Thursday, December 15, 2011

Right, Wrong, and Moral Justifications

Parshat Vayeshev

by Rabbi Avi Billet

A poignant Midrash in Ruth Rabba (5:6) argues that had Reuven, Aharon and Boaz known that certain minor kindnesses they performed would be recorded in the Bible for posterity, they might have done things differently. Instead of "planning" to save Yosef, Reuven would have carried Yosef home on his shoulders. Instead of coming alone to greet Moshe on his return from Midian, Aharon would have greeted him with a band. Instead of feeding Ruth enough [grain] until she was satisfied, Boaz would have fed her fattened calves.

Perhaps we can argue that had Yehuda (Bereishit Chapter 38) and King David (Shmuel II 11-12) been aware that their bedroom faux-pas would be recorded for posterity, they would have been more discreet and might not have even succumbed to the evil temptation that caused them to sin.

Yehuda's (unbeknownst) rendezvous with his daughter-in-law Tamar is such a scandal on so many levels, yet there is nonetheless a significant attempt by Chazal (the Rabbis of yesteryear) to whitewash it. The Artscroll Chumash commentary, for example, begins this section with the title, "The moral basis for the story of the union of Tamar and Yehuda."

Suffice it to say, objectively the only moral basis for the events "at the moment they transpired" can be found in Kabbalistic works. In many respects, Tamar's role, unseemly as it looks, is given a lot more credit than Yehuda's role. Yehuda only emerges positively at the end, when he admits Tamar's righteousness, and his own error which caused her to pursue her desperate measures.

Long term, the Tanakh (Bible) vindicates the downsides of the story. Yehuda achieves kingship for his tribe, as the older child born of his union with Tamar, Peretz, continues the line to King David, the eternal father of the royal family, and of the Messiah.

Why does the Torah tell us this story, then, if it takes hundreds of years for us, the readers, to see that everything, in the long term, is really OK?

Because there is a difference between destiny and the here and now. Because there is a difference between right and wrong. And because the Torah does not hide from the truth – sometimes the truth teaches us a model lesson, and sometimes the truth teaches us what not to do.

The story of the deaths of Yehuda's sons, while tragic, informs us that the patriarchs knew of the concept of yibum (the levirate marriage). That Yehuda withheld his third son, Shelah, from wedding Tamar, may reflect negatively or positively on Yehuda, depending on one's perspective. That Tamar felt the need to have Yehuda perform the yibum may also reflect negatively or positively on her, depending on one's perspective.

Last week, one of the publications of students of Yeshiva University posted a short story online that caused quite a stir. As the plot of the story did not jive with the values of the institution, many found it offensive, and wrong to appear under the name of Yeshiva University. Some argued that "freedom of expression" should allow for objectionable content to appear. I am of the opinion that students can write what they want, but should find different venues to print particular pieces that might reflect poorly on the institution – we are, after all, referring to a Yeshiva, and an institution that represents Torah and a commitment to halakhic Judaism.

One comment on the online posting of the story in question said, "I don't understand why people are so upset. I can find much more graphic sexual activity in the tanach and that may I remind you was written by God."

This is the problem. Because "God wrote about it" means everyone has a free pass to write about these kinds of outside-of-marriage encounters? "God writing about it," so to speak, is an example of the Divine using unique judgment to share what we need to know about, and to avoid sharing the stories we need not know about.

The difference between the Torah's tales and creative writing is that the human heroes of the Bible recognized their errors, felt shame even before they were caught, and even admitted their mistakes in a public forum.

People today who engage in the sins of this variety may or may not recognize their errors, or feel shame before being caught, and rarely admit publicly that they made a mistake (the author of the story in question is "Anonymous"). Even if they personally feel they've made a mistake, they might keep it between themselves and God for the rest of their lives.

Yehuda didn't excuse his behavior either, neither blaming it on his society, culture, or even the fact that he felt lonely after the death of his wife.

Without going through moral justifications, some of the lessons that come out of the story include: the need to be truthful, to follow up on a promise, not to embarrass someone (Bava Metzia 59a), to look out for yourself, to create your own destiny, to admit your mistakes. You hope God will justify your choices in good time, but in the here and now, we must make every effort to do what's right the first time.

No comments:

Post a Comment