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Sunday, July 28, 2013

Eikev, Devarim 9:4. Are We Graded on a Curve?

אל תאמר בלבבך בהדף ה' אלקיך אתם מלפניך לאמר בצדקתי הביאני ה' לרשת את הארץ הזאת וברשעת הגוים האלה ה' מורישם מפניך. לא בצדקתך ובישר לבבך אתה בא לרשת את ארצם כי ברשעת הגוים האלה ה' אלקיך מורישם מפניך ולמען הקים את הדבר אשר נשבע ה' לאבתיך לאברהם ליצחק וליעקב

Do not think, when Hashem drives away the Canaanites from before you, "Because I am righteous Hashem brought me here to inherit this land and because the original residents were wicked Hashem disinherits them."  No, it is not that you are righteous, it is because they are wicked, and because Hashem promised the land to your forefathers.

The Shem Mishmuel brings a Medrash Rabba Breishis 50:11 to explain what error they were being warned about.

ואנכי לא אוכל להמלט ההרה וגו' ויאמר לוט אליהם אל נא אדני הנה מצא עבדך חן בעיניך וגו.

ר' ברכיה ורבי לוי בשם רבי חמא בר חנינה: שני בני אדם אמרו דבר אחד, לוט וצרפית. 

צרפית אמרה: עד שלא באת אצלי, היה הקב"ה רואה מעשי ומעשה אנשי עירי, והיו מעשי רבים על אנשי בני עירי, והייתי צדקת ביניהם, עכשיו שבאת אצלי, באת להזכיר את עוני ולהמית את בני

לוט אמר: עד שלא הלכתי אצל אברהם, היה הקדוש ברוך הוא רואה מעשי ומעשי בני עירי, ואני צדיק ביניהם, עכשיו שאני הולך אצל אברהם שמעשיו רבים על שלי, איני יכול לעמוד בנחלתו.

Lot sought refuge as he fled from the destruction of S'dom.  The angels suggested that he find refuge in the mountain, but he did not accept their advice.   Something about "the mountain" frightened him.  The Medrash explains that it was no mountain he was afraid of; "mountain" means Avraham.  The angels were suggesting that he go back to his uncle, that he rejoin Avraham.  But Lot was afraid to do so, and the rationale for his fear was echoed by the Tzarfis woman in the time of Eliahu.  When her son died, the Tzarfis woman came to Eliahu, and she said "Eliahu, until you began visiting me, God saw my actions and those of my neighbors and by comparison I was a holy woman.  Now that you visit me, God sees my failings, and this caused my son to die."  Lot said, "While I was in Sdom, I was, compared to them, a holy man.  If I were to rejoin Avraham, I would not survive."

Here, too, says the Shem MiShmuel, Hashem told us "Don't think that the Canaanites are going to die because when you arrive the contrast between your spiritual greatness and their relative failings will tip the scale against them.  You're not so special.  They were wicked people who deserved to be eliminated irrespective of your presence."

Let's think about this, a concept that the Tzarfis woman and Lot assumed to be true, and that Hashem had to tell us was not the reason for the elimination of the Canaanites.  It appears to mean that people are judged by comparison to the others in their community.  That means that the standard of justice is relative to the other people that are being judged.  That means that Hashem grades us on a curve.

I choose that expression intentionally.  One might read the Medrash and nod his head and agree.  But when you realize that this is exactly what grading on a curve is all about, it becomes untenable.  As I understand it, the rationale of grading on a curve is as follows: Prospective employers have an idea of the quality of the students and the education at a given institution.  They want, and are entitled, to know where an individual student stands within that segment.  The only way to rank students is through a curve- these are the best, these are average, and these are on the lower side.  This makes perfect sense in a  market.  It makes absolutely no sense when it comes to Schar ve'Onesh.  Another reason to grade on a curve is when the instructor is inexperienced and might not be educating the students effectively.   If very few students do well on the examination, it is most likely the teacher's failure and the students should not be penalized.  This is even less applicable to heavenly judgment.

It might be that Chazal are telling us that the idea is totally false, that what the Isha Hatzarfis and Lot thought, and what Bnei Yisrael might have thought, was simply wrong.  But I do not believe this is true.  We can make mistakes on our own, and if Chazal tell us what some biblical figures were thinking, unless they tell us clearly that they are talking about something which is false, it should be taken seriously.

The initial response I get from people is that Chazal are talking about people who consciously refuse to be influenced by the righteous people to whom they are exposed.   They could and should be inspired by them, and emulate them, and their refusal to allow righteousness and spirituality to affect them is a terrible sin, it is an affront to Hashem.  You have before you an example of what you ought to be, you have a teacher, and you affect deliberate blindness?  That is a terrible sin.

