Humanity

  • Harav Yehuda Amital

I.         The Place For Human Feelings in the Observance of Mitzvot

The worship of God, in whatever form, cannot wipe out simple human feeling. The Rebbe of Kotzk would say about the verse: "And you shall be holy people to me" (Shemot 22:6), that God, as it were, is saying here: "Angels I have in sufficient quantity; I am looking for human beings who will be holy people."

The Gemara in Zevachim (100a) says:

As it is taught in a baraita: "For her may he be defiled" (Vayikra 21:3) – this is a mitzva. If he does not want [to be defiled], he is defiled against his will.

It once happened to Yosef the Kohen that his wife died on the day before Pesach and he did not want to be defiled, but his brethren the Kohanim reached a decision and defiled him against his will.

This baraita teaches that even though Kohanim are forbidden to defile themselves by coming into contact with a corpse, in the case of a relative, defiling oneself through contact with the corpse is not only permissible, but even obligatory. From here we may learn that one must be human: when a Kohen's wife dies, he must mourn her, and not immerse himself in other worlds, even in mitzvot.

Rambam comments on this principle    (Hilkhot Avel 2:6): "How grave is the mitzva of mourning, for [the prohibition against contracting] ritual impurity is set aside for [a Kohen] because of his relatives, so that he may occupy himself with [their burial] and mourn them." The allowance to contract ritual impurity, according to Rambam, is intended to allow the Kohen to mourn his relatives.

You might ask: But we know that the High Priest is forbidden to contract ritual impurity even in the case of the death of a relative! Does it follow from this that the High Priest is likewise forbidden to mourn? May we conclude from here that at least the elite must rise up above their feelings? This is not the case, for the biblical source for the obligation of mourning – according to those who maintain that mourning is, indeed, a Torah obligation - is found in the words of Aharon, the High Priest, as Rambam writes at the beginning of Hilkhot Avel:

There is a positive precept to mourn one's relatives, as it is stated: "If I had eaten the sin offering today, should it have been accepted in the sight of the Lord?" (Vayikra 10:19).

Rambam's proof-text is taken from the words uttered by Aharon following the death of his two sons, in response to the words spoken to him by Moshe (Vayikra 10:16-20):

And Moshe diligently sought the goat of the sin offering, and, behold, it was burnt; and he was angry with Elazar and Itamar, the sons of Aharon that were left alive, saying, "Why have you not eaten the sin offering in the holy place?"...

And Aharon said to Moshe, "Behold, this day have they offered their sin offering and their burnt offering before the Lord, and such things have befallen me that if I had eaten the sin offering today, should it have been accepted in the sight of the Lord?" And when Moshe heard this, he was content.

Aharon brought the required offerings, even though he was in a state of acute mourning (onen), but nevertheless he refrained from eating the sin offering. This is the source for the determination that mourning is a biblical obligation. Thus, we see that even Aharon mourned, even though, practically speaking, he did not interrupt the sacrificial service. The difference between an ordinary Kohen and the High Priest is that the High Priest is not required to give practical expression to his mourning, and he can deal with his grief in his heart, whereas an ordinary Kohen is obligated to defile himself and interrupt his service.

It would seem that the whole idea of mourning is self-contradictory. On the one hand, the mourner is obligated to accept God's judgment, to recite the benediction, "Blessed are You... the true Judge," and say Tzidduk ha-Din (the "justification prayer").  On the other hand, he mourns and wails. This contradiction is particularly prominent in the account of the death of Aharon's two sons, Nadav and Avihu: "And let your brethren, the whole house of Israel, bewail the burning which the Lord has kindled" (ibid., verse 6). On the one hand, we have here recognition of "the burning which the Lord has kindled." On the other hand, "And let your brethren, the whole house of Israel, bewail." But, in fact, there is no contradiction: a person must allow himself to experience human feeling.

II.         Recognizing the Human Qualities of our Heroes

There has been a tendency in recent years to idealize great rabbis, to the point of total disregard of their human feelings and weaknesses. The Torah presents the opposite approach: Every person has a human side, which must not be denied. Even the prophets had doubts and difficulties. The Torah recognizes that man lives in this world, and has no expectation that he behave as if he were living in an ideal and unreal universe.

Many midrashim teach us about Chazal's attitude toward the human traits of our national heroes. For example, the midrash describes the following conversation between God and Moshe (Pesikta de-Rav Kahana, 4):

When Moshe went up to the heights of heaven, he heard the voice of the Holy One, blessed be He, as He sat engaged in the study of the passage on the Red Heifer, citing a law in the name of the sage who stated it: "Rabbi Eliezer said: The heifer whose neck is to be broken must be [not more than] one year old; and the red heifer [not more than] two years old."

