Unconditional Commitment

  • Harav Yaakov Medan
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In loving memory of
Rebbetzin Rebecca Singer z"l,
wife of Rabbi Joseph Singer z"l, daughter of Rabbi Chaim Heller z"l,
upon her yahrzeit, 27 Sivan -
by her daughter Vivian Singer.
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And if a single individual sins through ignorance, then he shall bring a she-goat of the first year for a sin offering. And the Kohen shall make atonement for the individual who sins ignorantly, when he sins by ignorance before the Lord, to make atonement for him, and it shall be forgiven him… But a person who acts presumptuously, whether he is born in the land or a stranger, that person dishonors the Lord, and that soul shall be cut off from among his people. Because he has despised the word of the Lord, and has violated His commandment, that soul shall utterly be cut off; his iniquity shall be upon him. (Bamidbar 15:27-31)
 
The Torah presents here the two poles of the continuum of sinners. At one end, there is the person who sins through ignorance, who must bring a sacrifice. At the other extreme, there is the person who sins “presumptuously” – deliberately and brazenly violating God’s commandments out of ideology; he is punished with karet. But what about the “regular” sinners in the middle, those who sin knowingly out of “desire” – i.e., prompted by their weaknesses and desires, rather than defiance or rebellion?
 
The Halakha also recognizes mainly the two poles, with less clear attention given to the instances that belong to neither extreme. The sinner through ignorance must bring a sin offering; one who sins knowingly is sentenced to death by the beit din. However, there are very specific conditions pertaining to the “knowing” sinner, bringing his situation very close to that of the “presumptuous” sinner: He must have first been seen by witnesses and given due warning. Furthermore, the sinner must respond to the warning with the words, “It is for that reason that I am doing this” – and immediately thereafter, as he speaks, he must perform the transgression (Rambam, Laws of Sanhedrin 12:2). Why are the specifications surrounding the warning so strict? Could anyone imagine that in the absence of these very specific conditions, this person is somehow not aware that he is sinning? The requirement of “as he speaks” is especially difficult to understand. In between the sinner’s response to the warning and the act itself there can be no more than a couple of seconds. But why? If another few seconds – or even a few minutes – go by before he acts, would anyone imagine that he has forgotten the warning? Seemingly, the definition of a “knowing sinner comes very close to the definition of one who sins “presumptuously,” as expressed most clearly in the requirement that he declare, “It is for that reason that I am doing this.” This reflects recognition of the God Who commands and of His commandment, and a principled, knowing, willing decision to reject both. Once again, no attention is given to the intermediate situation – the individual who sins for the sake of enjoyment.
 
In the verses following immediately after those cited above, we encounter an individual who was indeed sentenced to death:
 
And while Bnei Yisrael were in the wilderness, they found a man gathering sticks on the day of Shabbat… And the Lord said to Moshe, “The man shall be surely put to death; all the congregation shall stone him with stones outside the camp.” And all the congregation brought him outside the camp and stoned him with stones and he died, as the Lord commanded Moshe. (Bamidbar 15:32-36)
 
It should be noted that in the only two instances where the Torah records an actual execution in the desert, the acts are performed brazenly, “presumptuously.” There is the gatherer of sticks in our parasha and the blasphemer in Sefer Vayikra (24). This latter act cannot be understood in any other way than a deliberate, brazen rejection; there can be no blasphemy “out of desire” or “out of weakness.” In a similar manner, the gatherer of sticks chooses a mitzva that expresses more than anything the covenant between God and His people, and then openly and flagrantly transgresses it. But why? What causes him to act in this way? And why now?
 
This incident is connected to the narrative that follows – the rebellion of Korach. There we read of Datan and Aviram’s words to Moshe:
 
And Moshe sent to call to Datan and Aviram, the sons of Eliav, but they said, “We will not come up. Is it a small thing that you have brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey, to kill us in the wilderness, that you also make yourself a prince over us? Moreover, you have not brought us to a land flowing with milk and honey, nor given us an inheritance of fields and vineyards; will you put out the eyes of these men? We will not come up!” (Bamidbar 16:12-14)
 
This is a clear expression of the same brazen, “presumptuous” ideology that motivates the gatherer of sticks in our parasha, and the two narratives seem to reflect the same say of thinking. It may be that the gatherer is none other than On son of Pelet, who is mentioned at the beginning of Parashat Korach but then disappears and we hear no more of him – perhaps because he is executed as the gatherer of sticks on Shabbat. This reading requires some reordering of the verses, but the general framework is clear: We see a continuously growing coalition of brazen rebels, who declare openly their intention to transgress God’s command. Once again, we must ask why, and specifically, why now?
 
