that violating His command would lead to immediate death; He meant only that it would make them mortal. (I hope in some future context to address why the snake understood G-d better than Eve did.) But the snake believed, with Eve, that G-d had forbidden touching the tree.

So at the trial, the snake thought that the sin happened when Eve touched the tree, and that it had caused her sin through its action. Under those circumstances, if one accepts Tosafot and Ritva, the argument that Eve should have listened to the master rather than the disciple was unavailable.

G-d, however, knew that the sin was the eating, meaning that Eve derived benefit from the sin, and so the snake should not have been held liable according to Mishneh l’Melekh. Further, her eating came as the result of the snake’s words (in 3:5; the shove happens between 3:4 and 3:5), not its actions, and so the snake should not have been liable according to Ritva either. But G-d chose not to enlighten the snake.

If the snake reads Talmud, a motion for retrial is doubtless on file.

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Sukkot 2014

For some Sukkot Torah, please see our Torah archive:

1. Sukkah Mats

2. Hiddur Mitzvah

Chag Sameach!

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