Hurting Ourselves When We Think We’re Helping

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

by R. Gidon Rothstein

Parshat Ki Tetzei

Honest Measures Can Also Be a Problem

The Torah warns us not to have two kinds of weights, big and small, 25;14. Were they both, the big and small, off from the truth, the verse could/should have just said do not have false weights or measures. Kli Yakar therefore argues one of these was actually accurate, and is still a problem, because it provides cover for the dishonest measure.

Were a merchant to always cheat customers, sell them three quarters of a pound as if it were a pound, s/he would never get away with it. Customers would complain about being shortchanged, authorities would investigate, the jig would be up. Instead, the merchant has an honest measure, too, and much of the time sells accurately, using the mismeasure only enough to make money without getting caught. When a dissatisfied client complains, the merchant can point to all the customers who received exactly what they ordered, and can produce an accurate weighing stone to show the authorities.

The honesty itself serves to sustain the dishonesty; it is why Mishlei 20;10 says both of such a man’s weighing stones are an abomination to Hashem. Were they both false, there is no need to mention two. Rather, one is accurate and is still a to’evah, because it is what allows him to use the false one.

The Connection to Amalek

He thinks it explains why Rashi reads 25;17, to remember what Amalek did to us, as a warning we will be attacked by enemies if we have false weights and measures. There is no immediately obvious connection between the two. Kli Yakar thinks he has one.

The cheater finds a way to avoid human scrutiny and acts as if God does not see.  Sotah 9a tells us—in the context of an adulteress—that when people consciously hide their sins, God brings them into the open. How does the attack of Amalek do that (Rashi said enemies, Kli Yakar is giving a reason the Torah names Amalek)? Tradition said Amalek’s original attack came because the Jews of the desert questioned whether God was present among them, as Shemot 17;7 says.

Yalkut there has the view of R. Eliezer, the Jews had said, if God provides our needs, we will serve Him, a sign they were insecure about whether God would support them.  Such insecurity, Kli Yakar says, leads to cheating at business [a comment based on his times, I suspect, he saw or heard of Jews cheating, knew they did it because they felt unsure they could support themselves].

Amalek attacking them will remind them of the origins of that episode, and bring to light the cheaters in their midst [another interesting jump: should Amalek attack, Jews will be sure it is a reaction to a sin of doubting God, leading to cheating, and will ferret out those cheaters].

Honesty can be honest, or can lay the groundwork for dishonesty. It starts with ignoring the Eye that sees all, Who will ensure the exposure of secret sins.

Don’t Cut Off Tzara’at!

I’m not sure how Chatam Sofer composed his “commentary” on the Torah. In some places, it like he collected ideas he had at various times and included them all. Certainly he gives that impression in 24;8-9, where he offers three readings of the verse’s call to remember what Hashem did to Miriam.

First, he thinks it shows how serious a violation it is to cut off a tzara’at lesion (the easiest way to deal with it, except the Torah specifically banned doing so). To show its significance, the Torah pointed out Hashem had the entire Jewish people wait for Miriam for a week when she had tzara’at, rather than just have her cut off the offending lesions and moving on. [The idea assumes Miriam only had one, or few enough that she could remove them all without killing her.]

It’s Hard to Atone for Slander

Next, he notes Ramban cites a Sifrei, this zakhor, command to remember, is meant to be recited aloud, as is true of other mitzvot of zakhor, like remembering the Sabbath day. Except those other zakhors are about keeping the memory alive; we say kiddush to make clear it is Shabbat, speak of Amalek to remember to hate them for what they did to us. Here, Chatam Sofer thinks we tell Miriam’s story to help her, provide her some atonement.

Usually, those who malign others have trouble repenting fully, because their apology to the victim, their announcement they had said something untrue, might not reach all those who heard the original slander, so the damage is ongoing. (A Page One story that is wrong gets a page 23 retraction).

