THE IMPORTANCE OF ONE

  • Rav Yaakov Beasley

INTRODUCTION TO PARASHAT HASHAVUA

 

 

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In memory of Yakov Yehuda ben Pinchas Wallach
and Miriam Wallach bat Tzvi Donner

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In loving memory of Ya’acov Ben Yitzchak (A”H),
beloved father and grandfather,
whose yahrzeit is the 25th of Tammuz.
Dedicated by: Stanley & Ellen Stone
and their children, Jacob, Zack, Ezra, Yoni, Eliana and Gabi.

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In memory of Rabbi Aaron M. Wise z"l

on the occasion of his 10th yahrzeit on 21 Tamuz.

By the Etshalom and Wise families
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PARASHAT MATOT-MASEI

 

THE IMPORTANCE OF ONE

 

By Rabbi Yaakov Beasley

 

 

A.        INTRODUCTION

 

Our double parashiyot, Matot-Masei, signify the conclusion of Moshe Rabbeinu’s practical leadership over the people.  Next week, we begin reading his valedictory address to Bnei Yisrael, Sefer Devarim, which provides the Jewish People with the spiritual guidance they need before crossing the Jordan River.  Now, the Torah describes the final preparations that Moshe undertakes for the people’s entry into Eretz Yisrael.  He encourages the war effort against Midian and provides guidance for the disposal of the spoils.  He judges both the requests of the tribes of Gad and Reuven, who wished to settle in Transjordan, and of the tribe of Menashe, who were concerned that the transfer of land through inheritance to the daughters of Tzelofchad entailed the diminution of their soon to be acquired territory. 

 

Among the details that Moshe involves himself with is the establishment of cities of refuge, arei miklat.  These cities, which will be given to the Levites, provide sanctuary to anyone who inadvertently kills another from the victim’s relatives.  Once a court delivers a verdict of manslaughter, the culprit heads for one of these cities, where he will dwell until the death of the Kohen Gadol; the Kohen Gadol’s death leads to his sentence being commuted.  In our parasha, Moshe establishes three of these cities on the east side of the Jordan River. Yehoshua will similarly establish three cities in Eretz Yisrael when the conquest is complete.

 

B.        THE LAW OF ONE

 

This week, we will concentrate upon one particularly fascinating detail in the legislation about the cities of refuge.  In his codification of the laws of the murderer and the inadvertent murderer, Maimonides brings the following ruling:

 

One who has been exiled does not leave the city of refuge at all, even to perform a mitzvah, to give evidence in a monetary or capital case, to save someone by his testimony, or to rescue someone from a non-Jew or a river or a fire or a collapsed building. Even if all Israel needs his help, like Yoav ben Tzeruyah [King David's chief-of-staff], he never leaves the city of refuge until the death of the Kohen Gadol.  If he leaves, he makes himself vulnerable to death. (Hilkhot Rotze’ach 7:8)

 

Contained within this law is a principle that exemplifies the Torah’s system of values. If found wandering outside the city of refuge, the person found guilty of manslaughter can be killed by the blood avenger:

 

But if the accused ever goes outside the limits of the city of refuge to which he has fled, and the avenger of blood finds him outside the city, the avenger of blood may kill the accused without being guilty of murder. (Bamidbar 35: 26-27)

 

His safety is guaranteed only within the city of refuge.  What makes this law fascinating is that it applies even if the person could save another.  Leaving the city of refuge means risking one’s life, and Jewish law does not command anyone to risk his life to save another - even to save the entire Jewish people ("even if all Israel needs his help")! Although we tend to view Judaism as an intensely communal faith, nonetheless, according to this law, the individual’s safety takes priority over the community’s needs.

