Skip to content

Parashat 03/09/2011

Parashat Vayikra

by Robert Rabinoff

El petach Ohel Mo’ed yakriv oto lirtzono lifnei H”

He shall bring it to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, voluntarily, before H” (1:3 Artscroll translation)

Rashi comments on our verse: He shall bring: This teaches that we coerce him.  You might think it means against his will, but Scripture says voluntarily.  How do we reconcile these two contradictory ideas?  We coerce him until he says ‘I want to.’

This notion of coercing someone until he says “I want to” has a very important contemporary application.  A Jewish divorce must be given by the husband, and must be given voluntarily.  This gives the husband a great deal of leverage in a divorce proceeding, for the woman is unable to remarry without the divorce.  Our Sages, in part to mitigate this disparity, legislated that under certain circumstances a man must divorce his wife and pay her the marriage settlement (ketuvah).  If he refuses, Rambam rules that “we coerce him until he says ‘I want to.'”  In modern times, it is unfortunately the case that men will divorce their wives through the civil courts, but refuse to give a get (Jewish divorce), leaving the wife in halachic limbo.  Some states (New York in particular) have tried to address this situation through legislation, but it is not clear that such legislation would pass constitutional muster.  In Israel, where Jewish law has a more prominent place, it should be easier to address such situations, but unfortunately this has not happened to any great extent.  There are Rabbinic authorities who do not accept the idea that a “coerced” get is valid, even if he does say “I want to.”  Since a remarriage after an invalid divorce renders any children of the second union illegitimate (mamzerim) and unable ever to marry into the Jewish community, the stakes are extremely high, as are passions on both sides of the issue.

I would like to consider some of the philosophical implications of this idea that “we coerce him until he says ‘I want to.'”  The standard reconciliation that one finds is this.  Every Jew wants to do the right thing – that is, to align his individual will with the Divine Will.  The yetzer hara (inclination to do wrong), seated in the body and its physical desires, is the barrier that keeps us from doing what we really, in our heart of hearts, want to do.  The purpose of physical coercion is simply to break down the barriers standing between our true will and our expressed will.  The root cause of misalignment between the individual will and the Divine Will is the attachment of the purely spiritual soul to the physical body, and it is this attachment that the physical coercion is designed to break.

I heard a story of two Chassidim in a concentration camp that illustrates this principle.  The guards needed some amusement, so they forced one of the men to strip and immerse himself in a barrel of carbolic acid.  Although it was terribly painful, or perhaps because it was terribly painful, the Chasid refused to come out of the barrel.  When his friend finally got him out he said that while he was in the barrel he felt especially close to Gd; his attachment to his physical body was weakened to a great extent and his spirit was able to connect to its source, without the material world’s pulling him down.  Don’t try this at home.

R. A. Leib Scheinbaum (Peninim on the Torah, 15th Series) brings an analogy from the Chasam Sofer (R. Moshe Sofer, 19th century leader of Hungarian Jewry) that approaches this issue from a different angle.  Consider a person who needs to bring an offering to obtain atonement for some sin.  He lives some distance from Jerusalem and will have to go to considerable expense and take much time off from work to make the trip.  He has to fight against all the excuses and rationalizations that his yetzer hara will bring to bear.  Finally he makes it to Jerusalem and brings his offering to the Temple.  There he is overwhelmed by the sanctity of the place, the Kohanim making the offerings, the Levites engaged in sacred song, the Israelites attending the services.  At this point, he has transcended his yetzer hara; he wants to bring his offering and to draw close to the Master of this house.  The coercion is, as it were, not physical force on his physical body, but the light of Gd working on his soul, making him say “I want to.”

Our Western culture has a notion that human beings are by nature sinful, a nature that reflects the “original sin” of Adam and Eve when they ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden.  The view of human nature that is reflected in the aspect of Jewish thought that we have been discussing is absolutely opposite.  The essential nature of every human being is infinite, pure, holy – as we say in the daily morning liturgy – Elokai han’shamah shenatata bi t’horah hi – My Gd, the soul you have put in me is pure.  When Adam and Eve ate of the Tree of Knowledge they attached this pure soul to the material body (see Malbim to Bereishit) – prior to this the body was like a cloak that the soul could don or slip out of at will.  Now we have to work at breaking, or perhaps better, dissolving that attachment so the soul is once again free to enjoy its infinite, pure status.  It seems like hard work now.  But when it is done, and our soul is free, we will understand that we wanted to all along.