TALK ABOUT STARTING off behind the eight ball. He was the son of an illicit relationship back in Egypt—
The son of an Israelite woman, the son of an Egyptian man… (Vayikra 24:10)
—which could not have served him well in Cheder and Yeshivah Katana. He had been 100 percent Jewish, being from a Jewish mother. But his father had been the Egyptian taskmaster who had been beating Dasan, his mother’s true husband, when Moshe Rabbeinu killed with the Name of God.
Now wonder he ended up using the Name of God to curse someone:
The son of the Israelite woman pronounced the [Divine] Name and cursed… (Vayikra 24:11)
He pronounced the ineffable Divine Name and cursed. (Rashi)
He must have had a tough life from the beginning, growing up angry and resentful, and becoming the miscreant that the Torah say he was. But not for long though, since he was culpable of the death penalty and received it. A lot of people must have been relieved to see him finally removed from the gene pool.
But you have to wonder how much of it was actually his fault. He did not choose to be conceived the way he had been, or to grow up in the family he lived with. It must have only added fuel to the fire as he looked on with a jealous eye at other families around him lacking the same yichus issues and enjoying the simple pleasures of life. He was denied all of this because of circumstances he himself did not create.
The same thing is true for a mamzer, a child born of a forbidden relationship that is punishable with death or kares—excision. Did the child have the forbidden relationship? Did they ask their “parents” to? Not at all. If they could have, they would have begged them not to have their forbidden relationship so they would not be born illicitly. So why punish their unwitting offspring who is born into the world already spiritually handicapped?
Or physically handicapped? When it comes to spiritual handicaps, we can at least know the reason for them. But sometimes children born with physical handicaps come from otherwise healthy families, seemingly placing the “blame” somewhere else, somewhere more mysterious. This usually eventually translates into blaming God.
EVEN POLITICAL TENDENCIES that only show up in adulthood are the result of conditions created during childhood years that were not chosen. Children are either the continuation of their parents, or the rejection of them. If we liked growing up in our homes, we often continue the patterns into our own homes later in life. If we didn’t, we make a point of changing them.
People don’t realize how much of their point of view was inherited, not only from family but from society as a whole. It’s just very hard to become aware that there is something different and possibly better in the world beyond your own, when your world encompasses everyone else around you.
This was part of the issue when World War II ended and judgment came for the German people. How many Germans were true Nazis and guilty of heinous war crimes, and how many were just swept up in a national mob mentality? Not that a mob mentality is ever a justification for genocide, but it does at least explain how otherwise “decent” people can act so indecently.
I once heard a radio interview with the author of the book, “Mob Mentality.” He was explaining how he, an otherwise respectable citizen back home got swept up in a mob mentality and destroyed property on foreign soil, just because his soccer team lost the game. A lot of the people he had traveled with to watch the game began the rampage, and he found himself drawn into it, later to his shock and horror, by some invisible force he hadn’t recognized.
He hadn’t written the book to excuse himself. He had written it and was talking about it to warn others. He was like a reformed alcoholic who, under the influence had done some serious damage and wanted to make sure others did not commit the same unwitting mistake he had.
Unwitting. Now there’s an interesting word. Even halachah takes into account that a person can “accidentally” make mistakes, even fatal ones. For example, if a person intentionally breaks Shabbos, they are guilty of the death penalty if they were warned and there were witnesses. If they meant to do the act but didn’t realize they were breaking Shabbos, they have to at least atone by bringing a sacrifice. But if they unintentionally violated Shabbos by, for example, accidentally hitting a light switch while leaning against a wall, they have done nothing wrong.
Well, at least nothing wrong for which they are punishable by man. With respect to Heaven, it may be another story.
IT SAYS IN Sha’ar HaGilgulim that a Jew is punishable for carrying dust on their shoes in a public domain on Shabbos. But anyone who knows the laws of Shabbos knows that no such prohibition exists in the entire body of Jewish law. Yes, it is forbidden to carry anything in a public domain on Shabbos if there is no kosher eiruv (halachic enclosure), but dust you cannot see is not part of that “anything.” So why does Heaven later punish a person for it?
