When We Matter and When We Don’t

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

People Are More Important Than Shabbat

Meshech Hochmah points out two inconsistencies in Shemot 31;14. The verse obligates Jews to observe Shabbat, “ki kodesh hi lachem, it is sanctified for you,” which sounds like Shabbat is for the Jewish people. The next words assign the death penalty to anyone who treats Shabbat mundanely, justifying it because “for anyone who performs creative labor during it (Shabbat), that soul will be cut off from its nation.” Halachah generally views death as more severe than karet, so our verse seems to base the death penalty on this sin’s incurring a lower level punishment, an odd logic.

To explain, Meshech Hochmah notes that in ordinary circumstances, Shabbat is kodesh for Jews in the sense that Jews may violate Shabbat to save any Jew’s life, no matter how insignificant that Jew might seem, and may do so in cases of doubt, too, doubt the danger is life-threatening, and/or doubt the violation will save the Jew. Balanced against Jewish lives, Shabbat is very much kodesh lachem, sanctified for you, under your control.

Because without Jews, R. Meir Simhah says, there would be no Shabbat, no weekly testimony to Gd’s having created the world and “rested” on the seventh “day.”

Unless We’re Not

On the other hand—explaining the shift in the verse—a Jew who deliberately violates Shabbat is worse than an animal (he says). [We should pause over an idea he took as simple. Sadly, we live in a time when high percentages of Jews who do not keep Shabbat likely qualify as tinnokot she-nishbu, are not responsible for their lack of observance because they were never properly taught what it means to be Jewish. Others have issues around observance—emotional, familial, psychological– that we can hope will lead the Heavenly Court to mitigate their punishment as well.

Both those truths must not obscure another one, willful Shabbat violation without such excuses makes a Jew’s life forfeit, because the Jew has thrown away one of his/her central responsibilities, to serve as a witness of Gd in the world.]

Where a court cannot or does not mete out the death penalty, the Jew incurs karet, which Meshech Hochmah asserts is worse than death (contrary to our usual view). Death atones, restores the sinner to membership in the people, where karet cuts the person off from the nation and Gd’s Torah. In that sense, death is a favor. (He is arguing that even though death is worse than karet in the halachic hierarchy of punishment, its results for the sinner are better.)

For him, the verse reads, loosely: Shabbat is for you to serve your function in the world. As long as you do, you are more important, so any life-saving medical needs outweigh Shabbat. Should a Jew violate Shabbat on purpose, the sinner loses his/her full belonging to the covenant and citizenship, with the way to restore it—to avoid eternal exclusion (and other than teshuvah, where courts cannot intervene)—being the death penalty.

As support, he reminds us of the opinion of R. Elazar b. Shim’on in the Gemara (not accepted in practice), who held Jews could kill another Jew to prevent him/her from deliberate Shabbat violation, as we do hold is true of those about to commit murder. We usually think of rodef, the right to kill a murderer before s/he kills, as a matter of defending the intended victim; for R. Elazar b. Shim’on, it applied to Shabbat violation, to avert spiritual damage of equal or worse level (Meshech Hochmah is assuming halachah accepts R. Elazar’s values statement, just not his conclusion).

Identify with Others When You Pray with Them

After the sin of the Golden Calf, the Torah uses the verse va-yehal, implored, for Moshe’s prayer on their behalf, 32;11. Berachot 32a quotes R. Eliezer Ha-Gadol, Moshe prayed until he was overcome by ahilu, defined as a fire in the bones. Meshech Hochmah says Moshe kept praying until he experienced himself as having this same flaw, felt it in his bones. (He is relying on Baba Batra 109b, which says the officiating priest for the idol of Michah (see Shofetim 18) was a descendant of Moshe; if so, Moshe, too, has idolatry in him.)

The fully felt own future involvement in this kind of worship (Meshech Hochmah is assuming what I believe is a general Jewish idea, descendants credit and/or implicate their ancestors), he could point out the insufficiency of Gd’s idea of wiping out the Jews and turning Moshe into a great nation. It would be no better, since he, Moshe, also had such potential in his future.

R. Meir Simhah Ha-Kohen may have meant only the one technical piece, Moshe had to see and feel his own future to be able to prove Gd’s idea wouldn’t work. To me, he implies praying for others takes more work than just saying, oh, please, Gd, wouldn’t it be great if so-and-so got such-and-such. To pray for others takes identification, after which we can find the path to an “argument” Gd might more likely accept. Moshe had to work to see how he was more like them than he assumed, showing the avenue forward.

The Stubborn Human Need for Physicality

In our third comment for the week, Moshe comes down the mountain, sees the Calf, and breaks the luhot, the Tablets, 32;19. Meshech Hochmah starts his reaction with what he asserts is a basic principle, Torah is not encumbered by physicality or location. While we treat certain places with more sanctity, such as Israel, Jerusalem, and the Temple, he still believes the details of Torah are the same everywhere.

