Thursday, August 09, 2007

Re'eh: Working Ideals into Reality

(For a discussion of free will, the subject of the first verse in this week's portion, see here.)

When learning the laws of the seven year cycle in Jewish agricultural law, we may be surprised to find that the seventh year also had implications for lenders. In the seventh year, any outstanding debts between Jews were cancelled by the Torah (D'varim 15:2). As one can imagine, this would have had an effect on the willingness of the wealthy to lend out their money. And so, five verses later, the Torah warns would-be lenders not to stop lending just because the seventh year nears.

However, generations later, the rabbis were met with precisely this problem. People would not lend their money, for fear of losing it once the sh'mitta year comes along. By this time (see Gitin 36a,b) the concept of sh'mitta was in force only rabbinically (see there for a discussion of the issue), and the rabbinic law of sh'mittat k'safim was causing people abstain from lending money to others, which is a biblical offense. And so, Hillel instituted prosbol, a loophole through which the courts take possession of loan documents, and authorize lenders to collect on them. Since the courts were not subject to the laws of debt cancellation, the repayment of loans was not automatically forgiven by the seventh year.

This concept raises a number of philosophical points. What is the rationale of the cancellation of debts? Of course, not knowing ratio dei will not stop us from fulfilling the law. However, it is still of great value to understand, to the extent that we can, why God rquires this of us. Also, if God requires it, what right did a rabbi have to find a loophole in it? I would like to comment on the second question now, and leave the first for further study and contemplation.

The rabbis are entrusted with the interpretation and implementation of the divine commands, as we will read next week (D'varim 17:11). It is their job to take the written and oral aspects of the Torah that were received on Sinai, and realize them in day to day practice. Thus, the rabbinic commands and protective enactments gain a certain divine authority (Rambam Hil. Mamrim 1:1).

The divine Law, however, was not written for the actual moral and ethical level of the Jewish nation at the time it was given. It was written as an abstract ideal. The nation is to look to that ideal and work to bring their actual position closer to that ideal each day. It is a moral staff for Jews (and indeed Gentiles) to cling to as they climb to the heights of moral and spiritual piety. Torah does not reflect reality; rather, the task of good people everywhere is to make reality reflect the ideals of Torah.

(This is the true concept of tikun olam, the awesome work of perfecting the world, little by little. I believe it was the Maharal who wrote that the world was created purposely flawed, so that humans would have a hand in its perfection. Rabbi Soloveitchik speaks of this when he says that one of the charges of Man is to be creative, and take part in the perfection of the world around him, and thus, partner with God in creation (מעשה בראשית).)

This is hinted at in many commands of the Torah. For example, in the ten commandments, the order not to murder is לא תרצח. The word לא is used, as opposed to אל. The first is a simple negation, while the second is an exhortation to not do something. At first glance, we might expect the Torah to use אל, which would essentially command us 'Do not murder!' However, it uses לא, which really translates to 'You will not murder.' This is simply a statement of fact. It is this idealized fact that we in our mundane world must strive to make a reality. (I thank אבי מורי for pointing this out to me.)

In fact, this is one of the lines of reasoning that Rabbi Hirsch uses to show the divine origins of the Torah. No group of men, he reasons, would write into laws ideas that would not be feasible for those governed in their present moral and spiritual state. Only God would write laws that the Jewish nation would have to work to grow into.

And so, Hillel had to find a loophole* to hold the nation together until the time that they become spiritually and ethically ready to realize the abstract ideals of D'varim 15:9. As Rabbi Natan stated (Brachot 9:5), when the laws of God are in danger of being trampled, desperate measures must be taken to uphold them, even the seeming abrogation of those laws. Prosbol is not an ideal, but a practical demonstration that the Nation of Israel still has much room to grow, and much work to do in order to bring the kingdom of Heaven down to earth.

May we, in these wondrous beginnings of redemption, look to the Torah and realize our destiny, in the minute laws of the individual, and also in the overall thrust of our national re-awakening.

*It should be noted, of course, that Hillel used a loophole, and did not legislate away the law in question. This must be contrasted to other uses of purported rabbinic takanot, such as the legalization of the breaking of the biblical laws of the Sabbath by the conservative, in order to keep Jews coming to synagogue (which, at best, is a rabbinic concept).