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Parashat BeHar 5774 — 04/07/2014

Parashat BeHar 5774 — 04/07/2014

If a foreigner who is a settler among you acquires means… (Vayikra 25:47)

…after being sold, he shall be redeemed… (Vayikra 25:48)

…based on his years [in servitude until the Jubilee], he shall repay [the amount for] his redemption… (Vayikra 25:52)

…and if he is not redeemed by these means, then he shall go free in the jubilee Year. (Vayikra 25:54)

From this parshah we learn that a person should never give up hope about the coming of the ultimate Redemption [of the Jewish People], and neither should he ask, with skepticism, “How can our generation possibly merit the Redemption when past generations – that were much stronger regarding Torah and mitzvot – did not?

   [So too, regarding our current exile.] Had we generated half of the necessary merits, we would have been redeemed in half the time [decreed for this exile]. And if, Gd forbid, we were to have no merits at all (which actually is inconceivable), still, our exile will eventually end b’itah – “in its time” (Yeshayahu 60:22), for its duration was pre-determined. The Redemption will come “in its time” even if Klal Yisrael has no merits at all, just as a Jew sold as a slave eventually goes free, even if no redemption money at all is given to his master, for the Torah has decreed that after a certain time [i.e. when the jubilee Year comes], the slave must go free, for Hashem says, Because Bnei Yisrael are servants [only] to Me (Vayikra 25:55)

   Clearly, therefore, a person should not find it difficult to believe that the Redemption can come in our generation even though previous generations, that were much more righteous than ours, did not merit it. To merit the Redemption in previous generations, the Jews of those times would have had to bring forth tremendous merits – sufficient to make unnecessary all of the decreed years of exile that still remained and were needed to gain atonement for the nation’s sins. The debt was too large and the merits that they had to offer did not suffice. Now that we have reached our generation, however – and during the many years between then and now that the Jewish People has been scattered all over the world and has suffered so much – there is no doubt that all of this has largely cleansed us of our sins. We can thus hope that very soon, the End will be revealed and the Redemption will come.  (Chafetz Chaim)

We have a tradition that when somebody speaks in a derogatory manner about someone else (lashon hara – the Chafetz Chaim dedicated his life to eradicating lashon hara from the Jewish people) the speaker is “credited” with all the negativity of the person he is speaking about, and the victim is credited with all the merits of the speaker.  I mentioned this to a Rabbi I know and he commented that it all seemed too mechanical to him.  I do tend to agree with him, and the sheer volume of derogatory speech prevalent in our society would create a kind of Mix-Master effect on our sins and our mitzvot to the extent that personal responsibility for our actions would be almost lost!

Nonetheless, it is certainly true that there is almost a mechanical reckoning of plusses and minuses all throughout the Rabbinic literature.  In Pirke Avot, R. Akiva is quoted as saying that everything depends on the preponderance of deeds, good or bad (3:19).  Rambam tells us that we need to view ourselves – and the entire universe as a matter of fact – as having exactly a 50-50 split between merits and demerits, so that our next action will tip the scales one way or the other.  And the Chafetz Chaim invokes a set of “accounting principles” that govern the duration (and perhaps the intensity) of Divine retribution upon us as a result of our sins.  How are we to understand this?

We do know of one area of life that is, apparently, quite mechanical in its operation, and that is the realm of the laws of nature.  The laws of nature operate with exacting precision, and with complete disregard for personalities, morality, extenuating circumstances or anything external to purely physical considerations.  If we step off a cliff we are going to come to a bad end no matter who we are or how much Heavenly “credits” or “debits” we may have on account.

The laws of nature are associated with the Divine Attribute of strict justice (Midat haDin).  (This attribute is associated in Rabbinic thought with the Divine Name Elokim, which has a numerical value of 86, the same as hateva, which means nature.)  The Midrash tells us that Gd tried to create the world using only the attribute of strict justice, but found that it could not endure.  The reason for this is that the central part of Gd’s plan of creation was a creature that could come to know Gd of its own free will (that is, human beings).  Now for a creature to have a will that is really free, it must be able to use it in a way that is contrary to Gd’s Will, and for which the Attribute of strict justice can logically and reasonably demand that the individual has forfeited his right to continued existence.  In order to allow human beings to grow to a point where they no longer choose to violate Gd’s Will, justice has to be tempered with Divine Mercy (Midat haRachamim).  Note that when describing Creation of the physical world in the first chapter of Bereshit (Genesis), Torah uses only the Divine Name Elokim, while in the chapters in Leviticus describing the offerings, which atone for our sins, Torah uses only the Tetragrammaton, which is the Divine Name associated with Mercy.

