Friday, January 18, 2019

Beshalach—Sorry Not Sorry

In the previous two parshiyos, the question arises regarding Pharaoh’s ultimate responsibility for his actions owing to G-d “hardening his heart” repeatedly from the sixth plague on, after his repeated displays of instransigence of his own free will.  Rabbi Shmuel Goldin in his treatment of the question in Parshas Va’era lists several commentators who discuss and delineate how and why this ostensible Divine interference with “free will” did or did not violate the principle of bechira.  

Then Rabbi Goldin takes it one step further: based upon the Maimonidean principle that Heaven will occasionally make it very difficult if not impossible for an offender to repent.  Rabbi Goldin addresses two specific issues: the first, that there are seem sins that are so grievously injurious that the notion that one can repent for them will is well-nigh offensive; the Pharaonic racist enslavement and genocide would qualify as one of those sins.  (To provide a crude yet illustrative analogy, in his novel “Cat’s Cradle”, Kurt Vonnegut observes one of his characters—a Nazi doctor who committed innumerable atrocities during the war who now saves lives—who might approach evening the ledgers after about three millennia practicing conventional medicine.)

Rabbi Goldin also wants to draw a distinction between what he sees as the Christian notion that everything is forgivable.

One might want to add three additional dimensions to this discussion.  

  • The first expands upon the Pharaonic and Egyptian “hardheartedness”, and that, even leaving aside Rabbi Goldin’s salient notion that there are unforgivable things, more often than not the associated attempted  “repentance” fall far short at best, or later proves to have been completely insincere in its face at worst.  
  • The second adds a loosely analogous “hate-crime” dimension, even if an ostensibly Judeocentric one: when it comes to crimes against the Jews, and that the otherwise ostensibly well-behaved forfeit any claim to righteousness, and can be accounted with the truly wicked based solely on their expressed intransigent Judeophobia, on a personal but especially on a national level.
  • The third, unfortunately, points to a trend within certain frum circles where an inappropriately expansive definition of teshuva and mechila has been adopted and insisted upon as a, if not the, default Jewish position regarding certain offenses and offenders.  The distortion might owe more to pop psychology than the aforementioned Christian notions of forgiveness; it finds considerable favor in therapeutic circles where the lines between therapy and teshuva get blurred.

The first explains why the theme of “hard-heartedness” more conceptually central to the parshiyot in Sefer Shemot that precede Beshalach—especially Va’era, where one first views the shift between Pharaoh hardening his heart first without, and then with, Divine “assistance”—actually not only in central to the events at the Red Sea, but finally ties together the entire Egyptian attitude.  

In essence, Pharaoh, his court and subjects cancel whatever teshuva they might have done at the time of makkas bechoros when they completely reconsider having set the slaves free (or, possibly, even having only given them a three-day furlough).  The favorable attitude they had toward the Hebrews referred to during the period between choshech and makkas bechoros; their fear after makkas bechoros “we are all dead”—any self-reflection and regret is now erased: the chase to the Sea is on.  In our day and age, one can identify this kind of insincere or even completely false repentance with individuals like Dr. Lara (rhymes with Phara) Kollab, the Touro graduate who showed her gross ingratitude in a series of revealed antisemitic tweets and, when caught, issued a fauxpology blaming her tirade on the “oppression of Palestinians”.

The second point explains how theoretically G-d-fearing, well-meaning people can harbor the word Judeocidal impulses even while ostensibly exhibiting righteousness: consider how the Egyptians labeled as “G-d-fearing” during the plague of barad who saved their livestock are identified as the same Egyptians comprising the garrison chasing the Jews into the sea.  This should serve as a contemporary analog to public figures like Jimmy Carter and Louis Farrakhan, who are lauded for their charitable efforts at the same time they issue repeated antisemitic platitudes.  A “good” antisemite may be an even worse antisemite.

The third element—the aforementioned trend within certain frum circles to inappropriately expand definitions of teshuva and mechila—describes issues different from national enemies: rather, it can be seen particularly in the insistence that miscreants like sex offenders and domestic abusers are too often given the benefit of religious doubts because “anyone can do teshuva”.  As Rabbi Goldin points out, this notion is a misnomer, but it hasn’t stopped stop some from insisting upon the opposite notion bordering on an ikkar emunah.   

