In this week’s parasha, Va’Etchanan, Moses reminds the Israelites of the laws and statutes that God has commanded them to follow. Special emphasis is placed on the importance of continuing to perform them after Moses’ death and after the conquest of the land of Canaan. Without Moses’s charismatic leadership, our people would need to find other motivations for obedience to God’s laws. Moses gives us one: “You shall keep them and perform them, for it is your wisdom and discernment in the eyes of the nations, that they will hear all of these statutes and they will say, behold a wise and discerning people is this great nation” (Deuteronomy 4:6). That is, God’s laws are wise, and if we follow them, other people will consider us to be wise. ...Of course, “You Jews are so wise for not eating pork,” said no one, ever. The Torah’s claim does not seem to match reality. Further, how, many Jews have ever said, “Every fall, I am commanded to march around the synagogue with leaves and a citrus fruit. God’s laws are so wise!”?
One way to resolve this apparent contradiction is the Talmudic approach. The Talmud (Shabbat 75a) asks, “What is wisdom and discernment in the eyes of the nations?” and answers: learning astronomy (my apologies to Humanities people). Learning to calculate the motions of the sun and moon is in fact a commandment, or at least a necessary preparation for performing the commandment of counting the months and leap years. The context, and especially the use of “them” implying multiple commandments, makes it difficult to accept that our verse is only about the commandment to learn astronomy.
Maimonides (12th Century Spain and Egypt), in his Guide for the Perplexed (3:31), says that all of the commandments are wise and beneficial. It is on us to figure out how. However, this explanation seems lacking--the verse says that the other nations will hear our statutes and laws and consider us wise. It doesn’t say that they will read the 613 PhD theses written by Jewish professors on the wisdom of each of the commandments and then say, “Oh, yes, those are wise, and the Jews must be such a wise and discerning people.” So how do the commandments themselves demonstrate their (and our) wisdom?
The Rashba (Solomon ben Aderet, 13th Century Spain), has a third solution which, I think, helps to make sense of the Talmud’s solution as well as Maimonides’. The Rashba teaches that we must trust that all of the Torah’s laws are wise. However, only some appear wise. Neither we, nor others observing us, have the infinite intelligence to understand the reasoning behind every last commandment. But some commandments do seem obviously wise, and he lists four examples: charity, honoring parents, refraining from theft, and praising God. When we perform these commandments properly, both others observing us, as well as our own doubting inner monologue, will notice that some of the laws are wise. After recognizing that some laws are wise, we may then come to trust that the other laws must be wise as well. Taking the Rashba’s perspective, the Talmud is not claiming that Moses is simply motivating us to learn astronomy.
Rather, the Talmud suggests that Moses is instructing us that, when we establish ourselves in the Land and are observed by outside nations, we should emphasize those commandments which line up with the values and actions that the other nations consider to be wise. In Talmudic times, it was astronomy. In the Rashba’s time, it was charity. Perhaps, in Maimonides’ time, it was learning Torah by turning it into a philosophically complete system. If we focus on emphasizing the commandments which are obviously wise in our own day and age, and use our appreciation of those commandments to motivate us to perform the other commandments with vervor, the people around us will begin to trust that all of the commandments are wise.
Of course, as the Rashba points out, this is also effective against our own internal doubts (our yetzer ha’ra). Personally, I do not have the intelligence to see the wisdom in every commandment. But I do have the wisdom to see it in some. Following the Rashba, I can start by trying to perform those commandments, and through them, begin to create a relationship with the Torah. From there, I can learn to grow and trust the system, so much so that I come to assiduously perform more and more of the commandments, knowing that they too must be wise, even if I have not yet come to understand the wisdom. Over time, I will come to see wisdom in parts of the Torah I previously thought lacked it. Of course, it can go the other way too: over time, I might stop seeing wisdom in parts of the Torah where I originally saw it. However, once I have developed trust for the Torah, I will eventually come to embrace all of it, even as I continue to try--and sometimes fail--to see the wisdom in all of it. Hopefully, so too will the people who see me practicing Torah. Of course, in order to convince myself and others through my actions that the Torah is wise, I must approach the Torah not with the haughtiness of practicing a system I trust to be wise, but with the humility of not having the wisdom to yet fully understand the system. And when a part of Torah continually fails the wisdom test both for myself and others, I must be open to assuming I was not understanding the Torah correctly. With such a relationship with Torah, I pray others can one day look at me and say, “What a wise and discerning person he is.” May we all merit to find parts of the Torah we find to be wise, and may we use those parts to help us develop a relationship with the entire Torah.