Perhaps the answer lies in the preceding unit, which recounts the story of the spies and the decree that the nation would spend forty years in the wilderness. This unit in turn invites an examination of the fundamental connection between two central events in the ancient history of the Jewish People: the receiving of the Torah and the receiving of Eretz Yisrael.
 
There are many parallels between the sin of the golden calf and the sin of the spies. For example, Moshe ascends the mountain for forty days and forty nights and returns with the Tablets; the spies spend forty days and forty nights in the land and return with fruit. There are many other examples. What is the basis for this link between the two episodes?
 
The late Torah giant R. Shach z”l once addressed a huge crowd at the Yad Eliyahu stadium in Tel Aviv and spoke about how the Torah was given in the wilderness, before the nation entered the land, because essentially the Torah is more important to Am Yisrael than is the land. The chronological precedence, so he claimed, reflected greater essential importance and value. Without Torah, our lives are not worth living, while without Eretz Yisrael, we managed to survive for many generations. The whole country was in uproar over his words – to my mind, justifiably so.
 
The chronological precedence of the giving of the Torah does not necessarily indicate its greater importance; rather, it points to a linking and conditioning. The nation’s purpose is to enter the land and fulfill the Divine vision by building it up. The giving of the Torah prior to the entry into the land teaches us our rights in relation to this land. This is not a “homeland” in the usual sense, but rather the land promised to our forefathers, a “destiny-land,” with all that that implies. A nation is entitled to its homeland because that is the background against which all its history took place and in which its culture developed. Am Yisrael, in contrast, became a nation in Egypt. It is entitled to its homeland because of its covenant with God and its destiny. Eretz Yisrael belonged to the nation not because of its past but because of its intended future. The Covenant Between the Parts would appear to have been forged with Avraham when he was seventy years old and still in Charan. It was only after this covenant was made that he could go to Eretz Yisrael.
 
The Torah is filled with the idea that the entry into the land is conditional upon the commandments. Indeed, this seems to be the proper reading of the framework of the first five of the Ten Commandments (as I learned in my youth from my rabbi and teacher, R. Yoel bin-Nun), which open with the command, "I am the Lord your God Who brought you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage" (Shemot 20:2) and conclude with the words, "in order that your days be lengthened upon the land which the Lord your God gives to you" (Shemot 20:11). I am the Lord your God Who brought you out of Egypt, in order that your days may be lengthened upon the land. In between this introduction and conclusion is the acceptance of the commandments.
 
In Sefer Devarim, once again the Torah binds the gift of the land with observance of the mitzvot:
 
And you shall observe all the commandment that I command you this day, in order that you may be strengthened and enter and inherit the land which you pass over this day to inherit it, and in order that your days may be lengthened upon the land which the Lord promised to your forefathers to give to you and your descendants, a land flowing with milk and honey. (Devarim 11:8-9)
 
Further on there is a description of the goodness of the land, followed immediately, in the unit that forms the second section of the Shema, by the words:
 
In order that your days and the days of your children be multiplied upon the land which the Lord promised to your forefathers. (Devarim 11:21)
 
This is a central idea in the Torah. The problem is that the question arises whether the equation might perhaps be read in the opposite direction. If Eretz Yisrael is a good piece of land, an “inheritance of field and vineyard,” as Datan and Aviram refer to it – or “real estate,” in contemporary terms – whose acquisition is dependent upon acceptance of the mitzvot, then perhaps if we do not receive it, we are exempted from acceptance of the mitzvot! It is this ideology that is demonstrated by the gatherer of sticks on Shabbat following the decree of forty years in the wilderness, and it is the same ideology upheld by Datan and Aviram. If in any case we are not going to be entering the land “to eat of its fruit and be satiated by its goodness,” then why should we be committed to observing the commandments? “You, Moshe, have not brought us to a land flowing with milk and honey. If God is not going to fulfill His part of the covenant and the promise to the forefathers, then I am exempt from fulfilling my part too!”
 