One example might be a facebook thread on the wall of a very prominent shadchanis discussing harassment and even date rapes unexpectedly occurring in shidduch settings; some commenters insisted that even a rapist can’t be turned in for his crime if he has done teshuva.  

Another example might be a frum psychologist insisting that an abuser doing teshuva for wife beating can be trusted to get married again because “anyone can do teshuva”, and that would qualify as an indicator for rehabilitative success  (in fact, if an abuser wanted to truly repent, he should express the willingness to consign himself to celibacy and release his victim unreservedly from the marriage to find safety elsewhere). 

Yet another example might involve a discussion about Amnon ostensibly doing teshuva for the rape of his sister Tamar by fasting and never leaving the bes medrash for the last two years of his life before Avshalom kills him as revenge.  Some use this medrash as a paradigm of how one can repent even the worst crime; a closer examination of the narrative might indicate how this kind of outward “repentance” usually is somewhere between woefully incompletely and grossly insincere.  One thing one might note is that the medrash details Amnon’s outward displays of piety, but it never says he apologizes or makes restitution to his sister, who becomes a recluse as a result of the assault. 

In effect the real takeaway, then, is that it is more likely that expressions of regret and penitence for certain gross iniquities can be legitimately responded to with even extreme skepticism.

As a final recent example of how this works (or doesn’t), one can view the example of a prominent Rav trying to use Bernie Madoff’s expressions of regret at his sentencing as “help[ing] people understand eternal Jewish truths”.  Even as the Rav was removing his piece because the intense backlash made him consider that he might have “chose[n] unsuitable examples for the concepts [he] sought to impart”, Madoff, like Pharaoh, ended any penitential pretense in a later jailhouse interview:

Friday, January 11, 2019

Bo—Need To Know

Moshe Rabbeinu makes an executive decision.

As explained in TB Brachos 4a, Moshe tells Pharaoh and his court that the Plague of the First Born will strike “kachatzos”—as “on or about midnight”, loosely translated—in slight contradistinction to G-d’s directive, that the plague would strike “bachatzos”, or “at midnight”, exactly.   The implication in the Talmudic text is that Moshe’s editing received a Divine imprimatur: if Pharaoh’s astrologers had miscalculated and it would have appeared that the plague had not occurred at midnight, they would have considered it an opening to discredit the Divine provenance of the plague.

In theory, one might question how likely that scenario was.  Consider that Egypt was already on edge; the country had all but been destroyed by the previous nine plagues, the nation seemed to be siding with the Jews against Pharaoh and the court [see 11:3], and the court itself had issues with the Pharaonic stance [10:7]: would a slight astronomic miscalculation truly have any appreciably significant effect on the Egyptian reaction to the result of Makkas Bechoros, where אֵ֣ין בַּ֔יִת אֲשֶׁ֥ר אֵֽין־שָׁ֖ם מֵֽת, and the whole population thought כֻּלָּ֥נוּ מֵתִֽים?  If the astrologers had tried to make an issue of it, would anyone have paid attention?

Moshe’s “edit” might have been a case of עת לעשות לה׳ הפרו תורתך : if Moshe had given Pharaoh's astrologers even the slightest opening at that moment, it might have even just slightly diminished the “unity” that prevailed among the Egyptians after Makkas Bechoros—כֻּלָּ֥נוּ מֵתִֽים as the Egyptian bizarro כְּאִישׁ אֶחָד בְּלֵב אֶחָד —from Pharaoh on down to even the other non-Hebrew slaves who were almost as Hebrephobic as their Egyptian masters.  Moshe took into account what he saw as entrenched local cultural tendencies, and predicting the that the real Kiddush Hashem would resulted from the effect of the plague, he didn’t want to leave open the possibility of that moment being diminished even slightly.   Hence the edit, which, pace the midrashim, seems to have been approved after the fact at least.

This incident may have educational implications, with support both Scriptual and post-Scriptural: the Jews at Har Sinai had the Revelation on a personal level “adjusted”—as it were—based upon each individual’s ability to receive and withstand the message.  Yet, prior to that, at krias yam suf, it was said that “a maidservant saw at the sea what Yeshayah (Isaiah) and Yechezkel (Ezekiel) did not see.”  Ostensibly an insistence on the doctrinal can detract from the experiential.  This is true: but only up to the point that said doctrinal isn’t subverted, only that it isn’t necessarily presented all at once.

