(Image from Shutterstock, to indicate the Reclining Walls of the Study Hall hall Baba Metzia 59b)
“Know the Truth in Your Heart” (adapted from previous versions)
This week we have a double Torah portion, Behar-Bechukotai. I will offer a few comments only the first of the two Torah portions, Behar. Behar means “on the mountain,” referring to Mt. Sinai.
The most important part of the first Torah portion, Behar contains instructions concerning the Sabbatical Year. This Torah portion contains verses that are the source for what is perhaps the most well known narrative in the Talmud, “The Oven of Achnai” – well known, and usually deeply misunderstood.
We are taught in our portion that after seven Sabbatical years, in the 50th year, families return to their patrimonial lands. Therefore, one does not actually buy land in perpetuity, one only buys usage of the land for however many years are left in a 50 year Sabbatical cycle. The Torah gives instructions on how to make these transactions fair, introduced with the phrase “You shall not wrong one another.” The section concludes, however, with a slightly different phrase, “You shall not wrong one another; you shall revere God.”
The rabbis of the Talmud are always on the lookout for apparent redundancies in the Torah. “Redundancy is impossible,” they say. Any apparent redundancy means that a new topic is being addressed. Why would this section be introduced and concluded with almost the same terms, “You shall not wrong one another,” but with addition of the words, “You shall revere God.” What “new topic” does “You shall revere God” raise?
The Talmud concludes that there are two kinds of wrong that we commit against each other. One kind is monetary, something that can be proven in court, where damages can be assessed and compensation made. For that kind of wrong, we only need to be told “You shall not wrong one another.” The courts can take care of the rest.
The other kind of wrong we do to each other is verbal, where your intention is hidden in your heart, sometimes even from yourself, and it is impossible for someone to get justice. Verbal wrongs (aside from severe libel or defamation) are matters one cannot take to court. In our day to day lives, the one committing verbal harm can always say, “I was just kidding!” or “I didn’t mean it how you took it! or “You are too sensitive!” It is often very difficult to undo the harm done in seemingly innocuous verbal harm with a sincere apology being offered. We can’t get court-ordered compensation.
How do the additional words, “You shall revere God” address this problem that so many of us face? Reverence for God is something hidden in the heart. There is no outward way to measure your intentions. You can just cover up intentions to hurt someone by denying your intent. From a traditional perspective, God knows. If truly you revere the Divine, and live in truth to the Divine, you won’t be false with other people.
Examples of verbal wrongs in the Talmud are: insulting words, even if someone is used to hearing it. Another verbal wrong is gossip, saying hurtful things behind someone’s back. Misleading salespeople – acting as if you intend to buy something, but you actually are just getting information but intend to buy from someone else. Asking questions that can sound innocent, but actually have a motivation to hurt or embarrass.
To exemplify the moral duty not to commit verbal harm, especially when the motivation can be hidden, the Talmud goes on to describe an extraordinary scene of rabbinic debate (in tractate Baba Metzia 59b and following); Rabbi Eliezer on one side, and all the other rabbis of the academy (headed by Rabban Gamliel) on the other. They don’t accept Rabbi Eliezer’s arguments on whether a certain type of oven can be used, even though (or maybe because) he is actually always right. Best judge in the Talmud, ever, according to the Talmud.
Rabbi Eliezer sees an injustice about to be done; if the case goes against him, there will be mass destruction of people’s ovens suddenly deemed “un-kosher.” He cannot persuade his colleagues with any rational argument. They are just stubborn and obstinate. Rabbi Eliezer does something quite unusual: he performs miracles, signs and wonders to show that God God’s-self is backing him up. As a last resort, a miraculous voice from heaven, a “Bat Kol,” tells the rabbis to quit arguing with him; the law is with Rabbi Eliezer, as usual.
Rabbi Joshua then gets up and proclaims, “It is not in heaven!” – that the Torah was given by God to the people for the rabbis to interpret, and they interpreted it by “majority rules.” A victory for democracy! A victory of human legal process over the divine intervention! “God, stay out of our business.” As if the majority can never be wrong; as if the majority always has the good at heart.
Not so quick. Remember, the Talmudic narrator has already let us know that the rabbis got it wrong, and Rabbi Eliezer had it right. The voice of the majority does not make something right or wrong. And remember – the story is told under the rubric of the concept “wrong committed through words, where the motivation is hidden in the heart.” Were Rabbi Joshua and his colleagues truly motivated by “Not in heaven,” (the law is decided by majority vote down here on planet Earth) or was something darker happening in their hearts, that only they and God were privy to?
This story is usually famous because of the “not in heaven” protest of Rabbi Joshua – that the God-given Torah is now interpreted by human understanding. Miracles and divine voices adduced to determine the meaning of the law are paid no heed. That is certainly an interesting idea, but a bit of a distraction. The real issue here is causing wrong while hiding behind lofty ideas.
Our unconscious ego-selves like to place us in frames of righteousness. When we wrong each other, we sometimes claim a banal (“I was just saying what I thought!”) or lofty (I am fighting for what is right!) ideal as our justification. This seems to be the Talmud’s essential warning here: when you proclaim an ideal, take a stand, or otherwise try to dominate a conversation, check your motivations. Is it truth and right that you seek, or persuading people and hurting other people with your words?
The rest of the story exposes the motivation of the rabbis: The rabbis who outvoted Rabbi Eliezer excommunicated him and destroyed all the property in the town that had previously been deemed kosher by his rulings. The rabbis ran riot. Rabban Gamliel does not stop them. The Talmud wants us to know, it seems, that the Torah is not reliably in the heart of human beings down here on Earth, majority or not. When the deciding of a legal case is put in the hands of hateful, envious and destructive human beings, run for cover.
There is a tragic end to this story – you can look it up. I’ll conclude with one of my favorite lines in the prayer book:
“At all times, a person should revere God, in the hidden life and in public, and acknowledge the truth, and speak the truth in the heart.”
“Know the Truth in Your Heart” (adapted from previous versions)