Shimini — When we are wrong

March 21, 2014 § Leave a comment

For whatever reason, it has been decreed in this country that pita bread must have the taste and consistency of packing foam. In Israel, however, where pita-baking is a cottage industry in its own right, pita has that sweet yeasty flavor of just-baked bread. 

What is different about Israeli pita is the oven that it is baked in: it is a large unglazed ceramic globe, standing as tall as a man, with hot wood fire at the bottom. 

To bake the bread, small flat pancakes of dough are slapped to the inside wall of the oven, like doughy starfish. When the dough peels itself off the side of the oven, the bread is done.

A skillful baker will know this moment instinctually and place his wooden oar under it to catch its fall. If you wait at the bakery in Emek Refaim in Jerusalem, you can buy a dozen of them right from the oven. 

I’m afraid that this week’s Torah portion, however, does not mention the sweet satisfaction of pita bread. Rather, it relates to an unpleasant surprise you might find one morning if you are tasked with the care and use of these ovens: what happens when a small animal crawls inside one of these ovens and dies? Might you still be able to use the oven?

According to the biblical law, the answer would be no.

“The following shall be unclean for you from among the things that swarm on the earth: the mole, the mouse, and great lizards of every variety; the gecko, the land crocodile, the lizard, the sand lizard, and the chameleon. Those are for you the unclean among all the swarming things… And if any of those falls into an earthen vessel, everything inside it shall be unclean and [the vessel] itself you shall break… Everything on which the carcass of any of them falls shall be unclean: an oven or stove shall be smashed. They are unclean and unclean they shall remain for you.”

That’s the rule: an earthenware vessel must be smashed – no exceptions.

Yet, being as these ovens are enormous, they cannot be cheap to make. Finding a dead creepy-crawly in one of these ovens would likely be a crushing loss.

It would preferable, then, to discover an option that does not involve destroying an entire oven. What if, for example, the oven is made in a different fashion – what if it is one of those new-fangled tiled ovens, like what is used for bread-baking in Europe – then what happens if it houses an unwelcome swarming thing?  Maybe you could cut the bad part out and leave the rest of the oven intact? 

The Talmud has a rather fanciful explanation for how the matter was decided. 

“It has been taught” in tractate Bava Metzia, that “on that day” when this issue was decided by the sages, “Rabbi Eliezer brought forth every imaginable argument,” as to why a tiled oven could be made clean again, but the sages “did not accept them” and ruled that it should be destroyed, just like a pita oven. 

Said Rabbi Eliezer to them: “‘If Jewish law agrees with me, let this carob-tree prove it!’  Thereupon the carob-tree was torn a hundred cubits out of its place – and some say, four hundred cubits.  ‘No proof can be brought from a carob-tree,’ they retorted.”

“Again he said to them: ‘If Jewish law agrees with me, let the stream of water prove it!  Whereupon the stream of water flowed backwards.  ‘No proof can be brought from a stream of water,’ they rejoined.”

“Again he urged: ‘If Jewish law agrees with me, let the walls of this academy prove it,’ whereupon the walls inclined inward to fall.  But Rabbi Joshua rebuked” the walls, “saying, ‘When scholars are engaged in a legal dispute, what right have you to interfere?’  Hence they did not fall, in honor of Rabbi Joshua, nor did they become upright again, in honor of Rabbi Eliezer; and they are still standing thus inclined.” 

Again Rabbi Eliezar said to them: “‘If Jewish law agrees with me, let it be proved from Heaven!’ Whereupon a Heavenly Voice cried out: ‘Why do you dispute with Rabbi Eliezer, seeing that in all matters, Jewish law agrees with him?’ But Rabbi Joshua arose and exclaimed: ‘It is not in heaven!’”

“What did he mean by this?  — Said Rabbi Jeremiah: That the Torah has already been given at Mount Sinai; we pay no attention to a Heavenly Voice,” instead it says that we should ‘follow the majority.’ 

Rabbi Nathan met Elijah, who is the prophet who never died but instead wanders the earth and speaks with rabbis. And Rabbi Nathan asked him, “‘What did the Holy One, the one who is blessed, do in that hour?’ Elijah responded: ‘He laughed, saying ‘My children have defeated Me! My children have defeated Me!’”

