Wednesday, December 2nd, 2020

Flexibility: The Key to Redemption? By Gidon Rothstein

July 18, 2010 by  
Filed under Holidays, New Posts

Around this time of year, we once again face our continuing state of חורבן, of the destruction not only of our Temple, our Beit haMikdash, but really of the national, legislative, judicial, social, and cultural structure that would be ideal for our people.  There are many explanations for why and how this happened, perhaps the best known being Yoma 9b’s assertion that the second Beit haMikdash was destroyed for the sin of שנאת חנם, baseless hatred.  I think a further consideration of other chapters of our history, positive and tragic, will help us deepen our understanding of what the Gemara meant.

To start on a positive note, we often point to the Jews’ readiness to accept the Torah, their declaration of נעשה ונשמע, we will do and we will listen, as the height of the proper attitude towards God’s commands, to be ready to obey and only later come to understand.  Part of what is required there, I believe, is the flexibility to accept that other truths and other modes of action can turn out to be as correct or more correct than those to which we are accustomed.  God’s commands in the Torah ran against the grain of what the Jews had learned about ethics and morality in Egypt, and yet they were ready to say, “we will do,” even as they did not yet comprehend the command.

I think we often take the reference to נעשה even in the absence of נשמע as referring to those commandments that seem most esoteric, פרה אדומה, the red heifer, or the like.  What we forget is that for the Jews leaving Egypt, much of what we take as ordinary would have been starkly countercultural.  When Vayikra 18;3 introduces the section on the עריות, on the sins of sexual immorality, by saying “ כמעשה ארץ מצרים… וכמעשה ארץ כנען…לא תעשו, like the actions of the Land of Egypt…and the actions of the Land of Canaan…you shall not do,” we seem to assume that the Jews easily recognized the immorality of those actions.  Biblical history tells us otherwise, since the Jews repeatedly fell back into those very sins.

The challenge of נעשה ונשמע, in other words, was not only to hold to their commitment, it was even to make the commitment in the first place.  In a world that knew of Egypt and Canaan as highly advanced societies, to reject their practices as immoral–a challenge repeated for the Jews of Hasmonean times in terms of the Greeks, and the Jews of Talmudic times in terms of the Romans and Persians—took the ability to accept that less obvious truths might be more correct.

A different version of that flexibility of mind occurs on two occasions when Jews were dedicating or rededicating the Beit haMikdash.  At its original dedication, the Gemara in Moed Katan 9a tells us that Shlomo haMelech and the people celebrated the structure’s completion for the seven days before Sukkot, including Yom Kippur. Although the Gemara is not explicit about it, it seems that Shlomo haMelech did not have direct and prior Divine license to do this, but that his actions were ratified by God after the fact.

Similarly, in II Divrei haYamim 30, Scripture tells us of Hizkiyahu haMelech gathering as much of the Jewish people as possible to offer a Paschal sacrifice.  He allows the ceremony to go forward even though he knows that many of the people have not properly purified themselves, assuming and praying that ה’ הטוב יכפר בעד, the good Lord will atone for those who do so sincerely.

I do not offer either of those as models to follow in terms of allowing ourselves to transgress the Torah in the name of some higher principle.  What the kings of Israel can do—presumably in some kind of consultation with the prophets and Torah scholars of their time—differs radically from what we can do.  The aspect of those experiences that does seem transferable, however, is the flexibility to approach new situations as appropriate for those situations.

On the reverse side, the failures of the time of the Destructions seem to relate to the exact opposite quality, an inability to think flexibly, to recognize and adjust one’s sense of right and wrong.  In what I find one of the most tragic episodes in Tanach, chapters 42-44 of Sefer Yirmiyahu tell us of several interactions the prophet had with the people after the Destruction.  To set the scene: these are people who have heard Yirmiyahu blather on for years about a coming Destruction, have rejected his message throughout, and then seen the actual Destruction arrive, as he had predicted.

They come to him now to ask whether they should stay in the Land or flee to Egypt, and promise (at least according to the simplest reading of the text; Malbim thinks they were never sincere) to listen to whatever Yirmiyahu tells them in the name of God.  In my book of stories, Cassandra Misreads the Book of Samuel, I suggested that it was the ten long days before Hashem replied that led them astray, that put them back in their usual mode of rejecting Yirmiyahu’s advice.  Whatever did it, when Yirmiyahu tells them of God’s words, they call him a liar, and go to Egypt.

The tragedy, however, is not done.  In chapter 44, when Yirmiyahu remonstrates with them for worshiping other gods (remember: this is in Egypt, after the Beit haMikdash has been destroyed, the Jews dispersed, and this band of Jews having again ignored God’s words), the people again repudiate his words, arguing in reverse, that it is their failure to properly worship those other gods that led to their troubles.  The ability to admit that a different strategy is needed to confront the future is not always natural or simple.

Hazal’s portrayal of the events that led up to the second Churban echoes similar themes.  Gittin 56a tells the famous story of the host whose servant accidentally invited the wrong guest and proceeded to kick him out, in front of gathered Sages.  The host did not have the flexibility of mind to recognize that whatever had caused their rift paled in comparison to the level to which he was now taking it.  The gathered Sages apparently were not able to take themselves out of their ordinary sense of politeness to protest the public mistreatment of the man.

At a later stage of that drama, the Sanhedrin debates offering a sacrifice in which Bar Kamtza had placed a blemish. R. Zecharyah b. Avkulas objects twice, noting that violating the strict halachah might give the wrong impression.  Right as he was technically, R. Yohanan later criticizes him, saying that his unwillingness to bend to the realities of a situation led to the destruction of the House, the burning of the Chamber, and our exile from the Land.

Lack of flexibility might also serve as a source for שנאת חנם, baseless hatred. If it is truly baseless, hatred stems from our discomfort with the differences we see in another—they are not like us, so we hate them.  A little flexibility of mind (in this case, attached to generosity of spirit) would short-circuit that reaction, letting us see each other with the recommended אהבת ישראל, and, we can hope, return us to the structure that showed us so many examples of that kind of flexibility and its lack, במהרה בימינו.

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