Friday, April 24, 2015

Tazria-Metzora: Alone Time [Yichud?]

The conventional wisdom has usually been that these two parshiyos are essentially about tzaraas.

The conventional wisdom has usually been that tzaraas and the attendant isolation and series of rituals designed to bring the leper back into the machaneh were mida kneged mida for lashon hara, if by degree: the negative talk had served to drive people away from each other, hence the speaker experiences this form of internal exile.

In other terms, the speaker made achdus difficult, if not impossible; therefore a form of “yichud” with oneself was the prescribed corrective.

Or was it just for that?

Julius Preuss in his 1911 classic Biblical and Talmudic Medicine lists—based on Arachin 16a, Yalkut 563, and Sanhedrin 107a—fourteen sins that lead to leprosy; but he reserves special mention for “lewdness”, giving David haMelech as the example from Sanhedrin.   [Preuss mentions Vashti’s leprosy as payback for making Jewish girls undress, pace Megillah 12b.]

In David haMelech’s case, while the tzaraas was one of the punishments Natan prophesied would be the result of his taking of Batsheva, there might have been another indirect payback by several degrees: the maaseh of Amnon and Tamar and the concomitant issuance of the gezerah of yichud with a penuyah that resulted.

If one reads Sandra Rapaport’s Biblical Seductions [as I did over Pesach] and gets the idea that Amnon icked up his predatory habits from his father—as she at least intimates there might be a hava amian for—you might wonder if, after David himself had unwittingly sent Tamar into Amnon’s lair to meet her fate and he was grappling for a response to a whirlwind of family tragedy [Rapaport does draw a parallel between David taking Batsheva and sending Tamar off—both the result of royal privilege].  So one might think that the gezerah was completely reactive, and punitive to the victims: “If such a great disgrace can occur even to the king's daughter, and all the more so to regular women” [Sanh. 21b].

If one looks at that statement again in light of what had happened, it might not be the case.  First one must remember—no matter how it seems like a whitewash—women in those days needed protection [and, after reading Rapaport, the royal women needed it especially.]  Second: if yichud is punitive, then it “punishes” everyone—but it especially punishes [or protects?] the men who want access, like Amnon, who would stop at nothing to get it.

So why the gezera on penuyot and not siblings? 

My mara d’asra, R. Allen Schwartz, had an interesting theory about Yonadav.  Despite the gemara there saying he was a “chacham for evil”, R Schwartz theorized that his entire plan to get Tamar into Amnon’s quarters and have her minister to her might have been to help Amnon get over his obsession—to see her as his sister, taking care of him as a sister would.  But it backfired: a man with Amnon’s character could turn the most benign action into something completely inappropriate; a man who would obsess over his sister might eventually obsess over his mother. 

[And if the incident hadn’t rendered Amnon impotent—as the gemara notes—he might not have stopped with this incident.  One wonders if this could have been another punishment by degrees: as a kerus shafcha, Amnon’s procreative options were now severely—nichras.  Which could not have been very flattering to the Crown Prince, who now had to live with a reminder of his criminal act for the rest of his life—which he had to spend in a sort of “yichud”.]

So all the circumstances of Amnon's crime were unlikely to repeat themselves in a situation where there shouldn't have been any kind of sexual miasma.  Other situations that lend themselves to that--this might have been the tipoff, however different it was from a "normal" course of events.

The gezera was to prevent a situation where there wouldn’t be a third party to possibly stop the proceedings; the palace incident might have called for a whole different set of safeguards.  Which is why—as counterintuitive as it was—the gezera made sense as a response to this incident.

Obviously this didn’t really help Tamar [Rapaport does try to imagine how she might have attempted to cope and rebuild her life].   And one probably won’t find satisfactory answers.  

But one can learn three things from the crossover—however limited—between tzaraas and yichud.

The first: EVERYONE has an obligation to behave equally.  The onus is on BOTH genders.  No one has illicit access to the other.

The second: as much as one might consider Torah and mida kneged mida a “behavior plan” of sorts, it’s never that simple [certainly, it’s not Pavlovian or ABA].  The prescribed correctives may not always seem to directly match the offense.  But somehow things seem to eventually add up.  [Gehazi, one of the more famous lepers in Tanach, was also one of the Talmud’s more noteworthy predators: several sources intimate that he essentially sexually molests the Shunammite woman.   So his leprosy—though not a direct result of this action—at least keeps him from trying that again].  The reaction to the Amnon incident didn't look like a direct corrective.  But it might make sense that it was the impetus.

Finally: everyone needs alone time.  It should never be imposed.  But even if and when it is—even in a social media age—it’s not always as bad an idea as it looks.   It’s been said [I’ve seen it but don’t remember the source] that the only people who actually contracted tzaraas were on a high enough level to actually appreciate a Divine message to decompress.  Hopefully we can do that by ourselves, however we do it.

[PS--following that line of thinking, the appreciation of the message to decompress was a more difficult test than that: the correctives took place in public, the metzora being exiled from the camp and in some cases having to call out so as to not contaminate passerby.  One only hopes that the more prominent individuals who might be in need of a public correction being able to take one if it comes.]

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Pesach: The Iron[y] Age, or: Wait For It…

L’fi rov shittos of historians, the Iron Age starts around 1200 BCE, or k’misparenu, 2560.