By spreading word of what she did, we help her be sure everyone hears. [It seems to me a bit odd of an idea, because all Jews must know the Torah, where the story is told, and the generation that heard her slander Moshe has not been with us in a long time. I think he was more invested in making the point to his listeners/readers, slander is not so easily forgiven because of its unknown spread.]

Whom We Judge Harshly

Sotah 9b says the Jews waited a week for Miriam, to repay her for the hours she watched Moshe as a baby, until Par’oh’s daughter found him. In context, the Gemara means us to see how the reward outstrips the good deed, except Chatam Sofer is bothered by her receiving her reward in this world.

Ordinarily, we assume Miriam waited out of concern for Moshe’s future as prophet and leader, not “just” sisterly love. (Yes, he thinks ordinary sisterly care is lesser than wanting to be sure prophecies come to fruition.) After all, he says, Amram and Yokheved didn’t hang around to see what happened. For a deed dedicated to preserving God’s honor—the fulfillment of her prophecy, the redemption of the Jewish people by God’s designated messenger—she deserved better than this-worldly reward [again, an insertion of a value he takes to be clear, reward in this world is actually bad, inferior to the clearly preferable reward in the next world].

Her tzara’at put her into the rubric of Shabbat 127b, whoever judges another Jew for the good will be judged similarly by Heaven. The reverse is also true, says Chatam Sofer; by judging Moshe negatively, she opened herself up to God judging her less favorably, deciding she watched the infant Moshe for lesser personal reasons. She still deserved reward, but could now get it in this world, the Jewish people waiting for her.

Those who might think to tell lashon hara should learn from Miriam, realize it can cost in many more ways than we might think, because Hashem will look at us in a new light, in areas other than the specific one of lashon hara, too.

The Differences Between Men and Women

Netziv’s comment to 22;5 interests me for its base assumptions even more than its specific claim. The Torah prohibits men wearing women’s clothing and vice verse. Netziv says men and women differ in their natures as well as their general conduct. To change conduct takes but a moment, changing nature takes long effort and practice. He reads our verse to warn against both, a woman should not wear a man’s weapons, because they are not part of her womanly nature, unless she practices to the point it becomes natural to her, something she would do (he thinks) to circulate freely among men.

The reverse is true as well, men may not work to absorb the manners of women—he speaks of decorating oneself, either with jewelry or perfume– so they can be part of their groups, unnoticed. A separate prohibition rules out dressing like the opposite gender, a momentary aid in passing for one of them.

In our times, it raises many interesting questions we do not always consider fully enough: what is the basic nature of men as opposed to women? Some deny the existence of the distinction, but I think Netziv is on strong ground in thinking the Torah does think there is such a thing. [The Gemara seems to think going to war is a manly function, part of why men are obligated in the mitzvah of procreation, an act of conquest of the world, and not women. That says a lot about army participation.]

Certainly, some of what was always considered the realm of one or the other is amenable to cultural shifts, and then the question is which are which. [I also think, but don’t blame Netziv if you disagree, that choices made by men and women point the way to many of these. If seventy five percent of members of a gender choose x—to play with dolls or trucks, put on makeup, build social circles, get into fights, try to build muscle, whatever, there’s room to say it’s more inherent to that gender’s nature than the other’s.]

We live in a world where many attempt to deny this proposition as a whole, even to the point, sadly, of claiming people can choose their own gender, let alone their conduct within their gender.

Netziv reminds us the Torah was clear there are men, there are women, they are similar in many ways, but also fundamentally different, and it is a violation of the Torah for the one to try to become the other.

Three ways we can fool ourselves into going wrong: thinking we can fool others and  successfully cheat in business, not realizing how we hurt ourselves with slander, and deciding we can change gender tendencies, momentarily or long term.

About Gidon Rothstein

Leave a Reply

Subscribe to our Weekly Newsletter

The latest weekly digest is also available by clicking here.

Subscribe to our Daily Newsletter