Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Sacrifices and Secrets / Parshat Vayikra 2017-2777

Three seemingly disparate questions: If you are engaged in business, is bluffing, lying, cheating, and offering bribes in secret wrong, or simply the tools of a skilled deal maker? How do sacrifices brought to the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and later to the Temple, relate to what people do in secret? If you cannot constrain yourself from doing what is wrong, does it dishonor God more or less to do it in secret? The answers to all three questions come together in consideration of this week’s parashah, Vayikra.

We open the Torah this week to the Book of Leviticus—a priestly pocket manual on the myriad details of the sacrificial cult. It’s not to everyone’s liking; for some, it will feel like a slow slog for the next two months. The exciting, challenging, and inspiring narratives of Genesis and Exodus are behind us. Israel has escaped Egypt, received Torah, constructed the Mishkan, and is settling in to a routine of life in the wilderness: learn God’s ways, offer sacrifices, move forward, and mark time until the nation can enter the Land of Israel. While Leviticus offers us only two narrative stories, taken together with insightful commentaries, it feeds our souls and enriches our lives with a wealth of wisdom concerning human nature.

Parshat Vayikra lays out the major categories of sacrifices, the circumstances under which offerings are to be brought, the content of the offerings, the rituals for offering them, and the disposition of the sacrifices once made. We read about the olah (burnt offering), the minchah (meal offering),  the shelamim (sacrifice of well-being), chatat (sin offering), and asham (guilt offering). We learn the distinction between violations committed intentionally and unintentionally. We even learn that a person who cannot afford to bring the prescribed offering may substitute a less costly sacrifice.

Many of the sacrifices catalogued in Vayikra are to atone for sin. Torah stipulates mechanisms for dealing with wrongs committed by one person against another, including the consequences and fines, but ultimately sacrifices are required because wronging another person is de facto sinning against God.

While Torah deals with the rules and standards of behavior that are deemed violations of the covenant, as well as the ritual mechanisms for obtaining forgiveness, Talmud delves deeper into the nature of sin and the human psyche. In tractate Chagigah, we find a mishnah that enumerates four subjects one should not speculate about (at least, not in public) because of the danger of inadvertently enticing others into apostasy.[1] The mishnah concludes with this comment:


Perhaps you’re wondering how the Mishnah justifies making such a drastic and dramatic claim? Gemara explains on BT Chagigah 16a.

What does this mean? R. Abba said: It refers to one who looks at a rainbow. R. Yosef said: “It refers to one who commits a sin in secret.” “One who looks at a rainbow,” as it is written: Like the appearance of a rainbow that shines in the cloud on a day of rain, such was the appearance of the surrounding radiance. That was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of Adonai (Ezekiel 1:28[2]). R. Yosef said, “This refers to one who commits a sin in secret,” which accords with what R. Yitzhak said, for R. Yitzhak said, “Whoever commits a sin in secret, it is as though he pushed away the feet of the Shekhinah, for it is said, כֹּה אָמַר יְהוָה, הַשָּׁמַיִם כִּסְאִי, וְהָאָרֶץ הֲדֹם רַגְלָי Thus said Adonai: The heaven is My throne and the earth is My footstool (Isaiah 66:1).” But is this so? But R. Illa the Elder said, “If a person sees that the [evil] inclination is overpowering him, he should go to a place where no one recognizes him, don black clothing and wrap himself in black, and do what his heart desires, but he should not desecrate God’s Name publicly!” There is no difficulty (i.e., contradiction). This [R. Yosef’s opinion] concerns one who is able to overcome their inclination; this [R. Yitzhak’s opinion] concerns one who is not able to overcome their inclination.

R. Abba offers an example of behavior that fails to honor God: looking at a rainbow. No doubt you’re wondering how on earth gazing at a rainbow can be construed as failure to honor God, especially since there is a berakhah to say when one sees a rainbow.[3] However, as beautiful and aesthetically uncomplicated as a rainbow is for most of us, it is theologically complicated for the Rabbis. The first rainbow appeared after the Flood that destroyed virtually all of humanity and the animal kingdom, save the remnant preserved in the ark. It is a sign of God’s promise never again to flood the earth, but at the same time a sign of God’s disapproval of humanity’s behavior.  But there is more, as R. Abba’s use of the verse from Ezekiel makes clear. Describing God’s glory, Ezekiel likens it to the radiance of the rainbow. It would seem that R. Abba is concerned lest people gaze upon a rainbow and think they are seeing God.