Give or take a few years, that’s rather close to yitizias mitzrayim.  [It’s closer to the kibush actually, but without the geula there's no kibush, so…who cares about exactitude anyway?  What is this, p’sak?  In theory, it might be more accurate to tie in the inundation of the Pharaonic retinue in the Red Sea to the Collapse of the Bronze Age, which would not only herald the dawn of the Iron Age, but provide a further irony, thus further underscoring my point.  Ad kan.]

In any case, it really might have been a demarcation in more ways than one.  The dawn of the Iron Age AND Yitzias Mitzrayim are rich in…irony.  [And not the kind they spray onto sugar cereals, including Crispy-O’s.]

But in the grand tradition: I’m going to make you Wait For It…like the haggadah does when it quotes Pesachim 116a: “Yachol MeRosh Chodesh”…no, G-d made us Wait For It.

The hava amina that the mitzvah of sippur yetzias mitrayim should start from Rosh Chodesh Nissan can be taken one step further to the first Rashi in the entire Torah, quoting the medrash [or—as some posit—his own father] that the Torah should really start with Rosh Chodesh Nissan: as the Torah is really a sefer mitzvos, it makes sense that it begins with the first mitzvah in the Torah given to the Jews as a collective.

Irony number one: the Torah—which should start with just “us”—doesn’t.  And even the starting point where is ostensibly our first mitzvah makes us unique HAS to be defined against the "other" on two levels: first, that we have an exclusive calendar for our own purposes, but it’s defined against everyone else's calendar [cf. TB R”H, which delineates between R”C Nisan for OUR kings and R”C Tishrei for everyone else's—even though [further irony] the “goyishe” kings dates are from where we count “misparenu”.  And don’t even get me started on the avoda zara of month names, especially Tammuz…]

Irony number two:  the Korban Pesach itself was designated as sheep particularly to counter [and desecrate]  the idolatrous practices of the host Egyptians, who worshiped sheep.  So—like our calendar—our defining sacrifice is defined as a contraindication rather than sui generis.

Irony number three: this time—Pesach is only one day; especially in terms of chametz.  The matzah was eaten bechipazon, but BEFORE they hit the road.  The irony itself my be attributable to a sicha of R’ Aharon Lichtenstein regarding how the difference between the way Pesach was ostensibly less machmir the first time actually speaks to how the Torah counterintuitively allows for flexibility from within [key word: from within], particularly how the procedure vis-à-vis that one-time korban pesach was a one-shot deal.

Irony number four: Moshe takes the erev rav because he thinks we need a groundwork for our eventual exile.   However: THEY are the impetus behind the eventual worst excesses of the Egel, and all exile stems FROM that [“ no punishment befalls Israel in which there is not part of the punishment for the sin of the [golden] calf [TB Sanh 102a]”].  So Moshe’s proactivity MAY have introduces the very element behind what he was trying to avoid, OR his ruach hakodesh told him this was the best way to stave off its inevitability. Tzorech iyyun.

[Four-and-a-half: the puranus meme also may speak to the “A”T/BA”SH” system of figuring out what days holidays fall out on, because rishon shel Pesach and Tisha B’av ALWAYS come out the same day of the week; one of the other reasons for the egg on the seder plate.   A participant at one of my family seders years ago thought the tone of the Maggid discussion was starting to “sound like the Holocaust”, whereupon my father responded that “This WAS a Holocaust.  The first one.”  The irony of our greatest triumph havig the seeds of our greatest failures built right into the celebration is paradigmatic in more ways than one.]

The final irony [for now]: Krias Yam Suf , which might be the paradigm of lo nitna Torah lemalachei hashares--the Angels don’t get to sing, but we do.  We had also died en masse during choshech, the blood on the marpef saving [some of] us from the makkah, and the angels ostensibly say nothing; at the Red Sea, they say “these worship idols, these worship idols”…and maybe THAT’S why the angels don’t get to sing: they were about to have EVERYONE drown,  and now they wanna sing?   It’s as if G-d was saying: Who’s side are you on, exactly?  Angels have no bechira, so they exist in a pure realm.  But as Yoram Hazony points out, that doesn’t work down here.

It’s unlikely that Faulkner had TB Avoda Zara 3b in mind when he called G-d the “Cosmic Joker”.  But it might be better [and certainly less pejorative] to call Him the Supreme Ironist, particularly where Yetzias Mitrayim is concerned.  It might not be accidental that the above Gemara refers to the LAST geula as when G-d laughs.

The final irony—as we pointed out in the title—G-d made us Wait For It, even as we were commanded that the holiday services were done “bechipazon” [subirony: what seder nowadays is done “bechipazon”?]  But: we had to Wait For It after Rosh Chodesh [“yachol merosh chodesh?”], we had to Wait For It when we took the sheep on the tenth for sacrifice on the 14th, we had to Wait For It when we didn’t leave until Pharaoh actually gave “permission” in the aftermath of Makkas Bechoros, we had to Wait For It at the Red Sea because no one would jump in until Nachshon ben Aminadav did...and while I pretend that I actually can list the myriad “Wait For It”s in the literature, suffice it to leave off with the ultimate Wait For It, Rambam’s 12th ikkar.

May one geulah lead to another, with all the attendant irony.

Chag kasher v’sameach.