(My Bar-Ilan has a parenthesis, “other than mitzvot tied to the Land of Israel.” I believe someone else added that, struggling with how he could have said everything is the same, when Israel is clearly different. I think Meshech Hochmah was focused on the ideas and worldview Torah promotes, which are all the same regardless of place. It is applied as appropriate to each place and person, but the Torah is the same everywhere.)

Similarly, the lowliest Jew has the same Torah as Moshe Rabbenu (although there, too, they will have different roles, each as proper for him/her/them).

In all this, Moshe was an agent/broker, entrusted to bring the Torah to the people, the Torah that broadcasts the message of Gd alone being at the center of existence, the only true necessity. When Moshe failed to show, the people decided they needed a substitute to bring the spirit Moshe had managed to manifest, so they made the Calf (this follows one strand in Midrash, the Calf was to replace Moshe, not be a god).

They had the urge to offer sacrifices, sing, dance, invest themselves physically in worship, and without Moshe they were desperate for an alternative. He likens it to Yerov’am,the one who split off the Northern Kingdom, making calves as an alternative to the Beit Ha-Mikdash, for fear the people would go to Jerusalem and also return to allegiance to the Davidic kings. To accomplish his goal, he only needed to guard the roads, I think Meshech Hochmah is saying; his establishing an alternative worship was to assuage the people’s deep need for connection to something.

(The idea of worship as an instinct/need is very important. It explains why people tend to have some ruling principle, to which they become dedicated, a practical demonstration of how avodah zarah develops. I just recently saw a story about a man worried about his carbon footprint, so he called in an expert to check and tell him where he was going right and wrong; it reminded me of calling a kohen to your house to check for tzara’at. Because when people do not have Gd, they will designate something else to fill the role.)

We Need to Free Ourselves of the Attachment to Physical Manifestations

To disabuse the Jews of the idea they had to have replaced him, he made a point of his lack of significance. Nor will the Mishkan or Mikdash be independently important places, Moshe wanted them to know (a remarkable addition by Meshech Hochmah, since the people had no idea there was going to be a Mishkan at this point; he reads Moshe to be making a point for the future, too, in this moment of national failure).

Gittin 56b tells us Titus entered the Temple with a prostitute and made use of her services there, with no repercussions, because by then the structure had lost its sanctity, had been profaned by the Jews’ failures and Gd’s leaving it for the Romans to destroy. [He seems not to see a contradiction between this and the view of Rambam he has quoted elsewhere, the Temple and Jerusalem’s sanctity never ceased after Gd invested His Presence there. I think he would have said that’s about the Presence, not the building.]

The same was true of the luhot. Written by Gd, their sanctity, too, depended wholly on the Jewish people putting them in the framework of service to the One, nonphysical, Gd, their realizing that all sanctity extends only from proper service of Gd, whatever structures we build or practices we perform.

The Depth of Their Error

Meshech Hochmah goes to some length to show how much their mistake pervaded their worldview. When Moshe approached, they were dancing (the verse says), betraying their lack of any doubt about the correctness of their actions. Remember, Moshe is one day late, they’re already fully invested in and excited about a new intermediary.

[A point I find particularly true and distressing, people’s quickness to take on a radical new idea with complete certainty despite flimsy evidence, as long as they like where it takes them.] Had he brought the Tablets, they would have conceded they were wrong with the Calf, only to switch to adoring the luhot excessively, ignoring the core problem.

It’s why tradition thinks Gd congratulated Moshe for having broken them, is the reason Gd refers to the broken luhot when telling Moshe to make new ones. Gd will write on the second luhot lessons Moshe taught in practice by breaking the first ones, that Jews must serve Gd alone. The idea also explains why the Aron contained both sets of luhot (as Baba Batra 14b says), to stress that objects attain sanctity and durability only by being used for Gd’s service, not because of who or Who made them.

The Jews show the same erroneous thinking in speaking of Moshe as who took them out of Egypt, when he was solely a messenger to speak to Par’oh. Gd picks up on it, calls them Moshe’s people (ki shihet amecha, your people has gone astray) because they identified themselves that way, elevating Moshe to a status he did not deserve (or want).

Meshech Hochmah has more on the issue (an indication of how vital he found the point, one I find still vital in our times), but we will stop here, with the basic lesson: people tend to focus on the physical, ascribe the workings of the world to those. Being Jewish is about standing up for the difficult to absorb idea that it’s about a Gd we cannot see, hear, or touch, and yet Who created the world and continues to support it and direct it.

People matter, a great deal, Ki Tissa taught R. Meir Simhah Ha-Kohen, as long as they focus in the right direction, when there are many temptations not to, even within the realms of Gd’s service. And when people do go wrong, the first step to effective prayer on their behalf is identifying with them, seeing where (as my father a”h used to like to quote) there but for the grace of Gd go I.

About Gidon Rothstein

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