Thursday, January 17, 2008

Yael the Blessed

Since this week's portion contains the שירה, the poem that Moshe and Israel used to express their awe and appreciation of God after he saved them from Egypt, the הפטרה also includes one of the ten great pieces of sung poetry, the song of Devorah (שופטים ד-ה). (Rav Hirsch explains a thematic connection, in that the Jews in the times of the judges constantly vascillated, in peace-time forgetting that their success comes from God who took them from Egypt. The spirit of Devorah, who rescued the Jews, is that of Jewish women, who are the first to reconnect to God when the nation has strayed. Their spirit guides the nation back to Hashem, and brings them to re-accept the Torah, which was the goal of יציאת מצרים.)

One of the heroes of the battle between Sis'ra and Barak was Yael. She offered herself to the Yavinite general, and killed him in her tent. The Talmud (Nazir 23b) states that, "A sin done for the correct reason is as great as a good deed done for ulterior motives, as we learn that 'Yael was blessed more-so than women in the tent,' and that refers to Sarah, Rivka, Rachel and Leah."

This saying always bothered me. How can a sin ever be 'good'? Some explain that, for example, a Kohen may not become impure to bury the dead. However, he must do so for the seven close family members, or a מת מצווה. So, they reason, this is an עבירה לשמה.

I do not find this satisfactory, because the Torah itself stipulates exceptions for the Kohen. Therefore, when he becomes impure, he is not doing an עבירה. On the contrary, he is following the law, which stipulates that he become impure in certain specific cases. This cannot be called an עבירה לשמה, a sin for good reason.

Rabbi Kook in Mishpat Kohen (Ch. 143-144) explains the philosophy behind the piece in Nazir more holistically. He explains that there are certain times that we do go against the Torah, in order to accomplish something, that in the long run, will be to protect it. In the same way, Rabbi Natan says at the end of B'rachot (9:5) that "'הפרו תורתיך, עת לעשות לה." The idea is that, at the behest of a prophet or the Sanhedrin, we are charged with breaking any law temporarily, except idolatry, in order to accomplish a greater good. Thus, Esther and Yael, by committing a sin, acheived the salvation of the nation when it was in dire danger. Rabbi Kook further says that, the salvation of Israel is something that is so clear, so obvious, that one need not receive explicit instructions from a court. One may, instead, act as a שליח, an agent, of the Sanhedrin, and act against the Torah temporarily, in order to save the nation. The concept is one of "שליחותייהו קעבד".

Even though the action becomes a great מצווה, it is still correct to call it a sin, because the action is not sanctioned by any stipulation written in the Torah. It is only permitted (indeed, required) when looking at the larger picture.

Rav Kook's formulation requires the sin to be able to produce immediate salvation to כלל ישראל. Although there is the danger of a slippery slope, we can appreciate the essential demand of a person to sacrifice their innocence on the altar of national protection.

The concept of a sin for good reason, עבירה לשמה, is not really applicable to our daily lives. However, as we read this week's הפטרה, we may come to a deeper appreciation of Yael and her heroic actions on behalf of our nation.

(Thank you to Rabbi Tzvi Haber for pointing out this source. Rabbi Haber's article on the subject is a must-read.)