Friday, May 22, 2015

Punishing Children for their Fathers' Sins

Artwork: Pillory of the Sleepless, by Marc Simonetti

Punishing Children for their Parents' Sins

The second of the Aseres ha'Dibros (Ten Commandments) includes a problematic statement: 
You shall not recognize the gods of others in My presence. You shall not make yourself a carved image or any likeness of that which is in the heavens above or on the earth below or in the water beneath the earth. You shall not prostrate yourself to them nor worship them, for I am Hashem, your God - a jealous God, Who visits the sin of fathers upon children to the third and fourth generations, for My enemies; but Who shows kindness for thousands [of generations] to those who love Me, and observe My commandments (Shemos 20:3-6).
The question is clear: How is it fair for Hashem to punish children for the sin of their fathers? This would appear to be a major injustice! Moreover, there are many pesukim (verses) throughout Tanach which support this point: 
"In those days it will no longer be said, 'The fathers ate sour grapes, and the teeth of sons are set on edge.' Rather, every man will die for his own sin, and the man who eats the sour grapes, his own teeth will be set on edge." (Yirmiyahu 31:28-29)
"The soul that sins, it shall die! A son shall not bear the iniquity of [his] father and a father shall not bear the iniquity of [his] son; the righteousness of the righteous person shall be upon him and the wickedness of the wicked person shall be upon him." (Yechezkel 18:20) 
"Vindicating an evil person and condemning a righteous person - both are abominations of Hashem." (Mishlei 17:15)
Targum Onkelos (ibid.) addresses this problem by translating our pasuk as follows:
You shall not bow down to them nor serve them, for I am Hashem, your God - a jealous God, Who visits the liability of fathers upon rebellious children, upon the third generation and upon the fourth generation, for My enemies, when the children continue to sin [as did] their fathers
By clarifying that pasuk is referring specifically to those children who follow in the sinful ways of their fathers, Onkelos's translation bypasses the problem of God punishing innocent children for sins they didn't commit. 

Onkelos's translation follows Chazal's interpretation, as stated in the Gemara (Berachos 7a; see also Sanhedrin 27b and Makkos 24a):
It is written: "He visits the sin of fathers upon their children" (Shemos 34:7), and it is written: "Children shall not die for the sins of their fathers" (Devarim 24:16). These two pesukim contradict each other! 
But [this contradiction] may be answered: it is not a difficulty - the [first pasuk] refers to a case in which [the children] hold on to the actions of their fathers, whereas the [second pasuk] refers to cases in which they do not hold on to the actions of their fathers. 
Ibn Ezra takes a similar approach. He interprets the pasuk not as "[God] visits the sin of fathers upon children" but rather as "[God] remembers the sin of fathers [when dealing with their] children." He explains:
Hashem will prolong [His anger] towards a rasha (evildoer), for perhaps he will repent from his sin, or perhaps he will have a son who is better than he. But if that son follows in the ways of his father, and likewise if the third and fourth generation [follow after the ways of their fathers], then Hashem will not prolong His anger for the fourth generation; if there are four generations of those who hate Hashem, then He will annihilate the memory of all of them. For Hashem will remember what the father did, and what his son did, and what his grandson did, and He will not be tolerant of the fourth generation. 
Like Onkelos, Ibn Ezra learns that the pasuk is not talking about innocent children, but specifically those children who follow in the sinful ways of their fathers. The other meforshim (commentators) deal with this problem in a similar manner.

