THE SOURCE OF CORRUPTION

  • Rav Yaakov Beasley

INTRODUCTION TO PARASHAT HASHAVUA

 

**************************************************************

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

**************************************************************

 

PARASHAT HAAZINU

 

THE SOURCE OF CORRUPTION

 

By Rabbi Yaakov Beasley

 

 

Moshe Rabbeinu begins his final song to the people with a dramatic, poetic declaration of faith:

 

The rock – His work is perfect
For all his ways are just;
A G-d of faith without iniquity
Righteous and fair is He. (32:4)

 

For us, this statement is an axiom of our belief. To this day, this verse is a central part of the funeral service, of the process of tzidduk ha-din, our “acceptance of the justice” of the bad things that happen to us. Despite being overwhelmed by a sense of loss, we choose to forego our anger at what may seem like the capricious winds of fate.  Without question or hesitation, we proudly declare that God is just.

 

If so, then where is the source of evil and iniquity?  Moshe answers immediately and succinctly:

 

SHIHET LO LO – BANAV MUMAM:

Corruption to him is not – His children the blemish is;

A crooked and twisted generation.

 

Despite the curt, concise response of five short Hebrew words, however, the peshat (simple meaning) of the verse has baffled commentators for generations.  The mangled translation above reflects the difficulties that the commentators faced in ascertaining Moshe’s deeper message.  Rashi, the father of all commentators, understands the verse as the Targum renders it, functionally switching the words LO (to him, spelled with a Vav) with the second LO (is not, spelled with an Aleph), and understanding the “to him” as referring to Hashem.  Therefore, he reads the opening as “Corruption is not His!” – the responsibility for the Jewish people’s condition lies solely with themselves.  With the words BANAV MUMAM, where the possessive should have been expressed as MUM BANAV (the blemish of His children), Rashi understands he inverted order as indicating a contrast with others through admonition – the Jewish people were once Hashem’s children, but through their corrupt behavior, that is not presently the case.

 

The Rashbam differs with Rashi on to whom the word LO (to him) refers.  Whereas his grandfather understands the word as referring to Hashem, the Rashbam argues that it refers to the Jewish people, and with no other.  He would then punctuate the verse as “SHIHET LO! LO.”- reading “Corruption is his (the Jewish people) – not others.”  The second half of the verse he views as parallel to the first – the people, the children of Hashem, caused the blemish to themselves.

 

Through Rashi’s reading found support among other medieval commentators, they did not hesitate to offer alternative interpretations.  After explaining the verse as Rashi, the Da’at Zekeinim Ba’alei Tosafot bring a radical new suggestion from Rabbi Menachem of Pontieres, who, based on the difficulty of having to switch the words LO (to him, spelled with a Vav) with the second LO (is not, spelled with an Aleph) divides the verse differently:  SHIHET LO!  LO BANAV MUMAM – “Corruption is his [the Jewish peoples]!  They are not Hashem’s children in their blemishes.”  As proof that Hashem disowns his relationship with the Jewish people when they transgress, he brings the metaphorical opening words of Hoshea - “For she is not My wife, and they are not My children, they are children of iniquity”. 

 

The Italian commentator the Seforno looks for the historical roots of the corruption in his commentary, and finds it in the people’s first great failing – the sin of the Golden Calf:

 

“A generation crooked and perverse, that are not His children, has corrupted His ways (and this is) their blemish.”  – But a generation (that is) crooked and perverse, [they] are not His children, who are characterized by perfection, for behold, their blemish [manifested itself] through the sin of the Golden Calf, which corrupted the intent of Hashem, the Exalted One, as it stated “For your people have acted corruptly” (Shemot 32:7).  Because He indeed intended to sanctify the Jewish people, and to sanctify His name through them in His world, that they should be luminaries for humanity, to understand and instruct, as it says “For all the earth is Mine; and you shall be unto Me a kingdom of priests” (ibid. 19:5-6), but they perverted all this through idolatry.

 

The Seforno punctuates the verse like Rabbi Menachem of Pontieres, while understanding the first LO (with a Vav) as referring to Hashem, like Rashi.  Since corruption cannot be attributed to Hashem, the Seforno understands the verse as referring to the Divine plan and aspirations that had guided the people out of Egypt instead.  With their first sin, they prevented the ultimate sanctification of Hashem’s name. 

 

The Abrabanel makes a clever suggestion as he wrestles with the above issues.  He suggests that the verse be read as a form of dialogue, punctuating the opening three words would be punctuated as a form of question and rejection -   SHIHET LO? LO!”  (Corruption to Him?  Certainly not!)  Instead, the responsibility for the people’s blemishes lie in their behavior, as others have stated above.  This approach is also taken by the 18th century German commentary the Bi’ur, who adds a new dimension in suggesting that the word SHIHET is not the noun corruption, as all the previous commentators have stated, but a verb referring to the word MUM – the people’s blemishes.  Did Hashem corrupt His children’s blemishes?  Certainly not.  As such, the Bi’ur functionally reorganizes the verse as follows: SHIHET LO (with Vav) BANAV MUMAM? LO!

 

The final approach that we shall bring regarding this complicated verse is that of the 19th century Italian commentator Rabbi Shmuel David Luzzato.  Unlike all the other commentators above, who place these words within the framework of Moshe’s final discourse to the people, Rabbi Luzzato suggests that Moshe is in fact giving voice to a potential claim that the people may attempt to make when confronted with the dire consequences of their actions.   Should they attempt to deflect the responsibility for their failings upon Hashem, arguing that as Hashem’s children, they should have been protected for the evil effects of their behavior, Moshe will have already warned them that such evasions of ultimate responsibility will not be considered.  Rabbi Luzzato reads the verse as follows:  [Should the Jewish people claim] The corruption is His (Hashem’s) – Not to His children are their blemishes!  [Moshe immediately responds] – You are a crooked and twisted generation – would you ascribe such to Hashem!

 

Despite the differences and variations in interpreting this extremely difficult verse, one important thread runs through the all of the commentaries that we have encountered.  Without exception, all place the mantle of responsibility fully upon the shoulders of the Jewish people.  If the Torah wished to convey one message, it would be that humanity was given not only the gift of free choice, but also the responsibility to acknowledge and accept the consequences of those choices.  In these days of repentance and introspection, no finer message could be given. 

 

Shabbat Shalom and Shana Tova.