Shabbat Shalom - שבת שלום
At the beginning of parashat Devarim, Moses recalls how he created a system of judges so that the burden of leadership would be more evenly distributed, and lays out the foundations of the Israelite justice system (Deuteronomy 1:9-18). In Deuteronomy 1:17, he instructs: “Do not show favoritism in judgement, hear out the small like the large; do not fear a person, for judgement is God’s.” The terms “small” (קטון) and “large” (גדול) are ambiguous. Based on the beginning of the verse - the charge not to show favoritism - the plain meaning is that one should judge people of high and low status equally within the same case. However, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 8a) understands “small” and “large” to be the monetary value of different cases. The Talmud explains the implications of its interpretation: a judge should not order cases by the amount of money on which each rides. Instead, a judge should take cases in the order in which they appear. In fact, the actual language of the Talmud (attributed to Reish Lakish) is that a case of small monetary value should be as dear to a judge as one of large monetary value.
Rabbi Shmuel Eidels, the great Talmudic commentator of 16th century Poland, writes that it should be obvious that cases are taken in the order in which they arrive. I assume he means that, given all of the warnings the Torah gives to judges about not showing favoritism, there should not need to be a specific law directing judges to prioritize cases based on when they arrive rather than on their size. However, Rabbi Eidels suggests that the Torah does need this more specific prohibition because, at least in his world, judges were paid for their time. They were more likely to be able to collect their full payment from claimants in a large monetary case - more likely to be people who deal with large sums of money - than from claimants in a small court case. Therefore, the Torah warns that even though a judge might not receive a large reward, or even their just reward, by taking cases in the order in which they are received, a judge should forgo worrying about receiving proper payment and instead give equal priorities to all cases.
Modern judges are usually salaried and do not have this same concern. However, this Talmudic law might extend to many other professions and situations in life. Many times, when I have been in a conversation with one person and seen another person across the room with whom a conversation would be of great benefit to me, I have attempted to delay the first conversation to speak to the second person. At times, I have paid attention to a conversation only proportionally to how much it can help me, minimizing the needs to the person speaking with me. Hopefully, I am the only person guilty of this, but I doubt it. In our parasha, the Torah reminds me how wrong this kind of behaviour is.
Of course, this rule has limits. The Talmud in tractate Sh’vuot (30a) teaches that one should prioritize the cases of Torah scholars over other cases. The commentators dispute whether this only applies if two cases arrive before a judge simultaneously, or if it also covers times when the case which does not involve Torah scholars came to the judge first. Similarly, in our own lives, it is true that one should sometimes prioritize meeting with their boss, parent, or a high ranking official over meeting with others. However, even these choices should be a matter of dispute. The Torah teaches us that, at the end of the day, we should strive to treat each person who wishes to speak with us equally, without worrying about what personal reward we might get as a result. We should, paraphrasing Reish Lakish, make every person who wishes to speak with us as dear to us as the next person. We should focus on the individual people in front of us now, rather than worrying about what other conversations we could be having - even if we think those other conversations might have a bigger impact on our own lives, or even on the the world, in the future. May we be blessed with the kindness and forbearance to treat each person speaking with us with all the respect and attentiveness they deserve.
Shabbat Shalom - שבת שלום
The Talmud (Ta’anit 7a) teaches that Torah studied not for its own sake becomes poison, while Torah studied for its own sake becomes an elixir of life. It also warns us against the category of people known as inappropriate Sages. The point is that Torah by itself does not necessarily create good people. In my view, at a minimum Torah can make someone a good person when joined with wisdom. However, wisdom - including the wisdom to discern whether Torah is for its own sake or someone else’s - is an enigmatic concept. Thankfully, the first of this week’s two parshiyot, Matot, gives us some insight into wisdom.