Nonetheless, Justice is only tempered with Mercy; it is not completely overthrown, any more than we could live in a world where gravity operated capriciously or the charge on the electron varied from day to day.  If we do something positive, it produces positive influences in our surroundings, and vice versa.  When those surroundings react to our influences, we perceive the results as either good feelings (in the case of positive influences) or suffering (if the influence is not positive).  Looked at another way, if we emit a positive influence, our surroundings become more perfect to some degree, and we enjoy the influence of that harmony and perfection.  In the case the Chafetz Chaim is discussing, our forebears in the days of the Second Temple apparently created enough negative influences that there was quite a backlog of disruption and turbulence that it was going to take quite a while to set it right again.  Had we been able to produce much greater positive influence than we actually were, that healing process might have taken a much shorter time.  Now, almost 2000 years later, we have been slowly chipping away at that backlog; apparently it must be almost gone, for we are told that our final Redemption is immanent (and indeed we have been privileged to see the miracle of the birth of the State of Israel and the renewal of Jewish sovereignty in our Land).

Our Sages tell us that when Ya’akov Avinu was on his deathbed, he tried to tell his sons what would happen in the “end of days,” but his prophetic spirit left him.  They further tell us that “he who tries to calculate the End [i.e. when Mashiach will come], it were better for him had he never been born.”  Apparently there are many, many factors which go into Gd’s calculations, including the application of the Attribute of Mercy to temper the action of the laws of nature.  What is given to us are the guidelines for proper living, so that we can, to whatever extent possible, produce only positive influences in the environment, influences which will repair the damage done in the past.  If we follow those guidelines, Gd willing, we will all see Gd’s return to Zion to usher in an age of complete peace and harmony.

A Dear Son to Me

Essay 3: Nationalist Fanaticism (1984)

Although this brief essay was written 30 years ago, it would be valuable reading for those trying to deal with Iran and other countries like Iran.  A nation led by religious fanatics is dangerous and unsettling, for its assumptions and motivations are unlike the more rational calculations of national interest of secular nations.  A religious person is naturally motivated by what he or she perceives to be a spiritual reality, and will strive to maximize rewards in the spiritual realm, even if that means giving up something in the material realm.  (In practice of course, it generally means the leaders of the country persuading, or forcing, others to give up material rewards in return for spiritual gain.)  Nonetheless, since every religion has its laws and boundaries, there is a limit to what such a regime can and will do, and they can be dealt with on those terms.  (An example would be R. Menashe ben Israel’s convincing Cromwell to readmit Jews to England based on religious notions of what is necessary to bring the “Second Coming.”)

The difficulty comes when an extremist religious government also becomes a Western-nationalist government.  In this case, the Machiavellian secular behavior is not trammeled by religious scruples, nor is the extremist religious behavior trammeled by rational, political calculations.  R. Steinsaltz concludes:

Such regimes usually destroy themselves, either from the internal uncertainty that stems from the hypocritical application of rules and laws, or by waging war against powers that are too strong for them.  But as long gas they e3xist, these Isalmic-Western hybrids are centers of a spreading malady, and may infect the entire geographical-cultural domain of Islam.

I read or heard at some point a discussion of the 70 bulls offered during Sukkot, based on a teaching of the Gaon of Vilna.  He pointed out that the offerings of the seven days (13 the first day, 12 the second … and 7 on the 7th day) can be divided into two groups based on a slight variation in the verses describing them: 13 + 12 + 10 (= 35) and 7 + 8 + 9 + 11 (= 35).  One set is associated with Esau = Edom = Rome = the West, and the other is associated with Ishmael = the Arab/Muslim world.  The Gaon said that as long as Esau and Ishmael were on opposite sides, the world could survive, but if they ever combined, there would be horrible destruction.  We have, unfortunately, been witness to this very phenomenon, most recently in Syria, where the civil war has claimed well over 100,000 lives and millions have been displaced.  If Iran (Ishmael) is able to build nuclear weapons (Edom), not only Israel, but the whole region will be in grave danger, as will the West.  The West’s weak-kneed response to Iran’s ambitions does not bode well for its future, or ours.