[Consider, even, the Talmudic narrative surrounding the Ptolmaic translation (TB Megilla 9a), where G-d performed a miracle and allowed for simultaneous translation even with ostensible departures from p’shat; but the anniversary of the date—8 Tevet—was at one time considered a day of national mourning and fasting.]

One attempt to explain this—which, to this authors mind, ultimately further complicated the matter because, even though that author made the claim up front that “you’re lied to in Baal Teshuva Yeshiva”, he couldn’t seem to decide whether to condemn or condone the approach—did say this, which might encapsulate the entire educational conundrum:

“If the Yeshiva is devoted to the delicate art of forming real Jews, the Rabbi’s answer must be complicated…Truth is ineffable and simple, and therefore cannot be communicated, even to the perhaps paltry extent the Rabbi has attained it.  The individual is complex, communicates only through fragmented words, and is looking for an answer.”

In other words, The Message might be received if presented in a more subtle form; and not only will it not detract from the Message, it might enhance it.

That said, there are some approaches that should definitely be considered out of bounds.   Aside from the aforementioned piece—which apparently just describes the philosophical and educational conundra, but doesn’t delve into what some have described as marketing ploys—there are cases where the philosophy itself is twisted, and the justified to “make people frum”.

“The way Prof. Barry Simon and I see it is that nine years ago [1998] we saw the [Torah] Codes as probably without merit, and possibly dangerous.  Things have changed. Today [2007] we regard them as definitely without merit, and certainly dangerous to the Torah community…We understand the methodology of the experimenters much better. We’ve had an opportunity to subject the phenomenon to other tests, including one agreed upon in advance by both sides. We’ve seen some of the problems generated by people coming to believe that this is really a part of Torah.”

In the end, one just has to make sure that what one presents as Torah—or even as part of Torah—really is a part of Torah.

Friday, December 28, 2018

Shemos—Minority Report

Even in Egypt, the Pharaohs
Had to import Hebrew braceros
—Tom Lehrer

Themes and memes from Exodus have been circulating cyberspace throughout the current ostensible immigration crisis, and particularly since the Honduran caravan made its way north.

A closer look at how the Hebrews became Egypt’s most prominent minority and then Egypt’s most prominent victim of discrimination should give the lie to most if not all attempted analogs between the Biblical Exodus and the Honduran one in particular, and the entire ultimate open borders project more generally.

The Pharaoh of Yosef wasn’t Egyptian—he was Hykso, a northern minority that had conquered Egypt and was ruling the majority Egyptian population.  After Yosef’s revelation to his brothers, the royal court invited Yosef to bring his entire family, and he negotiated settling them in an area apart from the population—in Goshen.

On one hand, this might have presented an obstacle, as Yosef feared his brothers would have been drafted, but on the other, proved not to be when Yosef raised the specter of religious oppression vis a vis shepherding, so as a fellow minority, Pharaoh proved to be more than accommodating.  In a certain sense, Pharaoh might have been setting the Hebrews as a lightning rod, another minority to take pressure off of the Hyksos, as both he and Yosef were willing to give some credence to the racist and segregationist mentality in Egypt.  

(In fact, while as part of the repeated admonishment to love the get because we were strangers in Egypt, we are commended to not “hate the Egyptian” to the point that they are allowed in as gerim after a three-generation vet: the Torah almost seems to be giving credence to the notion that an attitude adjustment toward foreigners is a long, involved process that doesn’t happen overnight.)

Yet when Yosef executes his command economy, he takes steps to equalize the population (thought admittedly in a theoretically Hebrecentric manner—he legislates national circumcision).  Despite the fact that his radical socialist economy actually SAVES people (as opposed to what would happened in other socialist economies), the population isn’t all that grateful when push comes to shove and are able to reassert themselves as majority rulers and, having driven out the Hyksos, institute a “Blame the Jews” policy first.  

