A Central Guiding Principle for Torah and Its Personalized Application

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Parshat Acharei Mot: Overcoming Our Material Sides to Find Our Fullest Connection to God

The Land Gets Punished When We Do

When Hashem warns of the consequences of sexual sins, the verse says, 18;25,  Hashem will account the land’s sins on her, and she will spew out her inhabitants, implying the land of Israel itself will have sinned as well. Kli Yakar spots a reference to an original sin of the earth in general, in the Creation story, Bereshit 1;11, where Hashem told the earth to produce etz peri, fruit trees, and it instead brought forth etz oseh peri, trees that bore fruit. [Rashi there called attention to the switch; neither he nor Kli Yakar address what I find most fascinating about the Midrash, the idea the earth has enough free will to violate God’s orders.]

He wonders why it wasn’t punished immediately, suggests Hashem had wanted the trees that way so that their produce would refine human beings; instead, it makes people more material, grosser, thicker, more attracted to sensual pleasures.  Each time humans yield to these lusts in a punishable way, the earth’s sin has had an active effect.  (He assumes sins either do not get punished until they have a practical effect, or receive a second, higher punishment when that happens.)

Ramban had said the fruit of the Etz Ha-Da’at, the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil also stimulated humanity’s sexuality, so the earth is particularly included in the reaction to any sexual sins, such as the generation of the Flood, where tradition understood Bereshit 6;13 to mean Hashem destroyed the top three tefachim of the earth along with all the creatures.  The mini-tokhacha late in Devarim, 29;21-22, also speaks of the land being destroyed as the Jewish people sin.

The idea here fits his model, he says, because the land will be “sickened” by the sins for which it is being punished, and will vomit them out like sick people reject their stomach’s contents.

Toggling Between Two Worlds

The third verse of chapter eighteen warns against acting similarly to the Egyptian and Canaanite nations. While the context suggests their sexuality was the problem, Chatam Sofer expands it to their general focus on material life, indulging their pleasures with no sense of a World to Come. Verse four reminds us to instead follow Hashem’s commands and statutes, to cleave to God because, as Avot 4;17 says, any time in the next world far outweighs whatever enjoyments we are foregoing in this world.

The next verse seems to repeat itself, says to observe (shamor is the verb) God’s chukkot and mishpatimChatam Sofer suggests observance brings us to a new level, where we appreciate this world and do not even think of the next, as the same Mishnah in Avot says time in this world fully invested in repentance and good deeds in fact outweighs all of the next world.

Spiritual growth, as he lays it out here, starts with a rejection of focus on this world, moves to striving for the next world, and ends by realizing the actions of this world that earn us our share in the next are themselves more exalted and worthwhile than the reward they merit.

The Inner Sanctum Produces Sanctity, the Outer Torah Study

At the end of the Torah’s presentation of the High Priest’s Yom Kippur service, 16;16, the Torah says the kohen will atone for the kodesh, for all the defilements and sins the Jews will have caused. Since the ceremony also includes time in the kodesh kodashim, the Holy of Holies, Ha’amek Davar wonders why the Torah says the ceremony came to purify the outer room of the Temple, not the inner one.

Based on an idea he shared in Tetzaveh (that we did not see together in this venue), he says the Torah in the Ark in the Holy of Holies only produced the Written Torah and whatever insights can be gleaned by dimui milta le-milta, drawing an accurate analogy from a known circumstance to a new one. True chiddush, novel ideas, depend on the light of the Menora, the merit of acts of kindness recalled by the incense offered on the altar (another idea he shared back in Tetzaveh, he says), and the financial support the Table symbolizes.

Our verse speaks of atoning for the outer chamber because the Torah of the inner chamber only extrudes from a Jewish people prepared for it, the reason the Ark was lost for all the Second Temple period.  (That Torah, he seems to say, must be earned the correct way, cannot be whitewashed with rituals of atonement.)

The Torah of pilpul, finding new ideas in Torah, can also lead to a version of hashra’at Shekhina, the Divine Presence residing among the Jewish people, despite their overall lacks.

There is some Torah, some Presence, we only get when we are in fact fully pure; Torah, with novel ideas, earns us what we do not deserve.


