The Perennial Battle
Chapter 5, Mishna 11(c)
By Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld
"Pestilence comes to the world for death penalties mentioned in the Torah
which are not in the hands of the courts [to administer] and for [the
forbidden use of] Sabbatical year produce. The sword comes to the world for
the delay of justice, the perversion of justice, and for those who expound
the Torah not in accordance with Jewish law. Wild beasts come to the world
for false oaths and the desecration of G-d's Name. Exile comes to the world
for idolatry, adultery, murder, and the working of the earth on the
In the previous two classes, we discussed the concept of pestilence and the
justice behind such a punishment -- how it can be that G-d sometimes appears
to judge in broad strokes, sweeping away the innocent together with the
guilty. As several of you pointed out, the approach I presented was far from
satisfactory in truly explaining the many tragedies man has faced throughout
history -- neither on an intellectual nor an emotional level. First of all,
I'll be the first to admit my own inability to fully explain or to come to
terms with G-d's mysterious ways. This is one of many issues in life in
which we will simply have to submit to G-d's inscrutable will and move on
(as we are about to do below). Those of you, however, who are interested in
reading further about such issues are directed to our discussion on Chapter 4,
Anyway, moving along, the next punishment listed is "sword" i.e. war. This
results in part from failure to judge properly, whether through the
perversion or delay of justice. (In Judaism death row is very short: the
execution must be carried out the day the sentence is delivered. Anything
else is considered excessively cruel. The situation we are so familiar with
today -- middle-aged, often repentant, murderers being put to death for acts
they committed in early adulthood -- would never occur.)
"Sword" also results from those who teach Torah without concern for truth --
who study it more for intellectual stimulation than to know G-d's word.
Thus, we may generalize, the misrepresentation of the truth and justice of
the Torah results in war. Why war? What is the correlation?
The entire epic drama of mankind may be described as a struggle -- namely,
the battle between the two brothers, Jacob and Esau. Esau was described in
the Torah as a hunter and man of the field (Genesis 25:27). Isaac blessed
him that he would "live by the sword" (ibid., 27:40) -- through battle and
conquest. Jacob, however, was a "plain man," straight, honest, dwelling in
the tents of Torah study (25:27). As brothers often are, they were about as
opposite as two people can be.
Their natural strengths developed into opposing world views. Esau represents
war and physical conquest. Might makes right. The strong, the powerful, the
best armed shall conquer and rule. According to the Sages, he was the
progenitor of the mighty Roman Empire -- and symbolically at least, of every
future empire whose authority would rest upon its superior strength.
Jacob, however, represents the superiority of the spirit, the soul over the
body. The potential and greatness of man lies not in his muscles and
passions -- in his ability to imitate the animal kingdom, but in his soul:
his ability to reason and to act rationally and compassionately. Our souls
are capable of great acts of wisdom, kindness and sensitivity -- and of
bettering the world for our fellow man. Most important, our souls afford us
the opportunity to transcend the finite, the transient world of the drab and
commonplace, and develop a relationship with G-d Himself.
It is "obvious" to us that Jacob was right. Only he understood the true
nature of humanity and meaning of life. But man has yet to decide whose
philosophy it truly subscribes to. Who should lead? Who should determine the
fate of mankind? The wise, the just, the compassionate? Or the strong, the
macho, the aggressive, the charismatic? What have been the traits of most of
the leaders the world has seen? Were they people of superior compassion and
morality, or superior ambition and ego? And do we accept the wisdom of Jacob
on the personal level? The abusive boss, spouse or parent -- all those whom
use physical or psychological intimidation to
dominate and impose their will upon others -- are too following the path of
Esau and living the false reality he represents.
Possibly, if we were to sum up the mission of the Jewish people in a single
statement (I'm sometimes stupid enough to attempt this -- and every time I
write a different mission ;-) ), it would be to deliver the message of Jacob
to the world. By living ethical and spiritual lives, by developing ourselves
into thinking, caring and compassionate people, we demonstrate to the world
the divinity of the human soul. Through our teachings and personal example
-- by living and teaching the commandments of the Torah -- we show the world
that humanity is more than physical flesh and material ambition. We are
people of spirit -- possessing souls capable of deeds and accomplishments
which truly make us eternal.