(Interestingly, as part of the justification for this policy—ועלה מן הארץ—the Egyptians never seem to consider actually expelling the Hebrews; they’d rather enslave them, kill the males, and take their women.  (The Egyptian tendency to doublespeak as delineated in Rashi ad loc was a cultural tendency: just as examples of how the Egyptians used “fake news” as official policy, one need only note the erasure of Hatshepsut from all public historical records, and the Merneptah stele, which may have been the first instance of Exodus denial.))

This, towards a population that: was already there, having been invited and vetted as legal immigrants; and  had literally saved the country and its entire population, as opposed to taking it over and forcing their way of life upon it; Goshen proved that.  One also should remember that Yosef was actually ASKED by the population to do everything he did before he put it into policy: he was offered even more draconian terms than he eventually imposed, and he avoided outright slavery; plus, his moves applied equally to everyone.  He has populations change neighborhoods, but he doesn’t deport anyone, and he doesn’t import anyone.

If one were to make an analog between the Exodus and the current migrant crisis, it wouldn’t be having populations moving to foreign lands en masse: it would, instead, be displaced populations returning to their own homelands.

“You were gerim in Egypt”: remember how you were invited and how you negotiated your interaction with the local culture, and respected it even as you distanced yourself from it as you found it in complete contradistinction to your way of life. The gerim you are going to vet are going to have submitted themselves to the same level of vetting and are actually going to adjust to YOUR way of life, not demand to impose theirs while maintain an equal or even favored status.   

And that's just on religious terms.  

The ultimate folly of the ger-as-immigrant analog is even simpler: just as one wouldn't expect that today's immigrants subject themselves to Torah laws regarding gerus in formulating immigration policy, one should certainly not expect that credence is given to the notion that open borders immigration has the force of Biblical imprimatur.

It doesn't.


Friday, December 21, 2018

Vayechi—Not Just The Chairman

Last week’s parsha features the confrontation between Yehuda and Yosef that illustrates competing concepts of ideal leadership for klal yisrael.  The Rav explains how the Yehuda model has to win out in the end, because Yehuda exemplifies gevura, and Yosef exemplifies chesed, and in situation that require not retreat but advance, gevura must trump chewed; the Rav notes that Yosef realized this at that moment that he decided to finally reveal himself to his brothers. 

(Note that even when Yosef institutes increasingly draconian emergency economic measures, the dialogue between him and the Egyptian populace indicates that they seemed to ask him first; he was waiting for them to give him permission to impose.  Yehuda, in contrast, couches his “J’accuse” in diplomatic language, but that’s about the only discernible politesse in the exchange.)

When one arrives at this weeks parsha, the question then arises as to the contrast between the ostensible leadership styles of Yehuda as juxtaposed with the other brother pretenders: Reuven certainly as the bechor, but possibly also Shimon and Levi.  The questions become more trenchant when one realizes that Reuven and his descendants are left with no real unique, discernible role among the bnei Leah: Shimon—pace Rashi on 49:7—became educators, and some say military men; Levi gave rise to the entire Preistly class; Yehuda, as noted, assumed the Kingship; even Yissachar and Zevulun had specifically roles carved out for them.

What was the nature of Reuven’s pachaz—“instability”—that made Yaakov assume he was unfit for any public role?  49:4 refers back to the incident of 35:22, Reuven “upsetting his father’s couch” because he thought his mother was getting short shrift.  Even when TB Shabbat 55b goes out of its way to ensure that it is known that no sin was committed, the entire incident is hardly an endorsement of Reuven’s action if one deigns to take a closer look.

First is the simple question of boundaries: having anything to do with what goes on in one’s parent’s bedroom.  The Gemara says that Reuven was actually sickened by the notion of what he might do, which may indicate that along with his impulsiveness, there was an ick factor the entire time that he was not unaware of.

Next is the fact that the Gemara note that the Shechina would precede Yaakov into whichever one of his respective wives’ tent he was to lodge that evening, so Reuven’s quarrel with his father turned out to be a quarrel with Heaven (presumably Leah wasn’t unaware of this, which may explain why there’s no protest from her, especially given her more proactive propensities as illustrated both how she married Yaakov and the duda’im narrative).  

Additionally—should one attempt to make an analog between Reuven argument with G-d as mimicking his great-grandfather vis-a-vis Sodom—the analog fall flat immediately when one remembers that Avraham was invited by G-d to argue on behalf of the Five Towns, and the argument itself was almost as if G-d was giving them Sixth Amendment rights; all Reuven did was violate his father’s Fourth Amendment rights.

