Saturday, August 18, 2007

Parshat Ki Tetzie (Rabbi Sedley)

The last Mishna in Chullin (142a) says, "For a Mitzvah as simple as shooing away the mother bird the Torah promises 'In order that things go well for you and you will have length of days' (Deuteronomy 22: 7), how much more so for a Mitzvah which is difficult to perform". The Talmud (ibid.) comments "Rabbi Ya'akov taught about honouring one's parents the Torah says, 'In order that you have length of days, and it go well for you', and in regard to sending away the mother bird it states, 'In order that things go well for you and you will have length of days'. If a person's father were to ask them to climb up to a nest and bring down the chicks, and he went, and sent away the mother bird and took the chicks, and on his descent he fell and died, in such a case where is the length of days, where is the good that he will receive? Rather, 'length of days' refers to the World-to-Come which is infinite, and that 'It shall things go well' refers to a world that is only good".
One of the leading personalities of the Mishnaic period was Elisha ben Avuha, a contemporary of Rabbi Akiva. The Talmud (Chagiga 14b) tells how he, Rabbi Akiva, Ben Azai and Ben Zoma once entered the Pardes (metaphor for the deepest esoteric wisdom of the kabbalah). Despite the warnings of Rabbi Akiva, the others were unable to deal with the knowledge that they had gained. Ben Azai died, Ben Zoma became crazy, and Elisha ben Avuha gave up his religious beliefs. He acted in a manner so unbecoming with who he was that people at first refused to believe that it was him, and he gained the nickname of 'Acher' (Another). Though the reason that he cast off the yoke of Torah was because he delved too deeply into the kabbalistic secrets, the Talmud also explains the immediate trigger of his actions.
"Rav Yosef said, 'If Acher would have understood the verse [of sending away the mother bird] like Rabbi Ya'akov he would never have sinned'. What did he see? One opinion is that he saw an incident of a child sending away the mother bird and falling to his death. Another opinion is that he saw the tongue of Rabbi Chutzpit the interpreter lying in a rubbish heap. He said 'How could the mouth that spoke pearls of wisdom should come to lick the dust?'. Acher didn't realise that 'length of days' refers to the world to come which is infinite, and that 'it shall go well' in a world that is only good." (Chullin ibid.).
How could one of the greatest Sages of the time come to make such a basic mistake about the simple meaning of the verse? Surely it is clear that any reward promised refers to the World-to-Come.
The Midrash (Bereishis Rabba 8; 8) tells us that when Moshe wrote the verse "Let us make man in our image" (Genesis 1; 26) he asked G-d why he allowed a verse which may cause people to think that there is more than one god. G-d replied "One who wants to sin will sin". Ultimately any sin is motivated by a subconscious desire to sin. Though different events may be the trigger for rebellion against G-d, or give us an excuse for sin, the blame lies solely in ourselves, for if we would not want to sin, we would not.
This is the reason that Elisha ben Avuha could not understand a simple explanation of the verse. Though he had scaled the heights of Torah knowledge, and reached greater insights than almost anyone else, deep down in his subconscious he must have been looking for an excuse for departing from the path. This is a message for all of us as we approach Rosh HaShana. If even the greatest of the sages could be led so easily into sin, how careful must we be in examining the depths of our souls to search out any imperfections, or traits that may lead us to sin.

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