Parashat Matot begins with a set of laws around vows. While vows seem common in the Biblical world, the Rabbis have a poor view of vows. The Talmud in Nedarim (77b) teaches us that a person who vows commits a sin, even if that person later fulfills their vow. It derives this from a close reading of a different part of the Torah, Deuteronomy 23:23: “If you cease vowing, there will be no sin in you.” It does not state what makes vowing sinful. I propose that a vow is a sin carelessly using words. As we will see, the only way to release someone from a vow is through a person or group of people who show the opposite behavior: those whoarecareful in their use of language. We might conclude that carefully using words and language is a foundation of wisdom.
The beginning of our parasha states, (Numbers 30:3) “A person, if they make a vow to Hashem or swear an oath to restrict themself, they should not profane their word; they should perform all that leaves their mouth.” Shmuel, a second century Sage, derives from this verse that while a person who makes a vow cannot make the vow profane - that is, annul the vow - someone else can. We have a tradition (Nedarim 78a) that a vow can be released by either a single expert - a wise person known in Hebrew as achacham- or three non-experts. In a dissenting view (Bekhorot 37a), Rabbi Judah states that a vow mayonlybe annulled by three people, at least one of whom must be wise.
Our system of annulling vows gives us insight into an important aspect of wisdom. One of the ways to release a vow - in fact, the one our tradition considers to be the way requiring the most wisdom - is to find apetach, an opening. This means that thechachamin question must ask the vow’s originator whether, if they had known such and such would be the effect of their vow, they would have made it in the first place. If the person says they would not have, the vow can be annulled. To be able to ask such questions requires a nuanced and thoughtful sensitivity to language, one that acts both to nullify the vow and demonstrates to the vower how to be more thoughtful about their language in the future. And if a wise person is the only type of person who can perform this nullification by themself, then this kind of sensitivity to the power of words must be part of true wisdom. In the case where an individualchachamcannot be found, we can extrapolate that three people working together are able to create a body that can be as sensitive and discerning about language as a single, wise individual.
As we saw in Nedarim, the Rabbinic tradition sees vows as paradigmatic of poor choices in language. What one says matters, and how one says it matters as well - speech is not something to throw around casually in Jewish tradition. When a person vows, they represent the nadir of thoughtless speech. “Mere words” count. And words said in a serious enough manner, such as invoking the name of God, can become vows or oaths that are dangerously powerful, even permanent.
The only way to revoke these thoughtless words is through wisdom at the level of achacham- at the level of one who is not casual with their speech. A person who makes a vow cannot annul their vow on their own, because they have proven their lack of wisdom by vowing in the first place. But three people who are not necessarily wise on their own can also be worthy to revoke vows. While each may not individually be so careful with their words, three people who are willing to consult and check with one another before making a group statement can be as successful in choosing words with discernment and care as one truly wise person. As we saw earlier, Rabbi Judah takes this one step further. While his view loses, it also has a lesson. He teaches that even the wisest of people are not careful enough in their use of language to annul vows by themselves; even wise people need the checks of others to ensure proper sensitivity to language. That is why a vow, in his view, may only be annulled by a wise person plus two other non-experts.
Taking a lesson from this week’s parasha, we would all do well to better embody wisdom by being more careful in what we say and how we say it. Perhaps we can put a little more prior thought or preparation into our writings, speeches, posts, and conversations. Perhaps we can pause for a moment before expressing ourselves. And perhaps we can check our words with two others before making them more public. May we all merit the wisdom to speak carefully, clearly, and for the sake of Heaven.
Shabbat shalom - שבת של׀מֺ
Reb Joel Goldstein
At the end of last week’s parasha, Pinchas acts as a revolutionary. Zealously and outside of the system of law, he rights what he sees as an injustice against God: Israelite men following Midianite women into idolatry. In the midst of a plague brought on by God’s anger, Pinchas kills an Israelite and Midianite couple who engage in sexual activity in front of the Sanctuary. This quells God’s wrath. Pinchas’ action prevent the plague from wiping out Israel. In this week’s parasha (Numbers 25:12), God grants Pinchas a covenant as a reward. That covenant is shalom: peace. Per the cantillation and Rashi’s commentary, it is not a covenant of peace; rather, peace itself is the covenant. Further, God also grants Pinchas and his descendants eternal priesthood.