Most crucially, however—and this might encapsulate Yaakov’s assessment—is that Reuven really never comes to terms with not taking everything personally.  Witness what might be his finest moment: stopping the impending slaughter of Yosef, having him thrown in the pit to play for time.  Except that: what does Reuven do once the immediate crisis is averted?  He runs off to engage in sackcloth and fasting for his offenses in the Bilhah matter, and in the meantime Yehuda moves into the power vacuum and Yosef is sold.

As the Rav explains, the teshuva at that moment was Reuven realizing that his impetuousness led the rest of the brothers to be disdainful of Yaakov’s authority and parental/paternal prerogatives, and the internecine hatred towards Yosef was the result.  Problem was, the crisis was still ongoing, and Reuven put his own personal spiritual dilemma ahead of the alleviating the crisis at hand, even as he had begun to blunt the worst case scenario.  Reuven may have still been trying to tenuously hold on to his position and his bechora by not making a public admission of his lapses, so as to not imperil his ostensible position.  

Yehuda is willing to do what Reuven isn’t: both when he admits his infractions with Tamar in public, and when he takes on the responsibility for Yosef that Reuven fails to when he "offers" his own sons as collateral.  As Eli Lebowicz explains: 

When Yehuda promises to Yaakov he’ll protect Binyamin, he’s coming from a different perspective than his brother Reuven is, who Yaakov brushes off when Reuven tries to guarantee it. After Yosef’s sold, Yehuda has two of his own sons die, and having gone through that experience, now he’s appealing to Yaakov as a father who can actually empathize with what he’s going through, having lost children of his own.

Further highlighting Reuven’s demotion is Yaakov’s admonition of Shimon and Levi: Yaakov has a problem with what they did, but doesn’t, as it were, demote them the way he does Reuven.   


The action at Shechem wasn’t an issue of personal aggrandizement for either of them; it was a calculated preemption in defense of the entire family’s honor, rather than internecine squabble about their place of privilege in the ostensible family hierarchy.  Neither one was attempting to maintain a personal privilege.  Reuven might have done just that in the Bilhah incident, which, interestingly occurs after Shechem, indicating that Reuven learned the wrong lessons, and that Shimon and Levi’s action did not undermine their father’s authority, despite Yaakov’s protestations of “achartem osi”.

As  a result Yaakov’s “curse” that Shimon and Levi get split up actually is more than a blessing in disguise, for them AND for the rest of klal yisrael.   In addition to the aforementioned roles ascribed to Shimon and Levi, note that actually was given what was originally supposed to be the province of the bechorim (not Reuven per se, but certainly loosely analogous) after the chet haegel, when they carried out ostensibly extrajudicial executions ; unlike Reuven,  who proved to be too tied both to himself and his immediate family and the ostensible privileges it would’ve conferred, Devarim 33:9 notes vis a vis Levi הָאֹמֵ֞ר לְאָבִ֤יו וּלְאִמּוֹ֙ לֹ֣א רְאִיתִ֔יו וְאֶת־אֶחָיו֙ לֹ֣א הִכִּ֔יר וְאֶת־בנו [בָּנָ֖יו] לֹ֣א יָדָ֑ע כִּ֤י שָֽׁמְרוּ֙ אִמְרָתֶ֔ךָ וּבְרִֽיתְךָ֖ יִנְצֹֽרוּ׃   

Finally, Yehuda, by proving that he knew where and when to face what was and wasn’t necessarily a priority; he distinguished himself from Reuven, who showed that even when he was doing teshuva, he couldn’t abandon that even when the situation called for it, and when he tried to be helpful, it could only go so far.

As Sefer Bereishis concludes with the ostensible short-term resolution of the heated fraternal conflicts between Yaakov’s children, there might be a few small temporary takeaways: 

*If one feels compelled to act impetuously on the basis of righteous indignation—one night want to reconsider;

*If one thinks one’s impetuous act of righteous indignation is justified in defense another’s honor—one might want to make sure the act is not truly about one’s own personal honor;

*One might actually be born to great things, but one still has to (re-)earn that privilege and prove that one belongs in an exalted position;

*Finally—one must be able to truly recognize the stakes and prioritize accordingly, even if and/or especially at one’s own personal expense. 

