Turn It Again: Torah Wisdom for Today – Bamidbar 2024

Turn It Again: Torah Wisdom for Today

In Pirkei Avot, a book of maxims in the Mishnah, an ancient rabbi, Ben Bag-Bag said about Torah study, Hafokh bah, vaHafokh vah, dkhola bah.” Turn it over and over, for everything is in it. For two thousand years, thats what Jews have done. Here is another turning.

Parshat Bamidbar 2024

As Jews around the world begin to read the book of Bamidbar (Numbers), a difficult verse appears that highlights the moral complexity and broad horizons of Jewish ethical concerns in a manner that is as relevant today as it was thousands of years ago. In Bamidbar 3:13 it states without fanfare:

כִּ֣י לִי֮ כׇּל־בְּכוֹר֒ בְּיוֹם֩ הַכֹּתִ֨י כׇל־בְּכ֜וֹר בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֗יִם הִקְדַּ֨שְׁתִּי לִ֤י כׇל־בְּכוֹר֙ בְּיִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל מֵאָדָ֖ם עַד־בְּהֵמָ֑ה לִ֥י יִהְי֖וּ אֲנִ֥י יְדוָֽה׃ {פ}

For every male first-born is Mine: at the time that I smote every [male] first-born in the land of Egypt, I consecrated every male first-born in Israel, human and beast, to Myself, to be Mine.

At first glance, this verse may not seem to challenge our sensibilities at the deepest level, yet that was not the case for our commentators, nor for the context in which tradition has understood this.

Ovadia Sforno was a 16th-century Italian commentator who tells us, “although at the time when the firstborn in Egypt were killed, the Jewish firstborn had been guilty of death also, as had been the firstborn of that entire generation. They were singled out for this penalty as they were the most honored people of their time, and as such served as role models for others. There was no special merit due to which they would have been spared, as in Genesis 19:15 where the angels warned Lot not to remain in Sodom lest he too would be killed on account of the company he kept.” (trans. by Eliyahu Munk, HaChut Hameshulash, Lambda Publishers)

To place this contextually, the plague of the firstborn, which was Egypt’s punishment for its enslavement of the Israelites, should have extended to the Jewish firstborn as well. It was only an act of undeserved grace from God that spared them. This is difficult. Are those who feel themselves oppressed free to act and do as they wish? Does their subservience and lesser position of power free them to commit acts of horror? In Jewish thought, it does not. In fact, the newly formed, powerless nation is told that their freedom carries with it an eternal debt for the destruction invoked in its achievement.

As Everett Fox, an English translator of the Bible explains in his introduction to the Book of Numbers, “It becomes clear that nation-founding involves not only the giving of laws and the arranging of societal roles, but also the developing of the ability to cope with physical and spiritual challenges to survival.”

Shortly after October 7th, Rabbi David Wolpe sadly opined that “we are in the paradoxical situation, as a people who love peace, of saying to the world, ‘We must wreak more destruction.’” Whether or not one agrees with Wolpe’s assessment, it is indubitably true that in the face of the horrific massacre on October 7th and Israel’s continuing military response, which has leveled Gaza, causing terrible suffering, people of all opinions struggle to deal with the paradox of how to morally evaluate evil which calls forth such a violent response.

This is indeed, a physical and spiritual challenge of such proportions that most people end up picking sides, looking for a simple solution where one side or the other can be blamed. In life, such simple formulations are almost always wrong, but they seduce us by their potential to alleviate the emotional burden of witnessing evil and destruction. We desperately seek moral platitudes because the human soul is incapable of standing in the presence of destruction without suffering trauma. Eight months into this war, it would be difficult to find anyone who has followed this war closely who is not traumatized.

While the impulse of blaming Israel or Hamas for all that has unfolded in front of our eyes is thus understandable, contending with evil demands more from us. During Adolf Eichman’s trial in Israel for his crimes against humanity committed during the Holocaust, the German Jewish philosopher, Hannah Arendt was present. She saw a man who was as ordinary and mediocre as could be, yet who was guilty of extraordinary evil; this encounter led her to pen a phrase, “the banality of evil.” In explaining his actions, she concluded that it was Gedankenlosigkeit, thoughtlessness, that allowed him to believe that he was not a murderer. He remained unrepentant to the end.

We want to imagine that it takes a special form of wickedness to do what Hamas did on October 7th. Some want to ascribe a similar form of wickedness to Bibi Netanyahu, or the Israeli government, or the very nation-state of Israel. This path attempts to absolve us of recognizing that under certain circumstances, every one of us is capable of the most horrific actions. Sadly, the ordinary quality of thoughtless of others can lead people to do the unforgivable. Does such a perspective create a moral equivalence between Israel and Hamas?

The Torah rejects such a formulation. In Midrash Tanhuma (Parshat Metzora), a painful lesson is proferred—one who is kind to the cruel will end up being cruel to the kind. Allowing cruel people to act with impunity does not make the world safer, but leads to greater cruelty in the future. It was God, after all, who sent the tenth plague that killed every first born Egyptian. Only the strongest possible response to Pharaoh could have prevented ancient Egyptian society from committing ever more severe forms of cruelty in the future.

Without developing what I call a hierarchy of evil, we struggle to determine how to respond to evil. Yet even when we are certain that one particular form of evil is so virulent and likely to cause even greater suffering if left unchecked, Judaism does not allow one off the hook. Rather, as Bamidbar 3:13 reminds us, some actions, even when justified, require eternal repair and reparation. As God’s thinking is portrayed here, the only possible payment is that for eternity, first-born Jews must be consecrated to God. Phrased differently, the unending debt demanded of the Jewish nation was to ensure that every firstborn would understand that there is no place in this world for Gedankenlosigkeit. It is only by ensuring that we stand in a special relation to God, divinity, and the infinite that we can overcome the human tendency to thoughtlessness. This is as true for our interactions with a cashier as it is with those who mean us harm.