Moshe said before the Holy One, blessed be He: "Master of the Universe, worlds above and worlds below are in Your domain, yet You sit and cite a law ascribed to flesh and blood!"

The Holy One, blessed be He, replied: "Moshe, there will arise in My world a righteous man who, [in his concern for the purification of Israel], will begin his instruction of the Oral Law with the passage on the red heifer, and so I, [also concerned for the purification of Israel], say: 'Rabbi Eliezer said: The heifer whose neck is to be broken must be [not more than] one year old; and the red heifer [not more than] two years old.'"

Moshe said: "Master of the Universe, may the [Divine] will decree that Eliezer spring from my loins!"

The Holy One replied: "As you live, it is decreed that Eliezer be from your loins."

When Moshe heard God cite, as it were, from the future words of Rabbi Eliezer, he prayed that Rabbi Eliezer would be one of his descendants. We are dealing here with a perfectly natural human trait, the desire that one's descendants include great people. Chazal did not regard the attribution of this human trait to Moshe as a slight to his honor.

This tendency is also found in Chazal's stories about the Tannaim and Amoraim. The Gemara in Kiddushin (33a) relates:

Bar Kappara – and others say Rabbi Shemuel bar Rabbi Yose – was sitting in a bath-house, when Rabbi Shimon bar Rabbi [Yehuda HaNasi] entered and passed by, yet he did not rise before him.

He was offended and went and complained to his father: "I taught him two thirds of a third of Torat Kohanim, and [still] he did not rise before me."

[His father] said to him: "Perhaps he was sitting and meditating [on Torah]."

Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi did not rebuke his son, Rabbi Shimon, for being angry with his disciple for not rising before him. Just the opposite: he tried to set his mind at ease. Rabbi Shimon's feeling of insult was perfectly human; one of the lessons that may be learned from this account is that human feelings need not be denied.

A similar lesson may be learned from the following story (Sota 40a):

Rabbi Abahu and Rabbi Chiyya bar Abba once came to a place; Rabbi Abahu expounded aggada and Rabbi Chiyya bar Abba expounded legal topics. All the people left Rabbi Chiyya bar Abba and went to hear Rabbi Abahu, so that the former was upset.

[Rabbi Abahu] said to him: "I will give you a parable. To what is the matter compared? To two men, one of whom was selling precious stones and the other various kinds of small ware. To whom will the people hurry? Is it not to the seller of various kinds of small ware?"

Every day Rabbi Chiyya bar Abba used to accompany Rabbi Abahu to his lodging-place because he was esteemed by the government; but on that day, Rabbi Abahu accompanied Rabbi Chiyya bar Abba to his lodging-place, and still his mind was not set at rest.

Here, too, the difficult feeling that Rabbi Chiyya bar Abba experienced when nobody stayed to listen to his lecture is human and understandable. It is important to note that even Rabbi Abahu understood this and, therefore, tried, unsuccessfully, to appease Rabbi Chiyya. From here we also learn how important it is to be sensitive to slights to another person's honor, even when no insult is intended.          

Let us bring yet another example. The Gemara in Shabbat (118b) cites several Amoraim who spoke about their special meticulousness in the observance of particular mitzvot:

Rav Nachman said: May I be rewarded for observing three meals on Shabbat.

Rav Yehuda said: May I be rewarded for observing devotion in prayers (iyyun tefilla).

Rav Huna son of Rav Yehoshua said: May I be rewarded for never walking four cubits bareheaded.

Rav Sheshet said: May I be rewarded for fulfilling the precept of tefillin.

Rav Nachman also said: May I be rewarded for fulfilling the precept of tzitzit.

We see here that the feeling of joy and satisfaction about having merited to fulfill a particular mitzva in a superlative fashion is not viewed in a negative light, but rather as a natural and human feeling.

            The idea of iyyun tefilla, mentioned by Rav Yehuda, has additional meanings as well. The Gemara in Bava Batra (164b) states:

Rav Amram said in the name of Rav, [There are] three transgressions which no man escapes for a single day: sinful thought, iyyun tefilla, and slander.

Here the idea of iyyun tefilla has a negative connotation. What is meant by the term in this context? Rashbam writes (ad loc.):

There are those who explain that [this refers to a person who,] after he has prayed, reasons in his heart that the Holy One, blessed be He, will pay his reward, fulfill his needs, and heed his prayer, because he had offered his prayers with [proper] concentration.