Friday, December 14, 2018

Vayigash—When You’re A “Stranger”

The issue of forcing the definition of the Biblical Hebrew “ger” to fit intersectional progressive prerogatives vis a vis unrestricted immigration has been dealt with ad nauseum in these pages and other more salient platforms.

Except, possibly, for the fact that the actual genesis [sic] of this issue can be found in this weeks parsha, particularly since the Torah repeatedly admonishes to love the ger precisely because “you were gerim in Egypt”.  So the question is [re]begged: what exactly was the nature/defintion of this gerus mitzrayim?

Recall that Yosef doesn’t initially hide origins—he repeatedly refers to himself publicly as a Hebrew (at least until he became viceroy); his detractors (e.g. Potiphar’s wife and the sar hamashkim) hadn’t missed that he was a Hebrew; and he’d even accommodated Egyptian bigotry by not seating his brothers and the Egyptians together (43:32).  In Vayigash, once Yosef’s origins are clear to the Pharaonic court, the court is described as being “pleased” with the development.   In fact, in next weeks parsha, it is strangely implied that Pharaoh has sworn Yosef to never leave Egypt, and he is forced to allow him to leave for Yaakov’s burial under duress.

By the time a “new king arose over Egypt”, the Hebrews are already a settled significant minority.  The issue of “oppressing the ‘stranger’”, then, is not that the Egyptians are trying to actually keep foreigners out, or develop a more restrictive immigration policy; it was that they had completely turned upon a once foreign minority that had been invited to settle and had become a settled part of the population.

Ergo, as the Egyptians at one point actually celebrate the Hebrews’ arrival, and at least treat them as equals until the regime change, our distinct duty under not “oppressing the ger” should be limited to this, at its baseline: to not use the non-native status of the foreign-born as a vehicle for discrimination; in fact, to love them further for making the choice to “migrate” towards us AFTER having displayed the willingness to subject themselves to ostensibly onerous initiation procedures, AND having cleared those barriers.   

The open-borders progressives claim that the primary Biblical implication is that our a priori obligation to those attempting to cross our borders first and then (maybe) be vetted later is to not commit anything that might smack of lo sonu, even if that involves asking questions about prior allegiances, restricting inflow from dangerous areas, or tightening border controls.  Adderabba: the primary obligation of a state is to its citizens, and one doesn’t need to make reference to Biblicisms for that, particularly not ones that prove o be tenuous and ontological.  The case could be made that the underlying principles could be applied to immigrants and immigration law once they have been vetted,  and they could be equally applicable in setting and enforcing the barriers to entry, and meting out consequences to those who violate those regulations. 

The use of the Biblical “ger” as an equivalent to today’s immigrant and the assertion that we-were-gerim-in-Egypt must define parameters beyond ger toshav/ger tzedek are both faulty premises.  The Hebrews’ prolonged presence in Egypt with the oppression that followed might mandate that we exhibit another level of consciousness towards those who we might have otherwise think don’t “belong” solely due to their foreign origin even after they’ve been vetted and cleared all the legitimate barriers to entry.   In fact, one might consider real ona’as ger to include both distorting the definition and then allowing those who refuse to abide by the actual parameters to stake claim to that status.

Friday, November 30, 2018

Vayeshev—The Not So Gentle Art Of Verbal Self Defense

Last year, ancillary to another topic in these pages, the author made this assertion:

“In fact—at the risk of violating a certain level of moreh halacha lifnei rabbanim—anyone who uses Tamar as the paradigmatic example of avoiding embarrassing someone even at the cost of ones own life—STOP IT; making the ostensible halbanah [the] sole locus [of] the Yehuda-Tamar narrative and then generalizing it as a teachable moment for tinokos shel beis rabban ensures that understanding the ma’aseh never gets past that level.  

“It’s frankly….embarrassing.”

The debate about whether halbanah is yehareg ve’al yaa’vor notwithstanding, a closer look indicates why the Yehuda-Tamar narrative may be the exception that proves the rule when it comes to halbanah, the rule being: more often than not, halbanah as a defensive tactic is eminently justifiable.