The Ralbag, on the other hand, takes an approach which differs radically from the mainstream meforshim. Rather than textually sidestepping the problem by reading an unstated qualification into the pasuk, the Ralbag takes the pasuk at face value. He understands the pasuk to be saying that Hashem does punish children - even innocent children - for the sins of their fathers. Thus, Ralbag is faced with the full brunt of the question: How can this be? How is this in line with justice? Here is the Ralbag's explanation (ibid.) in full:
There is a major difficulty with this statement, namely: How is it possible that Hashem (may He be exalted) will punish the children of a sinner, when they do not partake of the guilt of their father's sin?
We will resolve this difficulty in the following manner: Hashem punishes those who violate His words, either through hashgachah derech tochachah (rebuke through divine providence), or by removing hashgachah so that [the sinner] receives the natural raos (harms) which were set to befall him according to the laws of nature. In both cases, the ra that befalls the offspring [of the sinner] would not have befallen them were it not for the sin of their father. 
For example: when our forefathers rebelled [against God], they became liable for the punishment of being exiled among the nations, and the nations would inherit their land. This exile extended to their offspring after them, in that they were born into exile, and it would be impossible for them to escape this ra unless they were able to do so within the laws of nature, or by reaching a level of perfection which would be sufficient for Hashem to miraculously bring them out from the lands to which they had been scattered. 
It is in this sense that the prophet said, "Our fathers sinned and are no more, but we suffer their sins" (Eichah 5:7). In other words, if our fathers had not sinned, we would still be in the Land, and we wouldn't have gone out from there unless we engaged in despicable actions which would make us liable for this type of punishment. However, once we find ourselves in exile due to the sin of our fathers, then [merely] refraining from such despicable actions will not suffice to enable us to return from there. Instead, we need to acquire the degree of perfection necessary to cling to Hashem in a manner that will cause Him to bring us out from this exile through miraculous hashgachah. In this manner, there is no injustice if the punishment of a father befalls his children, for it comes about incidentally [and not directly].
According to the Ralbag, it would only be unjust for Hashem to directly punish a child for the sin of his father, but if the father receives punishment, and that punishment incidentally (or indirectly) affects the child, this would not constitute an injustice. That is just how the world works. This is true for divinely orchestrated hashgachic "rebuke" punishments, as well as the natural punishments within the laws of nature. 

Elsewhere (commentary on Sefer Yehoshua, Chapter 7) Ralbag reiterates his explanation and provides a helpful mashal (example) to bolster his point:
... Hashem does not directly punish children for the sins of their fathers, for this would be unjust. However, it is possible - without injustice - for some punishment to incidentally extend to children on account of their father's sin, and this would not constitute an injustice at all.
For example, if a person sinned against the government and was fined as a penalty, this punishment would also affect his children, since they would be poor and would not inherit the possessions of their father which they would have originally inherited ... In this same manner it may happen that Hashem will visit the punishment of fathers unto children, but not in a direct manner.
While most of us would feel sympathetic towards the children of the man in this example, we understand that this is how the world works. Human beings were endowed with free will and placed in a physical world of cause-and-effect. In such a world, it would be impossible to shield every individual from being affected in any negative way by every other person's actions. Likewise, it would be impossible for each and every person to be born into exactly the same circumstances as every other person on earth, with no relative advantages or disadvantages. The only time that could have happened was in Gan Eden, but those days are long gone. 

Understandably, this explanation might not sit well with everyone. Some people will object, saying, "But shouldn't Hashem just work it out so that this type of thing doesn't even happen? Wouldn't that be more in line with justice?" 

Perhaps the best way to respond to this is by citing the words of the navi (prophet): "For My thoughts are not your thoughts, and your ways are not My ways – says Hashem" (Yeshayahu 55:8). The Rambam expands upon this in his definition of the purpose of Sefer Iyov: 
But the term "hashgachah" (supervision) as applied to Him is not the same concept as our [human form of] supervision, nor is His "hanhagah" (management) of His creations the same concept as our management of what we manage. The two concepts are not even comprised in one and the same definition – as is thought by those who are confused – and there is nothing in common between the two except in name alone. 
In the same way, our actions do not resemble His actions, and the two are not comprised in one and the same definition. Just as natural acts differ from those of craftsmanship, so do the Divine hanhagah, hashgachah, and kavanah (purpose) in these natural phenomena differ from our management, supervision, and intention of what we manage, supervise, and intend. 
This is the objective of the entire Book of Iyov as a whole, namely, the establishing of this foundational concept, and the drawing of attention to the inference to be drawn from natural phenomena, so that you should not err and seek to affirm in your imagination that His yediah (knowledge) is like our knowledge, or that His kavanah, hashgachah, and hanhagah are like our purpose, supervision, and management.
The Rambam is not merely rehashing the oft-repeated statement, "God's ways are mysterious and are beyond human comprehension." Rather, he is saying that God's management and supervision of His universe is completely different than the way we manage and supervise things in our world. He is informing us that understanding this critical point is the gateway to knowledge of the ways of Hashem. To the extent that we judge Hashem's actions by comparing them to our own actions, the true understanding of His ways will be withheld. And to the extent that we open our minds to ideas of hashgachah which are counter-intuitive - and clash with the way we would like to view things - we will come to know and appreciate how the True Judge governs His world.

