Friday, September 05, 2008

The God Who Made Me (For Parshat Shoftim)

The Talmud in tractate Ta'anit (fol. 20a-b) relates the following story:

תנו רבנן: לעולם יהא אדם רך כקנה ואל יהא קשה כארז. מעשה שבא רבי אלעזר ברבי שמעון ממגדל גדור מבית רבו, והיה רכוב על חמור ומטייל על שפת נהר, ושמח שמחה גדולה, והיתה דעתו גסה עליו מפני שלמד תורה הרבה נזדמן לו אדם אחד שהיה מכוער ביותר. אמר לו: שלום עליך רבי! ולא החזיר לו. אמר לו: ריקה, כמה מכוער אותו האיש! שמא כל בני עירך מכוערין כמותך? אמר לו: איני יודע, אלא לך ואמור לאומן שעשאני כמה מכוער כלי זה שעשית. כיון שידע בעצמו שחטא ירד מן החמור ונשתטח לפניו, ואמר לו: נעניתי לך, מחול לי! - אמר לו: איני מוחל לך עד שתלך לאומן שעשאני ואמור לו כמה מכוער כלי זה שעשית. היה מטייל אחריו עד שהגיע לעירו. יצאו בני עירו לקראתו, והיו אומרים לו: שלום עליך רבי רבי, מורי מורי! אמר להם: למי אתם קורין רבי רבי? - אמרו לו: לזה שמטייל אחריך. אמר להם: אם זה רבי - אל ירבו כמותו בישראל. - אמרו לו: מפני מה? - אמר להם: כך וכך עשה לי. - אמרו לו: אף על פי כן, מחול לו, שאדם גדול בתורה הוא. אמר להם: בשבילכם הריני מוחל לו. ובלבד שלא יהא רגיל לעשות כן. מיד נכנס רבי אלעזר בן רבי שמעון ודרש: לעולם יהא אדם רך כקנה ואל יהא קשה כארז, ולפיכך זכה קנה ליטול הימנה קולמוס לכתוב בו ספר תורה תפילין ומזוזות


Our Rabbis taught: Rabbi Simeon ben Eleazar once came from the house of his teacher in Migdal-G’dor. He was riding leisurely on a donkey along the lakeshore and feeling pleased with himself that he was so learned. While in this mood, he chanced upon a man who was extremely ugly. Rabbi Simeon exclaimed, “Are all the people of your town as ugly as you are?” “Go to the Artisan who made me,” the man replied, “and say to Him: ‘How ugly is this vessel that You have made.’” As soon as Rabbi Simeon realized his error, he got down from his donkey and said to the man as he bowed low before him, “I submit myself to you. Forgive me!” “No!” the man replied. “I will not forgive you until you go to the Artisan who made me and say to Him, ‘How ugly is this vessel that You have made.’”


Rabbi Simeon followed the man until they reached the rabbi’s town. When they arrived there, the people of the town came forward to meet Rabbi Simeon and greeted him with the words “Peace be with you, Master!” The man then asked them, “Whom do you address as Master?” “The one who follows you,” they replied. He said to them, “If this man is a master, may there not be many like him in Israel!” “Why?” they exclaimed. “What did he do to you?” “He did such and such to me,” he answered. “Nevertheless, forgive him,” the people pleaded, “for he is a great scholar.” “I will forgive him,” the man said, “but on the condition that he never acts in this manner again.”


This story contains many important and profound lesson about arrogance, humility, compassion, repentance and forgiveness. On those grounds alone, it is most appropriate to consider during Elul. Unfortunately, in certain quarters, the same passage is frequently invoked in manner that distorts its meaning and undermines a fundamental principle of Judaism.

Allow me to explain.
In the story, R. Shimon humiliates a person because of an inherited physical trait that causes him discomfort and about which he can do nothing. All he can do is accept God's decree and cope the best way that he can. The man's response was a justification of God's decree (צידוק הדין) and (by implication) poses the question that the Rav זצ"ל asked in Kol Dodi Dofek, 'What shall a person do and live with his suffering?' His retort to R. Shimon was a sharp criticism against self-satisfied arrogance and insensitivity to the plight of others.

More recently, though,in order to justify activity that the Torah categorically prohibits, but for which they have a predisposition. Such a situations are tragic, and deserve every profound compassion and emotional support. They raise poignant questions of Theodicy: Why did was this specific person presented with this specific trial?

Indeed, we have no idea why people suffer. Nevertheless, as difficult as life circumstances are,
they do not validate a wholesale violation of the Torah. Individuals may feel impelled to act upon their desires, and transgress. In most cases, they can be seen as acting under coercion (ones). That is a matter between themselves and their Creator, and should remain there. Their actions, albeit, are sinful. They do not, God forbid, turn them into SINNERS, and their mitzvot remain mitzvot.
Actions are not the sum total of one's personna.
Those who invoke R. Eleazar b. Shimon, though, are basically adopting a 'post hoc, propter hoc' attitude. In other words, if God presented a person with forbidden temptations or desires, then that is a sign that He wanted them to be actively satisfied, irrespective of the Torah's interdiction. [What else could the retort: “Go to the Artisan who made me,” the man replied, “and say to Him: ‘How ugly is this vessel that You have made.’” mean in this connection?] In other words, by citing R. Eleazar here, one is arguing for the validation of behaviour that the Torah rejects.

Such a conclusion, such an argument is absolutely unacceptable for any form of Orthodoxy. The categorical rejection, in principle, of any commandment; the creation of social and religious forms that are based upon such a rejection place its advocates outside of Orthodoxy, no matter how modern.
As I said before, one's relationship with God is private, and how one lives up to the challenges that He places before us is even more private. Indeed, according to the Rambam, one may publically announce neither one's piety or one's transgressions (cf. Rambam, Hilkhot Teshuvah II, 5). One may not globally reject or condemn a person, within that context.
However, any attempt to regularize or normalize values that are absolutely and axiologically contrary to the Torah should not be entertained, under any circumstance. In such cases, as Rav Soloveitchik זצ"ל famously declared, we are commanded to surrender to His inscrutible Will. As painful, as difficult, as unfathomable as His decision is, we are His servants must bend to His Will (and not, God forbid, vice versa).
That is the upshot of the most famous verses in this week's parsha (Deut. 17, 8-13):
If there arise a matter too hard for you in judgment, between blood and blood, between plea and plea, and between stroke and stroke, even matters of controversy within thy gates; then shall you arise, and betake yourself up to the place which HaShem thy G-d shall choose.
And you shall come to the priests the Levites, and to the judge that shall be in those days; and you shalt inquire; and they shall declare to you the sentence of judgment.
And you shall act according to the ruling, which they shall declare to you from that place which HaShem shall choose; and you shall act in accordance with all that they shall teach you. According to the law which they shall teach you, and according to the judgment which they shall tell you, yuu shalt do; you shall not deviate from the sentence which they shall declare unto you, to the right hand, nor to the left.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

you know, the rabbi's line about being as pliable as a reed seems to be a further condemnation of his interlocutor's behavior rather than a reflection of his own.

Jeffrey said...

I am really sorry, but I don't a have a clue as to what you want to say...

Anonymous said...

sorry. what i mean to say is that the rabbi does not seem to contrite about his remark/behavior, instead using his platform to further chastise his interlocutor. hope that's clearer.