(Side topic: how the ostensibly all encompassing prohibition on bearing grudges and retaliation might be a lot narrower than one might have been told.  Specifically, one might want to use the Chafetz Chaim (Peticha lavin fnt. 8) that responding to an insult immediately with another insult isn't considered revenge since it is immediate and out of pain; that in and of itself might help some more omega talmidim feel less bullied instead of being instructed to shashtill.)

Why was Tamar reluctant to “name and shame”? 

Tamar had two major X factors to consider as she was being dragged to the stake. 

The first was that she bore some responsibility for what had happened: Yehuda was guilty of what had happened because she had very effectively deceived him; he may have given consent way after the fact, and he may have put her in an impossible position because of his and his sons’ moral failures, but at the time of the assignation, he was not a willing party.  

The second had to do with the Messianic mission that was impetus behind the assignation and the pregnancy: adding a “personal” element by naming and shaming Yehuda even at the cost of her life and the fetuses would have compromised the spiritual nature of the mission, and therefore the entire mission, especially since part of the mission was to get Yehuda to acknowledge his “contribution”, so she could only call him out indirectly.

(As another side point, one might consider that the possibility that the unborn would be destroyed here indicated for another point to consider in the abortion debates: note that as Tamar was NOT guilty of a capital crime here—and therefore the fetuses were not to be considered already dead and subject to execution—the mission seems to actually have taken precedence over their ostensible viability and continuing the pregnancy.  And—it was her “choice”, with which the midrashim seem to concur.  But again: different topic.)

So what would be the actual baseline of an actual halbanah from this narrative?

TB BM 58a—where the Yehuda-Tamar narrative is discussed—tells the story of Mar Ukva who would leave coins behind a poor man's door daily; the poor man wanted to find out who had been leaving coins for him, so when Mar Ukva noticed he was being followed he ran with his wife and hid in a hot furnace as to not embarrass the man.  

One of my marei d’asra told the following story at one his Rosh haShana derashos:  Rav Yisroel Salanter arrived in a town where he was unknown an went to daven mincha in a crowded shul.  Not having access to a siddur, he looked over the shoulder of a fellow in front of him, who then proceeded to berate R’ Salanter loudly and publicly for “shterring my kavvanah.”  

(As a loosely analogous aside, the story is told about a guy at a Friday night “tish” who complained that his “spiritual high” was ruined by hearing a woman sing zemiros.  One can certainly question how “spiritual” his high was, especially as he made it particularly about him, which was also something Tamar was trying to avoid: her mission was too important to personalize.)

My mora d’asra then defined from the R’ Salanter incident what Chilul Hashem was: hurting someone deliberately in order to do a mitzvah.  Tamar and Mar Ukva were attempting to avoid that specific situation: spiritual elevation at the expense of someone’s personal humiliation.

However—both of those are distinct from using verbal weaponry for self-defense in the face of delegitimization.  In the current zeitgeist, when debating tactics aren’t about parsing the truth but actually suppressing it, one might be remiss in shying away from employing an antagonist’s tactics—even adhominous labeling, even gaslighting—if they can be used effectively first.  It might be a stretch, but there comes a point where—like in TB Kesuvos 14b—one might be gaslighted into delegitimation if one doesn’t counter it: in other words, haba le’delegitimecha, hashkem le’deligitimam. אם לרמאות הוא בא גם אני אחיו ברמאות.

Especially when they’ve already made it personal.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Vayishlach—Handling the Truth

You have the Truth.

Can you handle it?

TB Chullin 91a gives an ostensible play-by-play of Yaakov wrestling the angel.  While the most enduring image conjured up is the kicked-up dust rising all the way to the Throne of Glory—where, it is said, G-d keeps an image of Yaakov, who embodies “Truth”—some of the other details from the story itself indicate not only for the struggle involved for even Yaakov attaining the Truth, but that at times this Truth remains inaccessible to one who has it, never mind if that Truth needs to be conveyed.  In fact, the wrestling match presents the climax of Yaakov’s search for truth, not only because of the overarching metaphysically of the event, but because the other events of Yaakov’s life as recorded in Chumash indicate—at first glance—that this relationship with Truth is ostensibly complicated, sometimes because of actions of his initiative, sometimes as a result of others’ efforts.