Tosafot, however, explain (s.v., iyyun tefila):

It seems to my master that the negative iyyun tefilla" refers to those who do not have the proper thoughts when they pray... It is from this that no one escapes for a single day, for there is nobody who can properly focus his thoughts during his prayer. This is what the Yerushalmi says (Berakhot 2:4): "Rabbi Matanya says: I am grateful to my head for bowing down on its own when I reach the 'Modim' prayer."

Tosafot recognize the human elements that prevent one from attaining perfect concentration during prayer.

This idea also follows from what Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai said to his disciples when he blessed them shortly before he died (Berakhot 28b):

He said to them: May it be [God's] will that the fear of heaven shall be upon you like the fear of flesh and blood.

His disciples said to him: Is that all?

He said to them: If only [you can attain this]! You can see [how important this is], for when a person wants to commit a transgression, he says, I hope no man will see me.

Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai's disciples thought that the standard for fearing Heaven should be raised. Their master taught them, however, that while from an ideological perspective they are certainly right, practically speaking, it should be recognized that it is human nature to experience the fear of flesh and blood in a much more tangible manner. We should be very happy to reach a similar level of fear of Heaven.

III.        Human Qualities in Interpersonal Relations

The recognition of mankind's essential humanity finds full expression in the words of Sefer ha-Chinukh (commandment 338):

However, as it would seem, this does not mean that if one Jew came along and began wickedly to inflict pain on his fellow with evil words, the listener should not answer him. For it is impossible for a person to be as a stone that has no one to turn it over. Moreover, with his silence he would be as though admitting to his calumnies.

In truth, the Torah does not order a person to be as a stone, as silent toward his slanderers as toward those who bless him. It rather commands us to move far away from this behavior, and that we should not start to quarrel and calumniate people. In this way, a person will be saved from all that: for whoever is not a quarrelsome person, people will not calumniate him – except for utter fools, and no attention need be paid to fools.

Now, if some slanderer among people will compel us to reply to his words, it were well for a wise man to answer him in a way of dignity and pleasantness, and not become very angry, "for anger rests in the bosom of fools" (Kohelet 7:9). Let him excuse himself to those who hear the slanders about him, and let him throw the burden unto his calumniator. This is the way of good people in society.

We can learn this point, that we are permitted to answer a fool, as it would seem, from the fact that the Torah permitted us, when someone comes stealthily breaking in, to act first and kill him. For there can be no doubt that one is not obligated to endure injuries from the hand of his fellow-man, but rather has the right to save himself from the other's hand. Likewise, [he may save himself] from the words of the other's mouth, which is filled with cunning and deceit, with every means by which he can rescue himself.

Sefer ha-Chinukh, however, concludes:

Nevertheless, there is a certain group of people whose kindly piety is of such a high degree that they would not wish to accept this ruling for themselves, to answer their calumniators any word, for fear that anger might overcome them, and they would unburden themselves unduly in the situation. Of them the Sages of blessed memory said: "They are humiliated, and do not humiliate; they hear their disgrace, and do not reply. Of them Scripture says: 'But those who bear Him love shall be as the sun going forth in its might' (Shofetim 5:31)."

It should, however, be noted that it was never said even about the pious that they should not feel anger. Rather, that because of their heightened trait of watchfulness, lest they be overcome by anger, they do not respond to those who insult them. In any event, the words of the Sefer ha-Chinukh point to the Torah's recognition of humanity, and to the fact that it does not demand of a person to relate with equanimity to those who insult him.

IV.       Yet You Desire Praise From Flesh and Blood

The idea of humanity is given special emphasis in one of the piyyutim that we recite in Yeshivat Har Etzion on Yom Kippur. The piyyut "Asher eimatkha" ("You who are revered") is made up of a series of paired stanzas. In each pair, one stanza refers to the angels, free of sin and desire, who revere, God. The second stanza refers to the people of Israel, flesh and blood, with all their negative qualities. All this notwithstanding, the piyyut stresses that God wants to be praised by human beings, and it is to God's glory that human beings with all their human weaknesses exalt His name:

You are revered by the faithful and mighty angels,

Formed of ice and of flashing light, for Your awe is on them.

Yet You desire praise from dust-made men dwelling on earth,

Who fall short and are poor in good deeds – and that is Your glory...

You are revered by sparkling angels and water-paths,

Exalted hills and high mountains, for Your awe is on them.

Yet You desire praise from men who are mere fleeting breath,

Grass that withers, a passing shadow, a fading flower.

Their breath of life departs and they are summoned to justice.

They die by Your decree, and are revived by Your mercy.

They acclaim You, Eternal One! – And that is Your glory.

Translated by David Strauss