The bulk of the passage, however, focuses on R. Yosef’s example: a person who sins in secret. The one who sins in secret does so out of the sight of other people, believing either that God does not exist or does not matter. The Gemara supports R. Yosef’s contention by citing R. Yitzhak’s more graphic teaching that sinning in secret not only sidelines God, but actively disrespects God (“pushing away the feet of the Shekhinah”). His proof text, Isaiah 66:1, uses the term rag’lai (“my feet”), to say that one who sins in secret is, effectively, pushing God’s authority, meaning, and presence, out of this world.

No sooner have R. Yosef and R. Yitzhak made what appear to be solid and thoughtful arguments then Gemara challenges them: Really? Are you so sure that sinning in secret is the epitome of dishonoring God? Perhaps it is the opposite!

R. Illa the Elder presents the novel and controversial idea: Sinning in secret, he holds, can be preferable to sinning in public. He asserts that someone who is overwhelmed by the compulsion to sin should disguises himself and go off to a place where he is unknown to do what he must. At least he will not be recognized by people who know him, conveying open and public disrespect for God’s laws.

The question of whether or not one should engage in improper behavior in secret took an interesting philosophical twist when, in 1968, Albert Z. Carr published an article in the Harvard Business Review entitled, “Is Business Bluffing Ethical?”[4] Few articles have generated as much discussion and controversy, which is ongoing now nearly fifty years later. Carr argued that the world of business is special realm in which the tactics for success permit a different standard of behavior. As business ethics specialists Robert E McNulty and W. Michael Hoffman noted:

Albert Carr, claimed quite brazenly that businesses were perfectly justified in lying, cheating, and bribing, all in the name of achieving business objectives. According to Carr, the ethics of ordinary life were inapplicable to business because the latter was governed by its own “gaming” morality that required the businessman to leave at home the Golden Rule and his commitment to principles such as honesty and fairness.  To make his point, Carr quotes a Midwestern executive who had “given a good deal of thought to the question.” According to this person, “If the law as written gives a man a wide-open chance to make a killing, he’d be a fool not to take advantage of it. If he doesn’t someone else will. There is no obligation on him to stop and consider who is going to get hurt. If the law says he can do it, that’s all the justification he needs. There’s nothing unethical about that. It’s just plain business sense.”

In the same article, Carr goes on to assert the legitimacy of lying on one’s résumé, engaging in industrial espionage, and deceptively adulterating the contents of consumer goods in order to increase profits.[5]

For Carr, one has no obligation to go beyond the letter of the law—and certainly no obligation to adhere to standards of decency in the context of business. Carr’s argument led many to believe “business ethics” was a oxymoron. Whether his views reflected the state of business practices or inspired them, business ethics became a field of study in the mid-70s. Today, most corporations have promulgated  a code of ethics and established an officer responsible to oversee compliance.

Carr’s style of business is roundly condemned as immoral by Jewish ethical standards, which are spelled out in the Torah and elaborated upon at length in the Talmud and later law codes.[6] In fact, there is a rabbinic tradition that when one dies and stands before God for judgment, the first question God will ask is, “Did you conduct your business with integrity?” (BT Shabbat 31a) Often, in discussions of Jewish business ethics, the principle of livnei iveir lo titein michshol / “do not place a stumbling block before the blind” is invoked; it speaks directly to Carr’s tactics.

I’m sure it has occurred to many familiar with Albert Carr’s controversial claims and the discussion surrounding them that the President Trump and his close advisors appear to be a card-carrying subscribers to Carr’s philosophy. He has imported into the White House the sense that his brand of business dealings, which entails distortions, disinformation, and outright lies, is simply employing the tools of the trade, that in the “game” of politics one is required to win at any cost.