A partial list:
  • Yaakov pilfering the brachos as a result of his mother’s imprecations as well as her own prophetic visions that she herself does not share with her husband Yitzchak; 
  • Yaakov’s obvious discomfort with the plan to the point that Rashi pace the midrashim is compelled to parse “Anochi…Esav bechorecha”; 
  • Rivkah not sharing her other prophetic vision of Esav’s murderous intentions towards Yaakov with her husband; 
  • Yaakov accusing Leah of being like her father because of the bait-and-switch, only to be immediately pot-kettle-blacked by Leah—“and what about the brachos?”;  
  • Yaakov needing to take both a warlike and diplomatic stance in approaching his brother, and being taken to task for being too pliant in his diplomatic approach (calling himself “your servant” and downplaying the effect of the brachos); 
...all indicating that finding what might be the “best” answer might call for “bending” the Truth.

Even the guise of the angel Yaakov wrestles is up in the air: he may have resembled an idolater; he may have resembled a talmid chacham.

One can discern a progression, even if not a linear one, from where a possessor of Truth then proffers it in a way that at the very least gets lost in translation, beginning with Yitzchak trying to convey it to Esav more than he does Yaakov, while fooled by Esav’s pretentions to piety; Rivkah is more successful, but at a terrible price, even if one she herself prophesies (Gen. 27:45—“Let me not lose you both in one day!”).  This has to complicate Yaakov’s chinuch prerogatives with his family, for lack of a better term, in a ways that are readily evident: 
  • Yaakov wanting to divorce Leah, but staying together for the children (GR 71:2), even after (pace the Artscroll chumash citing R Aharon Kotler) that "his acute spiritual antennae detected nothing wrong" on his wedding night after the swtich, because Leah was his true "spiritual partner"; 
  • Yaakov’s ostensible insensitivity to Rachel’s infertility (Gen. 30:2, to the point of anger: “Can I take the place of G-d?”, and her fear that now SHE would suffer divorce and fall into the hands of Esav); 
  • Yaakov hiding Dinah in a box to keep his brother’s prying eyes off of her because he’s actually afraid she might bring Esav to teshuva; 
  • Yaakov's silence in the face of Dina’s abduction and then his disapproval when action is actually taken; 
  • and finally, Yosef’s coat, which Yaakov uses simultaneously as a token of favoritism and as a motivational tool vis-a-vis the brothers, which backfires spectacularly: the fact that the brothers attach a cherem to the secret of Yosef’s abduction and sale that even binds their grandfather Yitzchak seems to confirm the generational tendencies towards secrecy and miscommunication.  
In theory, two bold statements that this author might have been otherwise afraid to utter but came across a in WebYeshiva essay about this topic while researching this piece which might have more forcefully made the salient points regarding Truth, particularly: 
  • “Human truth isn’t to be dismissed…There is objective Truth, there is human truth, and there is the combination of the two that we find in halachah.”
  • “Avraham is known for the trait of chessed, kindness, and—since Torah is also called a Torah of kindness- that was why he was able to fulfill the entire Torah intuitively… Ya’acov, on the other hand, is known for the trait of truth[,] and therefore could not intuit the Torah, since Truth is the seal of God, and that trait doesn’t fully exist in this world.”
The broader epistemology notwithstanding, one can just view the disparate elements of the narrative to discern the pitfalls of “Truthtelling” as an educational approach, particularly when only one option is presented as “Truth”.  This author has described elsewhere how the Dina-in-a-box incident indicates for an educational failure on Yaakov’s part; but also, the Torah's depiction of the early deaths of Er and Onan indicate for some lessons in Yehuda’s household either not having been taught, but certainly not having been learned, especially on the heels of the lessons not being learned from Yosef’s sale, as described in Rashi on 38:1.  (It’s also possible that the extreme reluctance of Yeshivos to teach Chapter 38 at all indicates that maybe on some level there exists a fear of exposing all of the Truth all at once.)

Even when one “has” the truth (never mind if one isn’t even certain of possessing it), one is not necessarily qualified to communicate it, or the time may not be right for it to be communicated; or: just because you see something, doesn’t mean you say something.  Sometimes there is just as much a mitzvah to say nothing.  Sometimes it isn't the Truth being handled.  Only in tennis is "99% out 100% in"; elsewhere, the claim that one possesses 100% of the truth is 100% untruth.