Peace is an appropriate reward for Pinchas. His actions, though warranted, moved him outside of the system of Torah law--the system whose primary objective is peace. To save the people, Pinchas had to take radical, violent action. But by doing so, he essentially forfeited his priesthood. We see this in Talmud of the Land of Israel (Sanhedrin 9:7), which teaches us that the Sages sought to excommunicate Pinchas for his actions. He worked outside of the law, and they (understandably) wanted to remove him from the system entirely. Yet in the course of granting Pinchas peace, God also grants Pinchas and his descendents eternal priesthood, returning him to the system of law. In doing so, God instructs Pinchas and revolutionaries everywhere that while revolution is sometimes necessary, it must ultimately lead to a return to--or the creation of--a system of justice whose goal is peace for those who live under it.
The midrash in Sifrei Zuta, following a comment on Pinchas’ reward, explains that Torah is an allegory for peace--as it says in Proverbs 3:17, “All of its paths are peace.” By giving Pinchas this peace-covenant, God essentially gave Pinchas Torah, which is the instruction of a code of law. When Pinchas acted violently and outside the law, God affirmed his actions. But after his zealous deed was done, God then sent Pinchas on a path of action inside the law: towards non-violence, towards peace. By giving him the priesthood, God not only affirms Pinchas’ place in society, but his place as an instructor of the law, which is seen as part of the priestly duty.
Our own system of peace, Torah, also has internal ways to correct injustices and failures in the system. Not every injustice or failure requires a Pinchas-level reaction; it can also be resolved by action within the system. In our parasha, Machlah, No’ah, Choglah, Milkah, and Titzah see an injustice in the laws of inheritance. These five women have no brothers. Because only men can inherit land, their father’s land stands to be lost to the immediate family after his death. Unlike Pinchas, they work to change the system with reasoned argument. The sisters argue that their father was not part of a rebellion against God, so why should the law remove his name from his family just because he has only daughters (Number 27:3-4). God rules in their favor. The Rabbis (Bava Batra 119b) imagine that the sisters not only made an argument based on rational analysis of the law, but an argument based on the very law that Moses was studying that day in the Beit Midrash. They argue within the current discourse, using Moses only studies. Given the recent events of Pinchas, they might have chosen to act as revolutionaries and forcibly taken their father’s land. Instead, they learned not from Pinchas’ actions at Ba’al Pe’or, but rather from the blessing given to Pinchas as the result of his radical actions: Torah, law, peace. They appealed to Torah, using Torah; they used law in a peaceable, reasonable approach. In response, God actually changes the laws of inheritance for everyone, not just for the sisters. These five women instruct us in another kind of revolution, one which brings about revolutionary change with revolutionary arguments, not revolutionary actions.
Pinchas’ approach, as I argued last week, is risky, but sometimes necessary. Sometimes the law is not sufficient, and we must act quickly, radically, and even rashly to fix it. But for all revolutionaries, when the goal is finished, the next objective must be a system which promotes the path of peace. We must take our revolutionary strength and apply it to a system of laws. As we have seen from countless revolutionaries who then become brutal leaders, having just any system of laws is insufficient. The system must be of a particular type: one that leads to and encourages peace--one that, like Pinchas’ blessing, turns the revolutionaries into subjects and leaders of the new system. God encourages Pinchas in this by granting him Torah through peace and peace through Torah, returning him to a position of leadership, instruction, obedience within the system. Machlah, No’ah, Choglah, Milkah, and Tirtzah demonstrate the best of this system, presenting us with a paradigm for how to be revolutionary within the Torah. As the verse in Psalms states (29:11), “Hashem will give strength to His nation; Hashem will bless His nation with peace.” Or, in the words of Thomas Jefferson, “Enemies in War, in Peace Friends."
Reb Joel Goldstein