Thus, when faced with an explanation like the Ralbag's which seems to go against our notion of how God should manage, supervise, and implement justice in His world, perhaps we ought to take a step back and ask ourselves, "Am I making the mistake of looking at God's hashgachah through the lens of human hashgachah?" This doesn't mean that we should ignore our questions and problems. It means that the answer to our question might lie in examining the root of our problem, and opening ourselves up to the possibility that "His thoughts are not our thoughts, nor are His ways our ways."

If we stubbornly try to fit Hashem's actions into our preconceived ideas about how justice ought to be implemented, we will remain developmentally stunted in our understanding. It is precisely by challenging our own intuitive notions of Divine justice that we will gain insight into the beauty and beneficence of Hashem's ways.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Torah as Melachah (Craft)

Originally posted in July of 2012. Click here for a printer-friendly version of this blog post.

Torah as Melachah (Craft)

Every communal korban minchah (flour-offering) must be brought in the form of matzah (unleavened bread). There is only one exception to this rule: the shtei ha'lechem (Two Loaves) on the Chag ha'Shavuos, which consists of two loaves of lechem chamtetz (leavened bread). What is the reason for this anomaly? 

The Ralbag's answer (see Vayikra 23) sheds light on the nature of entire Torah-regimen:
The Torah commands us on the Chag ha’Shavuos to bring a minchah-offering of chametz. The idea is as follows: the Chag ha’Shavuos is – as we explained in Parshas Yisro – a commemoration of Matan Torah (the giving of the Torah), which is a wondrous expression of Hashem’s kindness to us, in that He brought us close to His service and caused us to inherit eternal life. In addition to this, there are material goods which emanate from Torah, such as the inheritance of the Land and the material goods which are bestowed upon us through hashgachah pratis (divine providence). 
Before man’s actions and concepts are perfected through the Torah-regimen, his actions and concepts are deficient – just like matzah-bread, which lacks the perfection of leavening. But afterwards, man’s actions and concepts become perfected, like chametz-bread, which has the greatest degree of perfection. 
For this reason, Hashem commanded us to eat matzah with the meat of the pesach-offering, and He commanded us to bring a minchah-offering of chametz on the day of Matan Torah. In order to firmly establish this intention in us, the Torah singled out the minchah-offering of the Chag ha’Shavuos to be chametz, in contrast to other minchah-offerings, in order to open our eyes to understand the truth of this intention. 
This serves the additional purpose of elucidating the essence and character of the Torah. The Torah is not in the class of "natural phenomena," but rather, it perfects us – in the same manner that many of the melachos ("crafts" or "arts") assist nature and perfect it (e.g. agriculture and other such arts). The same is true with Torah: man’s natural capacity to acquire human perfections is actualized through the Torah-regimen by those who practice it in a perfect manner. Moreover, just as the melachos which perfect nature are enacted by free choice, the same is true with the Torah-regimen. 
For these reasons, the perfection attained by means of Torah is compared to the perfection attained by means of melachah, as alluded to by the fact that the minchah-offering on the day of Matan Torah must be made from chametz-bread.
In order to better understand and appreciate the full import of the Ralbag's explanation, it would behoove us to review the Ralbag's definition of Torah, as expressed in the first paragraph of his introduction to Torah:
Blessed and exalted be the Rock, Who, with His Understanding, His Wisdom, and His Knowledge, gives existence to all existing things – the existence of which manifests a chochmah (wisdom) and chaninah (beneficence) that none but He can completely apprehend. Praised be the Creator, Who, out of His desire to benefit these existences and to bring them from deficient existence to complete existence, directed His hashgachah (providence) upon these lowly existences, developing them stage by stage until He reached the existence of man. In addition to directing His hashgachah on man’s existence in the wondrous design of his anatomy, his abilities, and the faculties by which his [physical] existence is preserved, He did not refrain from directing His hashgachah on man by guiding him on the path to true perfection – man’s ultimate state of existence, for the sake of which this lowly material existence was endowed with tzurah (design) to the extent that it is. He did this by giving us the divine Torah, which is a nimus (regimen) that brings those who practice it properly to the true success.
The Ralbag views Torah as a stage in the unfolding of the same hashgachah that brought all other existences from the state of deficient (potential) existence to complete (actual) existence. He even goes so far as to compare the Torah-regimen to the biological processes which govern our physical existence and development. Just as Hashem created the systems of biological laws which enable us to sustain our physical bodies, so too, He created the system of Torah laws which bring us to "complete existence," "true perfection," and "true success" - namely, perfection as a tzelem Elokim. But unlike the natural laws which govern our physical development, the laws of the Torah must be enacted through knowledge and free choice. This is where the mashal of melachah comes into the picture. 