Parshat Kedoshim: A Central Guiding Principle for Torah and Its Personalized Application

Half a lifetime ago, the new wife of a close friend and chavruta shared an insight about the famous story, Shabbat 31a, of Hillel and the convert who wished to learn the whole Torah al regel achat, on one foot. She pointed out the word regel is similar to the Latin regula (I think; as I said it’s half a lifetime ago), and that the convert was asking to be taught the Torah through one principle, not literally standing on one foot. It makes sense of Hillel’s answer, what is hateful to you do not do to your fellow, more than just brief, it is a guiding principle to Jewish living.

I used to quote the story as a piece of her cleverness until I realized it ignored her many important and impressive accomplishments in the years since. I bring it up now because Kli Yakar to 19;18 says it, too, although he adds a few points, in his endlessly creative way.

He is discussing ve-ahavta le-ra’akha kamokha, love your fellow as yourself, and is sure Hillel intended that as well [in We’re Missing the Point, I questioned the idea, because Hillel phrases it in the negative]. Kli Yakar is also sure the convert was sincere (I think not least because Hillel converts him, and the story there ends with three converts celebrating Hillel’s having found a way to teach them true Torah), making it unlikely he meant anything as silly as the literal standing on one foot.

He suggests the convert worried about forgetting a more complex presentation, where people who have imbibed Judaism from their childhood have an easier time remembering. He wanted sound-bite Judaism, something he could say to himself over and over, and from there remember the rest.

Not only does he think Hillel said ve-ahavta (when the Gemara has him speak in the negative), Kli Yakar takes for granted Hillel would have quoted the whole verse, including the ending, ani Hashem, I am God. Hillel was showing the convert the two sides to Torah, obligations towards God, all grounded in belief in God, and towards other people, based on our love for our fellow Jews. That might seem like two feet, but Kli Yakar says “one foot” meant one for each basic principle.

How far he has traveled: Hillel didn’t say what the Gemara says he said, he quoted a verse, to give the convert what he really wanted, a pithy guiding principle to recall all of Torah easily, with the verse giving one for each of the two parts of Torah.

A Husband’s Sin Doesn’t Always Save Her

Chatam Sofer questions the phrasing of 20;10, which first says a man commits adultery with a married woman, then adds “who shall commit adultery with the wife of his fellow.” Plain reading, the second clause is elaborating the first, explaining that an eshet ish, a wife of a man, is eshet re’ehu, his fellow’s wife. Chatam Sofer seems to think that would be redundant, not illustrative.

He reminds us of an halakha being discussed in Daf Yomi this week, the sota water only miraculously checks the fidelity of a woman if her husband is free of sin in this area as well. Were the husband to have sinned, the water would not affect the woman even had she in fact been unfaithful.

We might think the same holds true for the courts, says Chatam Sofer, that they only punish a woman’s adultery should her husband not have also sinned this way. To dispel the notion, the verse tells us (Chatam Sofer says) the married woman might even be married to a man asher yinaf et eshet re’ehu, who also fornicated with his friend’s wife. Nonetheless, if the court catches here, she is punishable.

God won’t step in to let a husband know his wife has been unfaithful where the husband himself is not up to snuff. Courts, however, respond to sin, regardless of whether she can say her husband is no better than she is.

[I once sat on a jury that went to verdict, and had the feeling we were convicting small-fry criminals, testified against by the bigger fry, to get lighter sentences. I felt a little better, years later, when one of them was on the front pages of the New York Times for a much bigger crime.]

Abstinence is Personal

The parsha starts kedoshim tihyu, a phrase made famous by Ramban’s idea of it teaching us to limit even permitted pleasures. We certainly may not indulge the perversions of Egypt and Canaan, but this calls us to rein in our appetites generally.

Ha’amek Davar infers a further nuance from Hashem’s telling Moshe to speak to the whole Israelite community (el kol adat Benei Yisra’el). The perisha, abstinence, implied by the call for kedusha depends on each person, he says, because we have our own personal appetites and lusts we need to control. Eating might not be a weak spot I need to address [indulge me in some wishful thinking], where for you, speaking ill of others, or treating parents with respect, might not be.

The call to kedusha addresses the entire community because it shapes itself according to that community, says Ha’amek Davar, each of us taking the idea and applying it where it best fits in our own lives.

About Gidon Rothstein

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