S.A.L.T. - Monday
We read in Parashat Chukat of the Emorite kingdom’s military attack against Benei Yisrael, who succeeded in not only fending off the assault, but vanquishing the kingdom and seizing its territory. In this context, the Torah digresses onto the history of this region, explaining that it had been part of the territory of Moav, until it was captured by Sichon, king of the Emorites. The Torah tells that a special poem was composed celebrating Sichon’s triumph, which the Torah introduces by stating, “Al kein yomeru ha-moshelim: Bo’u Cheshbon” – “Therefore, the poets say: Come to Cheshbon!” (21:27).
The Gemara (Bava Batra 78b), in a famous passage, comments that the word “moshelim” (“poets”) in this verse can be interpreted as a reference to “ha-moshelim be-yitzram” – “those who rule over their evil inclination,” meaning, the righteous who restrain their negative impulses. These individuals successfully withstand temptation because they say, “Bo’u cheshbon,” which the Gemara understands to mean, “bo’u ve-nechasheiv cheshbono shel olam” – “let us make the calculation of the world.” The Gemara explains that the righteous calculate the damage and harm caused by sin against the temporary, fleeting benefits they provide, and this is the way they “rule over their evil inclination” and avoid wrongdoing.
Netziv, in Hercheiv Davar, offers a novel reading of the Gemara’s comment. In his view, the Gemara here speaks of those who initiate conflict and strife for the sake of protesting and objecting to inappropriate conduct. Specifically, the Gemara refers to “ha-moshelim be-yitzram” – those who are in full control of their inclinations, and subdued their instinctive craving for prestige and for feelings of superiority. Igniting conflict for egotistical purposes, to advance a personal agenda, or for the vain thrill of controversy, is wrong. Such actions cannot be considered legitimate unless they are undertaken by “ha-moshelim be-yitzram,” by people driven solely by genuine, pure motives. And even such people, Netziv writes, must carefully “calculate” the benefits of their actions against their harmful repercussions. Even when protesting wrongful conduct is, inherently, warranted, one must determine whether it will produce desirable results that outweigh the undesirable byproducts of controversy. The Gemara here instructs that even “ha-moshelim be-yitzram” – those who are capable of involving themselves in controversies purely for altruistic reasons, without any tinge of condescension or arrogance, must “make the calculation of the world,” weighing the benefits of the controversy against the damage is causes. Protesting wrongful behavior is appropriate, Netziv writes, only if both conditions are met – one is driven by perfectly sincere motives, and he has determined that the protest will yield more benefit than harm.
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