This approach is familiar to us from the well-known midrash of Chazal concerning the elders of the exile in Babylon, who sat before Yechezkel (Yechezkel 20:1) and asked him: "If a slave is sold by his master, does he not leave his domain of authority?" (Sifri, Shelach 115). Yechezkel answers the elders by referring back to the story of the generation in the desert and the commandment of Shabbat to prove the opposite conclusion:
 
That which you imagine to yourselves – it shall not come to be, that you say, “We will be like the nations, like the families of the countries, to serve wood and stone.” As I live, says the Lord God, surely with a mighty hand and with an outstretched arm and with anger poured out will I be King over you, and I will bring you out from the peoples and will gather you out of the countries in which you are scattered, with a mighty hand, and with an outstretched arm, and with anger poured out. And I will bring you into the wilderness of the peoples, and there will remonstrate with you face to face. As I remonstrated with your fathers in the wilderness of the land of Egypt, so will I remonstrate with you, says the Lord God. (Yechezkel 20:32-36)
 
The prophecy continues with God's clear and unequivocal declaration:
 
I shall cause you to pass under the rod, and I will bring you into the discipline of the covenant, and I will purge out from among you the rebels and those that transgress against Me; I will bring them out of the country where they sojourn, and they shall not enter into the land of Israel, and you shall know that I am the Lord. (Yechezkel 20:37-38)
 
Mention is made here of going out into the “wilderness of the peoples” and a forging of a covenant, but there is no entry into the land, and yet the nation is still required to fulfill the covenant.
 
But what sort of answer is this? If this is so, then what is the real meaning and significance of this covenant?
 
As a contrast to the gatherer of sticks, we have the image of R. Akiva – not just his image in the visual sense, of course, but rather the approach that he represents. R. Akiva would seem to be the most prominent bearer of the ideology that represents the opposite extreme. Even when he is being executed, and his flesh torn with iron combs, he declares his faith in God:
 
And he accepted upon himself the yoke of the Kingdom of heaven. His disciples said to him, “Our teacher! Even to this extent?” He replied, “All my life I was troubled by this verse, 'with all your soul' – meaning, 'even if God takes your soul.' I would say to myself, 'When will I be able to fulfill this?' Now that I have the opportunity – shall I not fulfill it?!" (Berakhot 61b)
 
The gemara goes on to describe how R. Akiva drew out the word echad until he expired – "until his soul left him with the word echad." R. Akiva could have finished that word quickly and then he could have gone on to recite the sections of Shema that follow. But what was important to him was the mesirut nefesh – the self-sacrifice – of the first section of the Shema, the acceptance of the yoke of the Kingdom of heaven, with no regard for considerations of "This is Torah and this is its reward?!", as voiced by the ministering angels further on in the sugya. What concerned him was absolute commitment with nothing in return, an acceptance of the yoke of the Kingdom of heaven that precedes acceptance of the yoke of mitzvot – total subservience, even when there seems to be no benefit.
 
And who if not R. Akiva could speak from personal experience of “a servant who is sold by his master”? Who, if not his generation – the generation that suffered under the decrees of the wicked Hadrian, the generation of the Bar Kokhba Revolt martyrs, and the martyrs of Beitar – could have felt justified in crying out over the enormous injustice? Nevertheless, R. Akiva teaches us about the importance of accepting the yoke of the Kingdom of heaven, specifically amongst the “wilderness of the nations,” without the reward of entering into the land.
 
How is it that Chazal, the sages of the Mishna, who were faced with destruction, persecution, and decrees, managed to write such a wondrous, formative work that remains to this day at the focus of the Jewish religio-cultural world? This would seem to be the lesson that the generation of the wilderness was supposed to learn: the ability to transform crisis and collapse into transition and creativity, and precisely out of recognition that the covenant is not always rewarding, to build the next generation spiritually, and to prepare it for realization of the covenant and its achievements.
 
This is the task and challenge of every generation – including ours!
 
Translated by Kaeren Fish