Tuesday, September 13, 2011

On Patience, Haste, and Fences

Our second Avot D’Rabbi Natan chevruta session started off with a bang, as we quickly delved into a very long discussion in the text about the first of three pieces of advice given by the Anshei Kenesset HaGedolah (the members of the Great Assembly): “hevu metunim ba’din, Be cautious in judgment”. There is a short description of why one should be hesitant when judging, and then there is a short aside that relates some history about the books of Proverbs, Shir HaShirim, and Kohelet. Apparently, these books were not copied down until long after they were written. They wanted to wait for the text to grow old before copying it down so that they could appropriately bring Shlomo’s wisdom to light. (It is interesting to note a nice play on words here: The word atik means both “copy” and “old”.)

The text then goes on to explain that the same cautiousness one applies to judgment should also be applied to one's speech. “This teaches that a man should be careful with his words and shouldn’t be hasty with them, for whoever is hasty with his words, his words are forgotten.” A story is then related of a time in the book of Bamidbar when Moshe Rabbeinu was too hasty with his words and became angry and was unable to follow God’s command. “If this happened to Moshe Rabbeinu, the wisest of the wise, the greatest of the great, the father of the prophets, when he became too hasty with his words and forgot his words, then how much more for us!” Rabbi Natan explains.

Ben-Azzai then seems to try and bridge the first and third pieces of advice given by the Anshei Kenesset HaGedolah. He says: “Be careful of putting obstacles in front of your words; make a fence around them”. (This third precept of the Great Assembly is “v’asu seyag la’Torah, make a fence around the Torah”.) Apparently, God, Adam, the Torah, Moshe, Job, and prophets, writers, and the wise ones all made fences around their words. It seems that the text tries to back up (at least part of) this statement by essentially saying that God made a fence around His words by predicting the future with appropriate caveats in a pretty specific example cited. (The purpose of the caveats being so that we won’t think God is wrong.)

A long story about Adam and Chava ensues that attempts to show how important it was that Adam made a fence around his words. However, I find several things very problematic with the story provided. The story begins with God telling Adam not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge. Adam adds a seyag around his words when repeating these instructions to Chava. He tells her that it is forbidden to eat from the tree and it also forbidden to touch the tree. (Adam is so shomer negiyah he doesn’t even touch trees!) The evil serpent comes along to Chava later and insists that it is okay to touch the tree, demonstrating by rubbing his arms and legs all over it. (Yes, the nachash had limbs. Don’t ask.) Chava, seeing that the serpent has touched the tree and lived, does the same and is also fine. The snake then says to her: “Just like you touched it and didn’t die, so too if you eat from it, you will not die”. Chava thinks to herself that, thus far, everything Adam has said has been a lie. She has no reason to trust that she shouldn’t eat the fruit after it turned out that touching was okay, so she eats it.

I find this example quite problematic. Is the root cause of this notorious story of “Eve eating the forbidden fruit” all a product of Adam making a fence around Hashem’s word? I don’t see how this is evidence that supports our fence-building practices. Jews have historically been quite fond of fences. They are the reason that “not boiling a kid in its mothers milk” has turned into having separate sponges and that “not kindling a flame on Shabbat” has turned into not turning on and off lights on Shabbat. But what if, as this story seems to subliminally imply, these fences are actually taking us farther away from the intent of Hashem’s intent? What if we lose sight of the real mitzvah behind miles and miles of fences? Do we become “Worshippers of the Fence”? And what if, as in this story, we actually break a mitzvah because of a seyag that is added?

This reminded me of a poem we looked at this summer, Bimkom Shir Ahavah by Yehudah Amichai. I apologize for not being able to provide the Hebrew text here.

Instead of a Love Poem

To Chana

From “thou shalt not seethe a kid in its mothre’s milk,”

they made the many laws of Kashrut,

but the kid is forgotten and the milk is forgotten and

the mother is forgotten

In this way from “I love you”

we made all our life together.

But I’ve not forgotten you

as you were then.

That’s it for now. Until next week!

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