It’s a fanciful story, rather unexpected, and quite funny. We should assume, of course, that the rabbis knew full well that carob trees do not uproot themselves. I also suspect that it is not a coincidence that this story is structured like a fairy-tale, with three examples. Like ‘three bears’ or ‘three wishes’ or any other group of three in the fairy-tale genre, here we have the three proofs, the carob tree, the stream, and the walls of the academy. 

After this triad comes the climax of the story:

“On that day all objects which Rabbi Eliezer had declared clean were brought and burned in a fire.  Then they took a vote and excommunicated him.”

Though in modern times we don’t normally practice it, Jewish law does allow for excommunication.  It’s actually a form of shunning; it can be done for a specified period of time or done indefinitely, but it ends when the person has repented. So, we learn, the sages excommunicated Rabbi Eliezer even though he was quite right about the oven. But why would they want to do that?  

Let me fill in the background, and tell you the backstory: the rabbis are living in exile, in the centuries following the destruction of the second Temple, and they are worried about survival. Rabbi Eliezer was defying the majority in his obstinacy.

Because he was always right about these kinds of things – that is to say, if a voice where ever to come down from heaven to weigh in on an argument, it would surely back his position – he therefore had the kind of personal prestige that could create a genuine rift in the rabbinic world, one which the sages feared could be fatal to the fledgling community.

So they had their reasons for excommunicating him. They were afraid. And they let their fears get the best of them.

Said the sages, “‘Who shall go and inform him?’ ‘I will go,’ answered Rabbi Akiba,” a highly-respected scholar, “‘Lest an unsuitable person go and inform him, and thus destroy his whole world.’ What did Rabbi Akiba do? He donned black garments and wrapped himself in black, and sat at a distance of four cubits” from Rabbi Eliezer.  “‘Akiba,’ said Rabbi Eliezer to him, ‘what has particularly happened today?’  ‘Master,’ he replied, ‘it appears to me that your companions are shunning you.’”

Thereupon Rabbi Eliezer “tore his garment,” as a sign of mourning, “and put off his shoes and sat on the earth, while tears streamed from his eyes.” It is a heartbreaking reaction – clearly Rabbi Eliezer had only been seeking the truth, not trying to tear the community asunder.

It would seem to me, then, that even if the community had a very good reason for its actions – and ensuring the survival of the community would qualify as a good reason – it does not have the right to wound an individual in this manner.

We see a similar situation in this week’s portion as well. Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu made a grave mistake in the handling of the fire pans for the tabernacle and they are themselves consumed by fire. It is a terrible accident and it leaves Aaron grieving for his sons.

Shortly thereafter, however, Moses discovers another breach of protocol with regard to the sacrificial service and he takes Aaron’s remaining sons to task:

Then Moses inquired about the goat of sin offering, and it had already been burned! He was angry with Eleazar and Ithamar, Aaron’s remaining sons, and said, ‘Why did you not eat the sin offering in the sacred area? For it is most holy, and He has given it to you to remove the guilt of the community and to make expiation for them before the Lord. Since its blood was not brought inside the sanctuary, you should certainly have eaten it in the sanctuary, as I commanded.’”

In the immediate aftermath of the deaths of Nadav and Abihu, Aaron had been silent in response to Moses’ rebuke. This time, however, Aaron responds to Moses, arguing with him, suggesting to him that now is not the time to be bringing up such things: ‘See, this day they brought their sin offering and their burnt offering before the Lord, and such things have befallen me! Had I eaten sin offering today, would the Lord have approved?’”

If you are paying close attention to the text, you can visualize Aaron rolling his eyes when Moses is speaking: ‘Really, Moses? Really? I just lost two sons, and you’re worried about how, when and where the goat of the sin offering was burned?’

Moses is a mensch, of course, and knows when to let it drop. He admits that he is wrong: ‘Yes, Aaron, you’re exactly right. I have forgotten what’s most important.’ As the text states: “And when Moses heard this, he approved.”

Disputes will arise, of course, and well-meaning people of good faith will disagree. But what we learn from our Torah portion this week is that we have a responsibility to be gentle with each other, even when we are right – and most especially when we are wrong about being right.

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