We would do well to recall R. Yosef and R. Yitzhak’s discussion. “Pushing away the feet of the Shekhinah,” shoving morality to the curb and engaging in secretive dishonesty, is socially caustic and spiritually corrosive whenever and wherever it occurs.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

[1] Those familiar with tractate Chagigah will recognize this as the mishnah that leads to rabbinic discussions of mysticism and tells the story of Elisha b. Abuyah, also known derogatorily as Acher.
[2] The verse continues: when I beheld it, I flung myself down on my face. And I heard the voice of someone speaking.
[3] Talmud itself provides the blessing: ברוך אתה ה' אלהינו מלך העולם זוכר הברית וְנֶאֱמָן בִּבְרִיתוֹ וְקַיָם בְּמַאֲמָר Blessed are You, Adonai our God, ruler of the universe, Who remembers the covenant and is faithful to his covenant and keeps his promise. (BT Berakhot 59a)
[4] Albert Z. Carr, “Is Business Bluffing Ethical?,” Harvard Business Review 46, no. 1 (1968): 146. Available at: https://hbr.org/1968/01/is-business-bluffing-ethical.
[5] http://www.corporatecomplianceinsights.com/a-look-back-in-history-learning-the-lessons-of-business-ethics/#_ftn1.
[6] Suggested sources include: Elliot N. Dorff and Jonathan K. Crane, The Oxford Handbook of Jewish Ethics and Morality; http://www.rabbinicalassembly.org/sites/default/files/public/resources-ideas/source-sheets/tol-parashot/hukkat.pdf; Rabbi Yitzchok Breitowitz, “Jewish Business Ethics: An Introductory Perspective” http://www.jlaw.com/Articles/JewBusEthI.html;  http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/loving-god-and-doing-business/.

Friday, March 24, 2017

For Good & For Ill / Parshat Vayakhel-Pikudei 2017-5777

We humans have an unfortunate, but entirely human, tendency to brand others as “all good” or “all bad.” This week’s combined parshiot, Vayakhel and Pikudei, offer a response.

The Book of Exodus is divided into three sections: First, the narrative of the Exodus, from the Israelites descent into Egypt through their ascent out of Egypt, crossing the Reed Sea, and arrival at Mount Sinai, where they entered into a Covenant with God. With Matan Torah (the Giving of the Torah), Torah proceeds with the second section of Exodus to recount many of the mitzvot that comprise the Covenant. With parshat Terumah, we enter the third section of Exodus, which concerns the construction of the Mishkan (Tabernacle).

Parshat Terumah begins by announcing that the contributions to build the Tabernacle were voluntary. People would bring what they were inspired (אֲשֶׁר יִדְּבֶנּוּ לִבּוֹ) to donate:

 דַּבֵּר אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְיִקְחוּ-לִי תְּרוּמָה:  מֵאֵת כָּל-אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר יִדְּבֶנּוּ לִבּוֹ, תִּקְחוּ אֶת-תְּרוּמָתִי
Adonai spoke to Moses, saying: Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him. (Exodus 25:2)

In Vayakhel we find similar language in the description of the Israelites’ enthusiastic and generous donation of their gold to fashion the vessels used in the sacrificial service.

 וַיָּבֹאוּ, כָּל-אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר-נְשָׂאוֹ לִבּוֹ; וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר נָדְבָה רוּחוֹ אֹתוֹ, הֵבִיאוּ אֶת-תְּרוּמַת יְהוָה לִמְלֶאכֶת אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד וּלְכָל-עֲבֹדָתוֹ, וּלְבִגְדֵי, הַקֹּדֶשׁ.  כב וַיָּבֹאוּ הָאֲנָשִׁים, עַל-הַנָּשִׁים; כֹּל נְדִיב לֵב, הֵבִיאוּ חָח וָנֶזֶם וְטַבַּעַת וְכוּמָז כָּל-כְּלִי זָהָב, וְכָל-אִישׁ, אֲשֶׁר הֵנִיף תְּנוּפַת זָהָב לַיהוָה
Everyone who excelled in ability and everyone whose spirit moved him came, bringing to Adonai his offering for the work of the Tent of Meeting and for all its service and for the sacral vestments.  Men and women, all whose hearts moved them, all who would make an elevation offering of gold to Adonai, came bringing brooches, earrings, rings, and pendants—gold objects of all kinds. (Exodus 35:21–22)

The Rabbis note that this is not the first time the Israelites have donated their gold: they handed it over to Aaron to make the Golden Calf (as recounted in Exodus chapter 32). They further note that in other instances, the Israelites engage in specific behaviors—both for good and for ill. In the Yerushalmi (Jerusalem Talmud, Shekalim 1:1) we read:

