Sunday, January 27, 2008

Derashah: Yitro - Two Tablets, Two Approaches to Humanism

This week we saw yet another round in the age-old Israeli battle for survival. Since Disengagement, Palestinian Arabs have fired more than 4200 rockets from Aza into Israel, killing people, traumatizing children, destroying lives as well as property. Israel currently provides electricity to Aza, and they opted to punish and incapacitate the terrorists and their supporters by reducing this supply. The rest of the world protested that this is cruel, and collective punishment. The Israeli government backed down.
It would be simple to say that the world finds it easier to watch Jews suffer than to fight terrorism, but I think this is a much bigger, much more complex issue. We go through the same battle regarding criminal justice in any society – do we punish crime harshly, hoping this will serve as a deterrent, or do we try for a more gentle rehabilitation?
As I understand it, this is really a debate that has its roots in the issue of Humanism, and in the two tablets on which were inscribed the Aseres haDibros.

“Humanism” is a vague term, but when I use this word I mean specifically the idea that humanity has special value and priority, over and above other entities; it’s an anthropocentric view of the world.
This Humanism is, in many ways, consonant with Judaism. Rav Aharon Lichtenstein recently published a long article on exactly this point,[1] but just to present a couple of examples:
We believe that Gd created the world for our sake, for the sake of our Torah and mitzvos.
Dovid haMelech said, השמים שמים לה' והארץ נתן לבני אדם, The heavens belong to Gd, and He gave the world to us.
Although classical Jewish sources disagree regarding the precise role of human beings in the spiritual universe,[2] we do believe that human beings can reach great spiritual heights and commune with the Divine.

But there are two different sides to this humanism:
One side argues that because of our great human value, we must be treated with respect, and all human suffering must be avoided.
But the other side argues that precisely because of our great value, our crime must be punished, even with the infliction of suffering.
Both of those views are Humanist, but they come to it in opposite ways.

The first view is that human life has automatic value. When Gd created Adam and Chavah, He told them פרו ורבו, Bear fruit and become many, fill the world and conquer it. There were no explicit qualifications, such as, “Bear fruit if you will follow My commandments,” or “Become many in order to serve Gd.”
This Humanism takes its lead from the second tablet, the latter five of the Aseres haDibros, the ones that instruct us not to murder, not to steal, not to commit sexual immorality, not to testify falsely about others, and not to be jealous of others. Like Gd in Gan Eden, these dibros offer no limitations – “Don’t murder righteous people,” “Don’t testify against certain people.” All humanity is offered sanctuary, without discrimination, beneath the wings of Divine protection.
This Humanism, on the Torah’s cue, is sensitive to the right of every human life, as a creation of HaShem, as a neshamah, to live with a minimum of pain.

The second view is that human life is valuable only insofar as it relates to the Divine.
True, Gd did not limit פרו ורבו, but He did create us בצלמנו כדמותנו, in a specially assigned image and with an associated spiritual capacity.
True, the second Tablet is non-discriminatory in its protection for all humanity, but the first Tablet explicitly declares the spiritual expectations placed upon each of us. The Dibros begin, אנכי ה' אלקיך, “I am HaShem your Gd.” They continue to warn about worshipping Gd, about honoring the Divine, about commemorating Divine Creation and about gratitude toward Gd. In sum, the message on the first tablet is this: We have a relationship with HaShem.
As Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch wrote almost two hundred years ago,[3] “You, son and daughter of Israel, are to be neither plant nor animal but human being, and in this human vocation you must feel yourself to be called upon to serve not yourself but Gd, with all that you are, with all that you have and will have, and with your enjoyments and actions, and dedicate yourself freely with your whole being to Gd.”
This version of Humanism, also on the Torah’s cue, says that our Human value is a function of our relationship with the Divine, and that sundering the relationship will also sunder our natural protections.

In fact, we may read both of these approaches into the beginning of our parshah, and a split between the approaches of Moshe and Yisro.[4]
Yisro, overwhelmed by all he has heard about the miracle-filled escape from Mitzrayim, visits the Jews. As the Torah puts it, וישמע יתרו...את כל אשר עשה אלקים למשה ולישראל עמו - Yisro heard all that HaShem had done for Moshe, and for the Jewish people. Yisro heard about how HaShem split the sea for us, how HaShem provided Mun and water in the desert. ויחד יתרו על כל הטובה אשר עשה ה' לישראל, Yisro was excited by all of the good things HaShem had done for the Jewish people. Yisro mentioned nothing about the suffering of the Egyptians.[5]
But when Yisro arrived, Moshe told him more about what had been happening - with a very different focus. ויספר משה לחותנו את כל אשר עשה ה' לפרעה ולמצרים, Moshe told his father-in-law everything that HaShem had done to Paroh and to Egypt - not the salvation of the Jews, but the punishment of the Egyptians, the humiliation of Paroh, the makkos, the death, the drowning in the sea.
Yisro came to hear the positives, the help HaShem gave us! But Moshe said, “I also want to tell you about how HaShem punished the Egyptians,” this is something we also need to hear about. It may be painful, but this punishment is a critical part of the story, and must be told as well.
No one can question Moshe’s compassion or his sensitivity to suffering; from his youth to his old age Moshe endangered himself to save others from pain. According to the midrash, Moshe was hired to lead the Jews because of his great compassion! Moshe must agree that we treasure human life - but he simultaneously insists that our standards and expectations must be founded on a principle more lofty than DNA and the handy-dandy opposable thumb. Moshe demands that our expectations be founded on the principle of Merit - and so the Egyptians deserve their fate.

HaShem appears to take Moshe’s side, and that of the First Tablet: Humanity’s protection is, in fact, linked to its spiritual accomplishment - otherwise, there would not be punishment in the Divine system.
True, we are taught that HaShem is pained when He metes out a penalty, but ה' איש מלחמה, HaShem is a warrior, ready and able to act with violence against those who violate His demands.
And human beings are called to punish as well. Lest one say כי המשפט לאלקים הוא and punishment is reserved only for Gd, look at the parshah we will read in a few weeks, and the חטא העגל, the Golden Calf. Moshe instructed the Kohanim to wield their swords and attack those who had worshipped this idol, to execute without trial or hearing - and HaShem honored those same Kohanim to work in the Beis haMikdash, the ultimate place of peace.

It would be absurd to present practical guidelines for Aza or criminal justice on the basis of this ten-minute, oversimplified armchair analysis. But, to me, one lesson is clear, and that is in the way we deal with ourselves.
With other people, we might err on the side of leniency, but for ourselves we ought to choose the more demanding of the two: The side that says, “Your value depends on what you do with your life.” May our expectation of ourselves and of our children be not the least-common-denominator “Lo Tirtzach,” but “Anochi HaShem Elokecha,” to develop and live in the relationship that Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch described, “to serve not yourself but Gd, with all that you are, with all that you have and will have, and with your enjoyments and actions, and dedicate yourself freely with your whole being to Gd.”

[1] Torah Umadda Journal, Vol. 14
[2] Rambam vs RSG
[3] Horeb, paragraph 100
[4] Based on the sefer חומר לדרוש
[5] Granted Rashi’s midrash על אתר

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