Because after Heaven has finished punishing us for the things we were responsible for and could have directly avoided, Heaven begins to punish us for the things that we were responsible for and could have indirectly avoided. It doesn’t make a difference if you cut your finger while slicing vegetables or accidentally scraped it on a “hidden” nail. Either way your finger will bleed and have to heal. Likewise, a sin on any level impacts our spiritual perfection and has to be rectified, either in this world, the next world, or both.
Because that’s what it is all about, personal rectification. History is just the stage that makes it possible to achieve, and often too big a distraction away from it. We call it punishment, which makes it sound so mean. Really it is rectification, a way to help us achieve the perfection we need to live in the World to Come with a perfect God.
The trick and key to successful personal rectification is spiritual sensitivity. It is the key because it not only helps us to avoid mistakes for which we are responsible and could have avoided, but even to avoid the mistakes that we could not have avoided, being human and spiritually clumsy. As it says, “If someone sanctifies themself a little, they (Heaven) sanctify them a lot” (Yoma 38b).
Sometimes hishtadalus—personal effort—means actually doing everything physically and spiritually possible to do the right thing by God. Other times it means recognizing that you can’t succeed on your own, and turning to God for help. As the Gemora says, if a person doesn’t ask God for help against the yetzer hara, they can’t prevail against it (Kiddushin 30b). Sometimes just recognizing this is hishtadalus enough.
Recently, someone bemoaned how letting their child play with another child for a couple of hours undid years of hard effort to keep their child from certain influences. But they added that they know that’s what it’s going to be like in the years to come, because you can only control so much when it comes to outside influences. The only solution? Do the best you can without going too extreme, and ask God to take care of the rest. After all, He can control everything.
But even still, He doesn’t always choose to. The righteous Chizkiah HaMelech married the righteous daughter of Yeshaya the prophet, and they still gave birth to the idol-worshipping Menashe. And you can be sure that they did everything in their power to raise him right, and prayed fervently to God in the Temple for help to keep him on the right path…and Menashe still strayed.
But as Yeshaya had earlier told Chizkiah, the Lord works in mysterious ways. It’s not our job to second-guess Him, but to do the best on our end of the job and trust God for His—even if it looks as if He has failed us.
Ain Od Milvado, Part 49
BECAUSE AT THE end of the day, life is not about raising righteous children, or getting everything right on a sub-atomic level. As God told a complaining Iyov, history is bigger than any one person, family, or even nation. What seems to be the biggest and most important goal to us may barely register on the grand scale of things. As Shlomo HaMelech said, “Many thoughts are in a man’s heart, but God’s plan is what stands” (Mishlei 19:21).
But if a person allows themself to become spiritually desensitized, then they can lose the Heavenly help necessary to avoid those situations that, without the help, they cannot protect themself against. Perhaps that is the reason why the Torah saw fit to include this piece of information in the narrative as well:
His mother’s name was Shlomis bas of Divri, of the tribe of Dan. (Vayikra 24:10)
The daughter of Divri: She was very talkative, talking (medaberes) with every person. That is why she fell into sin. (Rashi)
Her illegitimate son was the net result of her lack of spiritual sensitivity.
But still, why punish the offspring? Because it also says in Sha’ar HaGilgulim that God deals measure-for-measure, even across incarnations. If a person is born with a certain spiritual handicap, it is often because they were guilty of doing the same thing to their child in a previous life. Then it is just a question of orchestrating that the guilty give birth to the guilty, which is a not a problem for the Master Orchestrator of history.
At the end of the day, it is really about ain od Milvado. It is about recognizing that everything flows from the will of God and there is nothing else besides it. It is about living with the reality that we can never fail if we do the best we can to do the right thing. It is about trusting God for the results when our very best does not fulfill our expectations. As it says, “All is in the hands of Heaven but the fear of Heaven” (Brochos 33b).
The rest, as Hillel said, is commentary.