According to the Ralbag, the Torah is designed to bring about human perfection in the same manner as the other forms of melachah - specifically, those melachos which "assist nature and perfect it." Fruits, vegetables, and grains occur in nature and grow without human intervention. The job of the farmer is to cooperate with the processes of nature and to facilitate the emergence of its products in a more perfected and complete manner. Likewise, Hashem designed the human body with the capacity to heal itself. The job of the doctor is to assist the body to heal itself with maximal efficiency. 

The same is true in the case of Torah. Man is capable of perfecting himself without Torah. It is even possible for human beings to reach great heights of perfection without Torah, as we see in the cases of Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov, Moshe, Aharon, Miriam, and a small number of others. That small number testifies to the extreme difficulty of reaching perfection without Torah, which is why (or one of the reasons why) Hashem gave the Torah to us and obligated us to keep it. Without Torah, we really wouldn't stand a chance. 

There are many tremendous implications of the Ralbag's statement that the Torah "is not in the class of natural phenomena, but rather, it perfects us – in the same manner that many of the melachos assist nature and perfect it," but in this post, I'd only like to focus on one of those implications: the need for excellence in Torah-craftsmanship. 

The laws of Torah are not like the laws which govern the development of an embryo or the growth of a plant. In contrast to the laws of nature, which produce results consistently and "automatically" (not in the sense that they operate independently of Hashem, but in the sense that their operation is not contingent on the application of human skill and human judgment), the Torah-regimen varies widely in its "products" and its rate of success. In some cases, the Torah-regimen will produce Rebbi Akivas, Rambams, and Rav Soloveitchiks. In other cases, the Torah will produce amei ha'aretz (ignoramuses) and "stam baalei batim" ("ordinary laymen"). And in other cases, the Torah will - in spite of itself - yield Korachs, Yeravam ben Navats, and other reshaim (wicked people). 

Why does the Torah produce such a variety of results? There are many reasons, no doubt. But to a large extent, the results of the Torah-regimen are dependent on the level of "craftsmanship" of the Torah practitioner. The Ralbag acknowledges this by explicitly qualifying his statements about the perfection achieved through Torah. In both of the aforementioned excerpts, the Ralbag says that the Torah achieves its purpose only for those "who practice it properly" or "those who practice it in a perfect manner." Yes, it is true that some people are more likely to "succeed" in Torah than others, whether by virtue of their innate dispositions, their upbringing, or their environmental circumstances - but most of those factors are largely outside of our control. What we can control and work on is developing our own proficiency in "Torah-craftsmanship" - or, if you prefer, "the skilled practice of the Torah-regimen."

There are many ways to view Torah. Chazal, themselves, compared Torah to many different things: water, wine, fire, etc. It would be a mistake to assume that these analogies were intended as absolute definitions. Rather, each analogy illuminates different dimensions of the infinitely deep and multifaceted Torah-regimen. I think that the Ralbag's comparison of Torah to melachah should be taken in that spirit. Personally I have found that the Ralbag's comparison of the Torah-regimen to craft has enriched my practice of Torah immeasurably, and I hope it does the same for you.