R. Yehudah bar Pazzi said in the name of Rabbi [Yehudah ha-Nasi]: When we read these verses, do we not tremble?—

On the good side: כֹּל נְדִיב לֵב All who were of willing heart (Exodus 35:22).
On the bad side:  וַיִּתְפָּרְקוּ, כָּל-הָעָם, אֶת-נִזְמֵי הַזָּהָב, אֲשֶׁר בְּאָזְנֵיהֶם; וַיָּבִיאוּ, אֶל-אַהֲרֹן So all the people took off the rings of gold that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron (Exodus 32:3).

On the good side: וַיּוֹצֵא מֹשֶׁה אֶת-הָעָם לִקְרַאת הָאֱלֹהִים Then Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God (Exodus 19:17).
On the bad side: וַתִּקְרְבוּן אֵלַי, כֻּלְּכֶם, וַתֹּאמְרוּ נִשְׁלְחָה אֲנָשִׁים לְפָנֵינוּ Then all of you came to Me and said: “Let us send men before us” (Deuteronomy 1:22).

On the good side: אָז יָשִׁיר-מֹשֶׁה וּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת-הַשִּׁירָה הַזֹּאת, לַיהוָה Then Moses and the people Israel sang this song to Adonai (Exodus 15:1).
On the bad side: וַתִּשָּׂא, כָּל-הָעֵדָה, וַיִּתְּנוּ, אֶת-קוֹלָם וַיִּבְכּוּ הָעָם, בַּלַּיְלָה הַהוּא Then all the congregation raised a loud cry and the people wept that night (Numbers 14:1)…

R. Abba bar Acha said, “You cannot truly make sense of the character of this nation. When they are approached to build the Golden Calf, they contribute. When they are approached to build the altar, they contribute.”

R. Yose b. Chanina taught the following tradition: וְעָשִׂיתָ כַפֹּרֶת, זָהָב טָהוֹר Then you shall make a mercy seat of pure gold (Exodus 25:17). Let the gold of the mercy seat come and effect atonement for the gold you gave for the Golden Calf.”

First, let’s explain the three sets of verses and then explore R. Abba bar Acha’s and R. Yose b. Chanina’s comments about them. We have already mentioned the first set of verses.

In the second set, the people step forward: In the first instance, the Israelites take their places at the foot of Mount Sinai to receive God’s Torah—that is good. In the second instance, they defy Moses and God because they did not trust either to lead them into the Land, and demand that spies scout out the land before they agree to enter it—clearly this is bad.

In the third set of verses, the people speak up: In the first instance, having crossed through the Reed Sea and experienced God’s salvation, they sing God’s praises—this is meritorious. In the second instance, after the spies bring back their report, the people again raise their voices, wailing, weeping, and railing against Moses and Aaron, refusing to enter the land—this is deplorable.

The three juxtapositions inspire R. Abba bar Acha to observe that the Israelites are a confounding nation: At times they are exceptionally obedient and pious; at other times they are contentious and rebellious. They contributed gold to make the Golden Calf as readily as they contributed gold to build the altar. What is one to make of such a people?

R. Abba bar Acha’s frustration is palpable and surely reflects God’s exasperation with the Israelites, who were in turns loyal and contumacious, courageous and cowardly, loving and ungrateful. Does this characterization of Israel sound surprising? Or does it sound entirely human? Perhaps it sounds like someone you know.

How does God respond to Israel’s extreme vacillations? R. Yose b. Chanina tells us that God expressly planned for this behavior, establishing a golden seat of mercy to serve as atonement for the gold donated to build the Golden Calf. God built into the Mishkan a mechanism for forgiveness and atonement. God didn’t have to think about and consider every rebellion—God was poised and prepared to forgive Israel as soon as they repented.

It would be easy to paint the Israelites a nation of rebels and ingrates, ever trying God’s and Moses’ patience, but this passage from the Yerushalmi reminds us that one-sided views are rarely accurate. They’re more about our tendency to demonize those whose behaviors or views rankle us and a reminder of our capacity for compassion and forgiveness. Would that we could stop and search for the “good verse” when the compulsion to criticize and condemn comes upon us; then we could access the golden seat of mercy in our souls.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman