Thursday, June 16, 2011

Redemption of the Land

or, Apropos to the spies of Parashat Shelach

Leviticus 25:25 discusses the situation where a person has to sell his homestead in the land of Israel. Relations of the impoverished are expected to buy back the home or land, so that the land not be lost to the family. Interestingly, the Or Hachayim takes this opportunity to discuss the ultimate redemption of the Land.

At the culmination of his essay, he says that, "the redemption of the Land [with this double entendre he implies the final redemption of the nation of Israel] will begin when the souls of the righteous stir within them. They will ask themselves, is it really enough for us to remain outside, exiled from the table of our Father? How can we be satisfied with life in this world, when it is devoid of that divine communion? These righteous ones will begin to loathe the perceived glamor and luxury of life outside the Land. They will be gripped by a spiritual desire to perfect their actions in the Land, and thus redeem Israel. In this way will God affect the redemption of His land and people.

The leaders of the people and the great ones of the Jewish nation are destined to give an accounting of why they were not motivated thus, and it is from them that God will demand redress for the shame of His desolate house [a double entendre referencing the ruins of the Temple, and the poor man's house that is the subject of the verse]."

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Providence and Evil

On Shavuot, I was thinking about divine providence and the concept of evil. I would like to share a thought that may not be novel, but certainly seemed eye-opening to me (perhaps mostly due to the early hour of morning at which it occurred).

Rambam in the Guide accepts the idea (mostly found in Yerushalmi, and rejected in Bavli, see Y Elman's essay on rabbinic contributions to a philosophy of suffering in the Orthodox Forum series) that there is no suffering without sin. However, Rambam claims that the measure of divine providence experienced by a person is a direct result of the intellectual occupation with God. When his mind wanders, providence does too, and this is when evil can befall him. It seems clear that Rambam views the all too human proclivity to distraction from enraptured intellectual intimacy with God as the mechanism by which a person becomes available to the vagaries of the natural world and thus evil. Ramban replaces intellectual occupation with the more mystical d'vekut, cleaving to God, but it is the same idea.

Rav Saadia Gaon's view is less absolute. In Emunot V'Deot, he first states that most suffering can be understood as serving the purpose of punishment for past sins, or making the subject more worthy of reward, or a test for the subject. However, he also states that free will allows a person to plan a murder. However, in an occasionalistic passage, he explains that while Man can commit the act of murder (say by pulling a trigger), only God can cause death (the gun firing correctly and the bullet hitting its mark). Finally, he leaves wiggle room for cases that defy these rules by stating that divine providence does not abrogate the need for precaution and does not justify recklessness1: a person must take care to avoid known dangers and things of that nature (this last part is similar to the Bavli's caveats of luck, קביעה הזיקה, עידן דריתחא, etc).

It is interesting that though Rambam views evil and a lack of divine providence as products of sin, the sin which causes them cuts to the very core of what it means to be human. It is impossible to take suffering and evil away from the human condition, precisely because their causes are part of what it means to be human. The same idea is paradoxically accepted by the Bavli's (and to a lesser extent, Rav Saadia's) general conclusions which claim that there is suffering without reason. The world around Man, whether by nature, demonology, luck or astrology, can affect humans in negative ways that God does not always halt; nature often is left to run its course.

Essentially, as R Elman concludes, it is our inability to come to definite answers regarding these questions that leaves the Bavli and Rambam to an open ended philosophy of suffering, which, while trying to lay ground rules, leaves enough space for the reality witnessed around us, of things often countering these rules.

A similar open ended, non-answer appears in the midrashim and kinnot of the 10 martyrs, עשרה הרוגי מלכות. At the very climax of the suffering of the sainted rabbis, heavenly angels cry out to God, "is this the reward of Torah?!" This is a simple demand for divine justice in our world that is familiar to anyone who has witnessed suffering, especially that of a child. Is this the justice of God?!

It always bothered me that God does not answer the angels with words of comfort, or explanations regarding the world to come, of future reincarnation and dispensation of ultimate justice. God thunders back, "this is my decree, and if I hear another word, I shall destroy the whole world!" Why does God answer in this way?

I think perhaps the response of God (as imagined by the פייטן) leaves a very important imbalance or unease in the minds of readers. Yes, there is injustice and you have just witnessed it. Now, God will not provide you with comfort and make you feel good about it, for injustice is implied in the very free will that makes this world worth living! Injustice is woven into the fabric of our existence, and we are not to find comfort or solace from it. On the contrary, we must feel the tension, the evil, the wrong about it so acutely, for it is our task to fight it with every ounce of our strength. Any validation or justification for the evil or suffering which we witness weakens our resolve to fight it to the end. Although intellectually we know of the world to come, and future divine retribution, and we may discuss theodicy when we have nothing else to do, we are not to allow that to assuage our moral outrage at evil. And so, precisely at the times when injustice enflames our instinct for justice, at precisely those times, we are tasked not to explain away the injustice, but to fight it!

It seems to me that this is the response of the Bavli and Rambam as well: although we have a partial understanding of divine providence and the causes of suffering, we cannot have a full understanding; that is not within our power. What we are able to do, and this is our task, is realize that sometimes things will not fit in our philosophical boxes, and recognize the divinely mandated command to be His partners in perfecting the world: heal the sick, conquer disease, set up ordered and ethical societies, punish evil, reward good. We complete the intentionally unfinished business of creation by fighting injustice, destroying evil, and mitigating suffering as best we can.


1 Tangentially, Rav Saadia responds to those who rely on bitachon in a reckless manner by saying that if one believes in the concept of bitachon, they are essentially accepting the concept that God runs this world. In that case, he states, it would be a profound folly to believe that this gives them license to ignore the laws of cause and effect, which are the practical way that God causes the world to run according to His plan. Faith in God leads to wanton disregard for careful, planned living only in the most foolish of minds. See chapter 12 of Sefer Hap'rishut Hash'lema, which forms a sub-composition in treatise ten of Emunot V'deot.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Thread of Kindness

Upon a cursory reading of the book of Ruth, it may be hard to perceive why this simple, seemingly provincial story was canonized as part of the Bible. However, upon deeper consideration of the themes present in this megilah, universal lessons are revealed, which make our heroine, Ruth worthy not only of the canon, but of serious study, and her book as a moral text which sheds light on the social and religious bonds that give strength and versatility to a healthy society.

Of the many themes available in the book, this essay will focus upon that of חסד, loving-kindness. This word recurs repeatedly in Ruth, and, indeed, sets the motif of kindness playing a central role. While the firm, legal strictures of Halachah give a baseline by which we measure our actions, it is לפנים משורת הדין, extra-legal kindness which decides the survival of a person, family or society at large. Halacha cannot legislate each and every way in which one must help his fellow, but this does not weaken the importance of such non-legally required actions. Indeed, כופין על מידת סדום (see תוס' בבא בתרא יב: ד"ה כגון). It is this necessary (though unlegislated) חסד which forms a parallel structure which unifies the book of Ruth. On the one hand, we see Elimelech and the results of his actions, and on the other, we see Ruth and Boaz, and the effects of their activities.

At the beginning of Ruth, we are introduced to Elimelech, one of the leaders of the generation. The Malbim, echoing the midrash, explains that as a result of the famine, the poor would throw themselves before the rich, demanding sustenance. Elimelech fled this situation, fearing that his whole fortune would be consumed before the multitudes. Although one is not required to become poor himself by distributing all of his wealth to the needy, Elimelech is viewed as a selfish and flawed character by the midrash. "Anyone who turns a blind eye from those who need charity, is as though he has no God," quotes Malbim. Perhaps by the strict letter of the law, Elimelech cannot be faulted for not giving his all, on a חסד level, he failed. A famine, a time when society is at the verge of collapse, is precisely when greatness is required, when going above and beyond the call of simple duty is demanded. (We leave aside the sin of leaving the land of Israel, for which Elimelech is called to task by חז"ל. Even had he not left, his relative stinginess would remain reason for rebuke.)

Instead, Elimelech leaves his people and settles temporarily in Moav. And in the familiar irony of מדה כנגד מדה, as he forsook Judean society, leaving it to crumble, so does his own family security and cohesion begin to disintegrate. Elimelech dies, and his sons marry outside of the faith. They also, eventually, die, and leave their mother bemoaning her fate, telling her friends from happier times, "do not call me Naomi [= pleasant], rather call me Bitter, for God has made my life exeedingly bitter." (1:20) Judea thrives again, despite Elimelech's abandonment, for God has not abandoned the Jews; however, He seems to have abandoned the family of Elimelech. (This is reminiscient of another Jewish heroine, Esther, being warned precisely of this possible result by Mordechai, "...for if you are silent now [and choose not to use your position as queen to help your bretheren], salvation and comfort will be given to the Jews from another source, while you and your father's house will be lost." (Esther 4:14))

The Bible sets Elimelech as an example of someone who shied away from חסד. He went as far as the law required, ignored the larger picture of the situation regarding the starving Jews of the time, and refused to be swayed by the historical context of his actions into going beyond the letter of the law, into the realm of loving-kindness. For society cannot hope to exist by virtue of the letter of the law. Mutual consideration and feelings of extra-legal responsibility towards one another are critical in order for a nation to function. Avot declares (5:10) that "what is mine is mine and what is yours is yours...this is the trait of Sodom." When we think that strict legal possession should decide who gets a bite of bread, without considering our liability towards others, we exhibit the features of corruption, callousness and evil; in a word, Sodom. By acting in this way, Elimelech invited upon himself and his immediate family the very consequences he would have allowed to befall his nation.

How does one redeem a family whose lives, honor and wealth are deteriorated by a lack of חסד? This is the main question of the book of Ruth. The tragic tale of Elimelech is a preamble to a series of particular events which lead a weak and seemingly fogotten family back up to the position of kings. How is this accomplished? The answer is our heroine, Ruth, and hero, Boaz.

