The Talmud manages to do what few legal systems even attempt: it integrates psychological and moral issues seamlessly with normative legal guidelines. But to appreciate the full extent of this integration, it’s important to pay attention to something that is too often left out of today’s Gemara classes: the aggadah.
This week’s Torah reading, parashat Mattot-Masai, rounds off Sefer BaMidbar (Numbers). Among the narratives of battles, conquests, and politics, we can also discern a subtle shift in divine-human relations: only in the last few parshiot do human beings begin bringing questions and requests to change the law. What brought about this change?
The Torah calls attention to two dangers facing the Israelites in their encounter with Moav. The first is the danger of cultural assimilation. A clash of cultures need not involve active enmity; it is possible for a culture to succumb to too much love just as surely as of repression. But there is a second danger as well: that of moral degradation. Israel’s encounter with Moav involved both of these pitfalls and resulted in a rift between the two nations that would not be healed for generations.
One of the lessons of Parashat Balak is that things aren’t always what they seem, that human intentions don’t always pan out the way we imagine, and that there is an overall scheme of things invisible to the limited sight of a single generation.
The current uproar in Israel over a proposed academic “code of conduct” recalls a Talmudic debate on when freedom of speech endangers the rule of law. And this, in turn raises the question: What do false prophets, rebellious sages, and kidnappers all have in common? The answer has everything to do with freedom of speech in the public sphere.
The mitzvot of Shmittah and Yovel set out a complete program of social and religious life that encompasses respect for others, for the the land, and for God. Israel’s right to live in peace and prosperity in its own land is conditional on its building a model society, which provides a safety blanket for its weakest members. We aren’t just told to have compassion on those who are down on their luck; we are legally mandated to act toward them as we would toward our closest family.
The Exodus from Egypt is a story of miracles from beginning to end. But the greatest miracle of all is hidden in plain sight. God tells Moshe that Pharoah will not listen to him, and will inevitably bring about the next escalation, until finally, the results can no longer be reasoned away. By highlighting the institutionalization of the slavery, the eventual emancipation is shown for the miracle that it is.
Following are my contributions to Rabbi Cardozo’s Purim-themed “Thoughts to Ponder“. I hope they will be a worthy addition to the weighty matter of getting thoroughly silly on Purim. Enjoy!
This week’s Parashah, though couched in a terminology that may seem unfamiliar to modern ears, deals with issues that are topical for every age–issues of guilt and redress, wrong-doing and atonement. What is especially striking is that these issues are first brought up in the Torah in the context of unwitting transgression. The focus throughout this first parasha of Vayikra is on mistakes and cases of doubt. There is an important message in this: we seldom know for sure if what we’re doing is wrong. And yet, only one who can acknowledge responsibility for his past actions is in a position to change his future actions.
“Why do bad things happen to good people?” Jewish tradition has tackled the question from both the halakhic and the hashkafic aspects. The halakhic view of it uses the concept of g’mul to express the way our actions in the world rebound upon us. Meanwhile, the hashkafic view assumes that, regardless of how it may look to us, Justice is in fact a conserved quantity.