As we know from the story of the brothers, Jacob, the man of truth, (at the
prompting of his good Jewish mother) "stole" the firstborn blessings of his
brother Esau. In this he was more than justified. As my teacher R. Yochanan
Zweig (www.talmudicu.edu) explained, Jacob realized Esau was unworthy. Jacob
meanwhile demonstrated to his father that he could and would assume both of
their roles: he would possess the voice (prayer) of Jacob yet the hands
(physical might) of Esau (27:22). He spoke to his father in a gentle manner
-- nearly giving himself away -- so his father would realize that a son
possessing both good qualities combined stood before him -- and Isaac
willingly blessed that son (see 27:33 and Rashi to v. 21). Jacob would be
both Torah scholar and battler for Torah -- in part because Esau refused to
assume the latter role properly. And Isaac in turn blessed him that he would
be the master of the brothers.
However, the blessings came to Jacob through trickery, and for this Esau
cried out (v. 38). And the Sages tell us that the cry was heard. It -- as
all tearful prayers -- reached the Heavens (see Midrash Tanchuma there).
Esau may have been wicked and undeserving, but he *had* been deceived.
So Isaac blessed Esau as well -- that though Jacob would now be superior, it
would be conditional: he would hold sway only so long as he fulfills his
mission to humankind.When the voice of Jacob is one of Torah -- the honest,
candid, and genuine expression of Torah and its judgments -- rather than
twisted intellectualism in conformance with passing social trends (we have a
lot of that nowadays...) -- then Jacob will be the master of the brothers.
If, however, Jacob does not accept the burden of Torah, the hands of Esau
will rebel and challenge, and the sword will rule.
This, at last, is the idea of the "sword" of our mishna. And this is quite
simply because two such opposing world views cannot exist and flourish
simultaneously. If man lives for conquest, passion, and development of the
physical, the story of humanity degenerates into one of fascism and survival
of the fittest. If, however, man transcends the finite and devotes himself
to his soul, there is no limit to what he can achieve.
I'm hesitant to devote yet another class to the same mishna -- though this
mishna -- as many others -- deserves many, many classes. I'll therefore sum
up the final two punishments in a paragraph apiece (not exactly short ones,
but trying my best).
"Wild beasts come to the world for false oaths and the desecration of G-d's
Name." The two sins mentioned cheapen G-d in the eyes of man. Someone who
swears falsely, uttering G-d's Name in vain, in effect states that G-d is
not sacred to him -- or even worse, that G-d does not pay attention to his
words. Desecrating G-d's Name means sinning in such a way as to lessen the
world's appreciation of G-d and His Torah. Both sins result in "chillul
Hashem" -- desecration of the Name of G-d. "Chillul" is related to the word
"challal" -- hollow or vacuum (also the modern Hebrew word for outer space).
By lessening man's recognition of G-d, a vacuum, so to speak, is created in
the world -- the void created by the departure of the Divine Presence. R.
Yochanan Zweig explained that just as in the physical world desolation
attract wild animals, so too the desolation caused by the lack of G-d's
Presence in man's cognizance -- equally real if less palpable -- causes the
"Exile comes to the world for idolatry, adultery, murder, and the working of
the earth on the Sabbatical year." The first three sins listed are
considered cardinal sins. One must sacrifice his or her life rather than
transgress any one of these. If Jews sin to the extent of transgressing
Judaism's most fundamental laws, they lose the special connection they have
to the Land of Israel. On the seventh year we are obligated to let the
fields of the Land of Israel lie fallow. If we fail to do so, the Torah
punishes us with exile. This is the ultimate corrective measure, as the
Torah attests: "...then the land will rest and appease [G-d] for its
[missed] sabbaticals. All the days of its desolation it will rest -- that
which it had not rested during your Sabbaths in your dwelling upon it"
Text Copyright © 2010 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org.