This is certainly true.  We are told טוב לצדיק טוב לשכנו, and אוי לרשע ואוי לשכנו (see Rashi Bamidbar 23:29 and 38,) and that means that it is good and wise to associate with a Tzadik because he will influence you to be better, and it is dangerous to associate with a Rasha, because he will influence you to become a rasha like him.  It stands to reason that if, despite  אוי לרשע ואוי לשכנו, one overcomes the influence of his neighbor the Rasha, and remains a tzadik, as Noach did (see Rashi Breishis 6:9 and Sanhedrin 108a,) it is a tremendous merit; if, despite טוב לצדיק טוב לשכנו, a person rejects the influence of a Tzadik and remains a rasha, it is a terrible sin.

But I don't believe that this explains our Medrash.  Lot is one thing: the Isha Hatzarfis is something else entirely. Everything we know about her tells us that she was a holy and righteous person.  Hashem sent Eliahu to find shelter in her home, and she merited an awe-inspiring miracle. We have absolutely no right to say that she willfully refused to allow Eliahu's presence to inspire her or elevate her spirituality.  On the contrary.  The operative principal ought to be טוב לצדיק טוב לשכנו.
So what is the pshat in the Medrash?

Here are some interpretations that we found reasonable.

1.  In the censuses in the Midbar, Shevet Levi was the smallest of the tribes.  One of the reasons is that their work in the Midbar involved a constant presence in the Mishkan and the carrying of the holy utensils (see, e.g., Rashi in Vayeitzei, Breishis 29:35.)  If a Levi was carrying the Aron Kodesh, and his mind wandered, and for a moment he thought about something trivial or foolish, he would die on the spot.  Similarly, a Kohen Gadol, while in the Kodesh Kadashim, had absolutely no leeway.  Any infinitesimal failure or distraction would be immediately fatal.  Being in the area of such holiness creates a condition of Middas Hadin.  The same may be true of the environment of a Tzadik, who embodies the kedusha of the Beis Hamikdash.

2.  Similarly, we have a passuk in our parsha that says that the degree of Hashgacha on Eretz Yisrael is qualitatively different than that of the Hashgacha on the rest of the world.  Devarim 11:11-12  והארץ אשר אתם עברים שמה לרשתה ארץ הרים ובקעת למטר השמים תשתה מים.  ארץ אשר ה' אלהיך דרש אתה תמיד עיני ה' אלקיך בה מרשית השנה ועד אחרית שנה.  If so, we might say that the degree of Hashgach in the proximity of a tzadik is far greater.  Greater Hashgacha means close scrutiny, the kind of examination that every person eventually undergoes, but usually only at the judgment of Beis Din shel Maalah in the Olam Ha'emes after death.  Behavior that would otherwise pass might not survive this kind of close scrutiny.

I personally don't like this pshat.  To say that being near a tzadik is like walking under a קיר נטוי to the extent that it operates to turn upside down the whole concept of טוב לצדיק טוב לשכנו, and that there is some chiluk between them, doesn't appeal to me.  If you like it, זאלסט דו זיין געזונט

3.  When a tzadik lives near you, you realize that you could be greater, that you should grow.  Unfortunately, inertia makes growth difficult.  Even if we know we ought to change, it is difficult to act upon what we know.  Sometimes, people only change in reaction to a traumatic event that forces them to reexamine their lives.  In cases like that, Hashem might help that person take that difficult step by shaking them up, by bringing difficult challenges to them.


ebm said...

¿What are the consequences for Ignorant Inhabitants of Regions too close to tzaddikim?

Barzilai/Eliezer Eisenberg said...

I think you mean to point out that it would be counter-intuitive if the innocent were to suffer because they live near a tzadik. I agree. But intuition is not always reliable. Just ask a physicist.

Chaim B. said...

>>>We have absolutely no right to say that she willfully refused to allow Eliahu's presence to inspire her or elevate her spirituality.

Why do you assume there was anything willful going on? All she was doing is reporting the facts: willful or not, once there is a better shining example, it put her own good deeds in a poorer light.

Barzilai/Eliezer Eisenberg said...

I might accept that she didn't do enough to raise her standards once she saw Eliahu. I can even develop a lomdus that we all have a halacha of a tinok shenishbeh, as you said from the Chazon Ish, because life is so confusing and there is so little guidance, but when you have Eliahu Hanavi in your house, you no longer have a din of Tinok Shenishbeh. But your saying that a shining example puts her good deeds in a poorer light- that I cannot accept. You are judged according to what you are, not according to the people around you.