Friday, May 23, 2008

Derashah: Bechukotai - The Beauty and the Beast within ourselves

Polar Bears were declared an Endangered Species this past week, presenting a chance to tell the following story:
A man was arrested and taken to court for shooting an endangered bald eagle.
The judge said the man would be jailed unless he had a VERY good excuse.
The man said he would never have done it, but his children hadn't eaten a decent meal in weeks, so he killed the bald eagle to feed them. The judge said he'd let the man go with just a warning if he promised he would never kill an endangered species again. The man agreed.
As the man was leaving, the judge stopped him and asked: “Well, what does a bald eagle taste like?”
The man answered: “Well, something like a cross between a California Condor and an Ivory-billed Woodpecker.”

The dodo is gone, the saber-toothed tiger has disappeared… and, according to our parshah, some day soon we might see many more species go extinct. The parshah predicts that when we follow the Torah, we will have peace and plenty in Israel, and והשבתי חיה רעה מן הארץ, HaShem will eliminate wild animals from the land. So what will HaShem do with all of those animals?

In the midrash, R’ Yehudah says מעבירם מן העולם - HaShem will remove them from the world. The UN’s World Conservation Monitoring Centre will be furious, of course, but on the whole, it’s probably better to let Gd deal with the UN anyway.

R’ Shimon, on the other hand, says משביתן שלא יזוקו, HaShem will prevent them from causing harm.

Note that while R’ Yehudah’s view does fit the pasuk’s language of והשבתי better, R’ Shimon’s view matches Yeshayah’s prediction of וגר זאב עם כבש - that the wolf will lie down with the lamb. Per R’ Yehudah, there will be no wolves to lie down with any lambs!

R’ Yehudah and R’ Shimon are relevant to more than the saber-toothed tiger; their two visions, the eradication of evil and the conversion of evil to good, describe two distinct eschatological views regarding the ultimate end of evil in a Messianic age. R’ Yehudah sees the Messianic era as a time when evil will simply be annihilated. R’ Shimon, on the other hand, anticipates reformation, a popular return to beneficence.

Both views, of course, have ample basis in Tanach’s descriptions of our national fate, and the fates of other nations.

• Our parshah presents a tochachah, a warning of punishment to befall the Jews if they stray from the Torah. A second version of this tochachah appears in Parshat Ki Tavo, but with a major difference. Our parshah’s warning ends with repentance, או אז יכנע לבבם הערל, we will be humbled and return to Gd; this is R’ Shimon’s view. The warning in Ki Tavo, on the other hand, ends with the eradication of evil-doers as they are defeated and sold into slavery, full stop. No teshuvah; that’s R’ Yehudah’s take.

• Fast-forward to the city of Nineveh, in the day of Yonah. Yonah warns the population that HaShem is going to punish them - and they repent, and are forgiven. R’ Shimon’s view. But then, a generation or two later, they fall back into sin and the prophet Nachum comes to tell them that this time, they are going to be destroyed. R’ Yehudah’s view.

• Zecharyah, at the start of the second Beit haMikdash, predicts an ultimate messianic time heralded by an apocalyptic war in which one-third of the population will be killed. R’ Yehudah’s view. But Malachi, a generation later, foretells a possibility of והשיב לב אבות על בנים ולב בנים על אבותם, when those who have strayed will become united in teshuvah and in service of HaShem. R’ Shimon’s view.

But R’ Yehudah vs. R’ Shimon is more than an angels-dancing-on-the-head-of-a-pin dialogue about what Gd will or will not do; we may read this as a debate about the basic character of Gd’s Creations - animals and humans alike:

• The possibility of Annihilation means that Good is not eternal, that there is a point when we declare the Good to be dead, when we say Enough. שובו בנים שובבים חוץ מאחר, repentance is a privilege which may be withdrawn.

• Reformation means that there is always an enduring remnant of Good within every being, that we can always return, that the Divine temper can and will bide its time as long as is necessary for us to act on the good within.

Within this debate, we must always opt for the optimistic view of R’ Shimon.

In dealing with community and family, we must choose the optimistic view. Like Beruriah arguing that we should pray for the wicked to repent rather than to disappear, like the Rambam ruling that we must work with even the most recalcitrant students to bring them to the point where they are suited to learn Torah, we must believe in that ultimate good.

• This means we invite back relatives and guests who don’t know how to share control of a conversation, and we try to sensitize them to polite society.

• This means we associate even with people who are insensitive in their language, and hope to help them become more careful.

• This means we continue to offer children, spouses, siblings, another chance. And another. And another.

Please note: I’m not talking about dangerous situations, about accepting back an abusive spouse or otherwise imperiling personal safety. In those cases, giving another chance is generally a terrible mistake. But where personal safety is not in question, we side with R’ Shimon and believe that no person is irredeemable.

As an anonymous man told R’ Elazar b”R’ Shimon in the gemara, “If you think there is something wrong with me, go tell my Creator that He erred.”So long as we are not in personal danger, we take every step to help others redeem themselves.

And there’s another time when we must opt for R’ Shimon: When assessing ourselves, when evaluating the traits we have trouble controlling, the temptations that chip away at our resolve until we surrender. Rather than give up the beast within ourselves as evil, a la R’ Yehudah, we take the view of R’ Shimon and seek out the good, robbing the beast of its fangs by turning these traits in a positive direction.

• __________ gave a great dvar torah at Seudah Shlishis a while back, arguing that lazy people can use their laziness for good: If we’re drawn to an aveirah, we can contemplate how much time and effort it would involve, how comfortable our bed is, and so on, and procrastinate until the opportunity is gone.

• Hyper-critical people? No problem. We can use that trait to identify our own flaws, and to learn from the weaknesses of others and identify them in ourselves.
• Stingy? We can use that trait to motivate ourselves to avoid self-indulgence and extravagance.

R’ Shimon’s approach of finding the good can help us salvage more than personal ego; it can help us act on the positive potential implanted within us.

The Torah follows up its dramatic Tochachah warning with a dry technical discussion about ערך. An ערך is a personal price, a shekel amount assigned to every human being, based solely on age and gender, not righteousness or wealth or family or wisdom or skills. The Torah describes how a person might choose to donate his or someone else’s ערך-amount to the Beit haMikdash.

Don Isaac Abarbanel explained the Torah’s transition from graphic warning to dry legal code: After all of those dire predictions of punishment, we might question ourselves, our legitimacy in the covenant, our value as human beings and Jews. To this the Torah responds - everybody has an ערך, everybody has a value.

Perhaps, one day, HaShem will take the route of R’ Yehudah and eliminate the animal and the animalistic - but we, within our own capacities, apply R’ Shimon’s idea. משביתן שלא יזוקו, we recognize the good and use it to turn the animal - in our neighbors, in our relatives, and in ourselves - to the best.

1. I started out writing an entirely different derashah, about the Conversion Crisis, but I didn't like the way it was coming out, so I turned to this one. Kind of dry, I have to admit. I am into the core idea, though, and it's 3 PM on Friday afternoon.

2. The midrash with R' Yehudah and R' Shimon is in the Sifra to Bechukotai (1:2).

3. Of course, Avraham does exile Yishmael, but this is at Divine decree, so I consider it a justified exception to the rule.

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