Ruth and Orpah, the widows of Naomi's sons, both insist upon going with her. This is the natural, socially expected loyalty of daughter-in-law to her new family. Especially in patriarchal social orders such as Moav and Judea, a marriage makes the wife a part of the husband's father's home. These two Moavite women performed their social responsibility by travelling with Naomi. However, when she beseeches them to return to their fathers' homes, Ruth and Orpah are freed from this responsibility. Orpah returns home. However, Ruth goes beyond the call of duty, refusing to abandon her poor, helpless and lonely mother-in-law. She declares her determination to stay with her until death. This is the first act of חסד, kindness beyond that which is required, and suddenly, Naomi is not so lonely, and not so helpless. Ruth has placed Naomi's physical and emotional well-being above the tempting comforts of her old Moavite home.

However, it does not stop there. As pointed out by others, Naomi must have been familiar with the laws of לקט, שחכה, פאה, and מעשר עני. As the wife of one of Israel's wealthiest, she probably witnessed the poor avail themselves of these in her husband's fields many times. However, precisely because of her wealthy past and subsequent shameful poverty, she is embarrassed, and does not even suggest that she and Ruth could find sustenance in the "Poor Laws" of the Torah. And so, Ruth takes the initiative in an unfamiliar social order and religious milieu, learning of these laws. She tells Naomi that she will bear the burden of shame; after all, what shame is there in a lowly convert-widow collecting forgotten gleanings in the fields of the wealthy? This is a second point where the megilah goes out of its way to point out the חסד Ruth continues to perform for her mother-in-law.

And yet again. Naomi, encouraged by Boaz's interest in Ruth, suggests that Ruth literally throw herself at his feet, and all but demand marriage. Ruth, a beautiful, young woman, would surely have been found an attractive wife for many of the young men of Beit Lechem, and would probably have wanted such a marriage herself. However, her next act of חסד was to follow Naomi's suggestion. She gives her life, dignity, and finally, her love, in her devotion to her mother-in-law. Boaz himself is amazed by the loyalty and expressions of kindness Ruth demonstrates towards Naomi, and agrees to marry her.

Boaz, the distant relative of Elimelech, furthers the mission of חסד which will ultimately redeem Elimelech's sins. Although the parallels between the mitzvah of yibum and what Boaz does are clear, it is equally obvious that Boaz is not actually doing yibum. He is not the brother of the dead husband of Ruth. He is a kinsman, and the book of Ruth makes it clear that this is not yibum by stating, "Boaz took Ruth to be his wife." (4:13) This is not the order of things in true yibum, where there is no separate acquisition of the wife other than beginning to live together. Here, Boaz did normal kiddushin. Legally, he had no requirement to marry this poor convert. Doing so, with the precise hopes to raise a family for the name of Ruth's dead husband, is a clear act of חסד, kindness beyond the requirements of law. In fact, his name, Boaz, is seen by some as a contraction of "בא עז" -- one who acts with valiance, for going above and beyond the call of duty. His word choice, "אנכי אגאל", can be taken to not only mean redeeming Elimelech's property, and marrying Ruth, but in the larger context, the redemption of Elimelech's sinful lack of חסד.

We have observed a thematic parallel structure in the book. We have, in the preamble, a lack of חסד, and its destructive results. This is symbolized by the names מכלון and כליון, of Elimelech's sons. Meaning emptiness and destruction, they are the natural "children" of the actions of Elimelech. Parallel to this, and yet in contradistinction, we have the kind acts of Ruth and Boaz, which bear, quite literally, the future royal line as their children.

The threads of kindness and compassion demonstrated time and again by Ruth and Boaz, culminating in their marriage, were sufficient to reverse the damage done by Elimelech's unwillingness to go beyond the law. A family once great, now low and trampled, is given a new chance, and produces the greatest family of Israel, that of Kind David. The delineation of this lineage at the end of the book of Ruth serves as a focal point, directing the theme of kindness towards its result. If a lack of חסד can nearly cut a strong, honored family off of the vine of Israel, then the profusion of חסד by a young convert girl and an old man can renew the spirit and honor of that family. The least noble of beginnings, when watered with the spirit of going beyond the call of duty for one another, can produce the nobility of the Davidic line.

The חסד theme of the book of Ruth justifies its use on the holiday of Shavuot. This spirit of ערבות, mutual responsibility, is noted at the foot of Mt Sinai just before the giving of the Torah. "ויחן שם ישראל נגד ההר," and חז"ל state, "כאיש אחד בלב אחד," that Israel was completely at one. Each Jew felt responsible and liable for the benefit of the others. It is in this spirit that we accept, each day, the Torah upon ourselves anew, as a nation committed to one another. In Orot Hakodesh (חלק ג' עמ' שכד), Rav Kook makes the point that the sin of the Second Temple era was that the people did not feel this way; they demonstrated שנאת חינם. The correction of this sin is אהבת חינם, as demonstrated by Ruth and Boaz. Through the application of mutual responsibility and חסד, may we merit the redemption soon.