 

We find this principle expounded in several other places in Maimonides’ code:

 

If idol-worshippers say to a group of women, “Give us one of your women for immoral purposes, or we will violate you all,” they must all allow themselves to be violated rather than hand over one Jewish soul. Similarly, if idol-worshippers say, “Give us one of you and we shall kill him, or else we will kill you all,” they must all allow themselves to be killed rather than hand over one Jewish soul.   Even if they single out a single person A… if A is not deserving of the death-penalty, they must all allow themselves to be killed rather than hand over one Jewish soul.  (Yesodei Ha-Torah 5: 5)

 

Prima facie, the law appears completely illogical.  Refusing to collaborate with the aggressor and not handing over a victim will not save the victim. He will be killed or she will be violated in any case, whatever path the group chooses. Why, then, must they all allow themselves to be mistreated, even killed? The fundamental difference between their options is the difference between active involvement in the victim’s fate and passive non-compliance, between what a person does and what is done to him. Rather than actively sacrifice a single one of their number, a group must passively allow itself to be assaulted. Once again, the rights of the individual take extreme priority over the welfare of the group.

 

C.        JUDAISM AND THE INDIVIDUAL

 

What is the source for this groundbreaking emphasis on the person, even at the expense of the group?  One modern thinker who contemplated this issue was R. Moshe Avigdor Amiel (1882-1945), the late Chief Rabbi of Antwerp and later of Tel Aviv. In his work Ha-Tzedek Ha-Sotziali Ve-Ha-Tzedek Ha-Mishpati Shelanu (translated as Ethics and Legality in Jewish Law in the 1989 publication by Genesis Publications), he argues that this doctrine is the logical outcome of the first chapter of Sefer Bereishit.  We fail to appreciate the revolutionary significance of the declaration that Hashem created the human being in His image and likeness. In fact, it is quite possibly the single most radical consequence of monotheism. Just as Hashem is singular and alone, man is also singular and alone. With Bereishit’s opening story we witness the birth of the individual in Western civilization.

 

Clearly, the supreme and unique importance of the individual was unknown in the pagan world. Instead, they viewed the significance of the individual solely through the lens of the individual’s relationship to his/her value to society as a whole.  A worthwhile point of comparison is between our ethics, as expounded in Tanakh, and those of ancient Greece. In Greece, the highest value was the polis, the group. As such, ethics was a code for singe-minded devotion to the city (Athens, Sparta), and the supreme glory was heroism in the field of battle, or the willingness to die for the city's sake: dulce et decorum est pro patria mori (“It is pleasant and proper to die for one's country”). Not surprisingly, the Greeks developed the “custom” of abandoning elderly, feeble parents or handicapped children on mountainsides to perish.  They argued that this freed them of the “shame” of being dependent on others for their sustenance.  The group takes precedence over the individual. Once a person ceased to benefit society, his life lost its value and was no longer protected by law. 

 

We can best demonstrate this point, which is the fundamental difference between Greek and Jewish ethics, with the case of exemption from military service. (Note that these rules refer to a case of a milchemet reshut, a non-obligatory war; the exemptions listed below do not apply in the case of a milchemet mitzva, a war of self-defense):

 

The officers shall say to the people: "Has anyone built a new house and not dedicated it? Let him go home, or he may die in battle and someone else may dedicate it. Has anyone planted a vineyard and not begun to enjoy it? Let him go home, or he may die in battle and someone else enjoy it. Has anyone become pledged to a woman and not married her? Let him go home, or he may die in battle and someone else marry her … (Devarim 20: 5-7)

 

Gone is the glory and heroism of the Greeks and Romans.  Even though the war was fought for the sake of the nation as a whole, the commanders are asked to stand before the people and plead with them – if there is someone who has a new wife, house, or vineyard - please go home!  The exempt categories refer to individuals who have not yet had the chance to enjoy something important to them. Here again, we see that the public need does not abrogate the private good.

 

R. Amiel points out two consequences of the Jewish emphasis on the individual, one positive and one negative. On the one hand, this emphasis on the individual was vital to Jewish survival in exile. As the Jewish People were the minority wherever they lived, they were able to maintain their separate identity and not conform to the majority. Had this not been the case, there would be no Judaism today.  However, suggests R. Amiel, this emphasis on the individual also weakened the governmental structure that arose.  He argues that, in fact, it eventually caused the disintegration of the monarchy.  The institution of kingship, based on the idea that the individual exists for the sake of the community, would ultimately be incompatible with a society led by priests and prophets who taught the exact opposite.  Today’s challenge is creating a government that simultaneously recognizes the individual’s supreme significance while maintaining a collective entity capable of self-government.