The Badness of Good Stories
This week, Talmudic rabbis seek righteousness in the Bible’s tales of vice, weakness, and human frailty
It’s notoriously hard to write a good story about a good person. Goodness and wholeness are static, they do not need to change; and since narrative is nothing but a record of changes, it is no wonder that stories are almost always set off by mistakes, vices, weaknesses, or bad decisions.
No one knew this principle better than the writers of the Bible. Whatever the patriarchs and kings of the Israelites may be, they are not role models. On the contrary, it’s easy to be surprised by how candidly the Bible describes the flaws and sins even of the patriarchs and the greatest kings. Abraham pretends that his wife Sarah is his sister; Jacob tricks his blind father into giving him Esau’s blessing; Judah patronizes a prostitute; David lusts after Bathsheba and sends her husband to be killed in battle; Solomon, the builder of the Temple, spent his old age worshipping strange gods.
The Bible displays extraordinarily little anxiety about portraying its heroes in an unflattering light. Jacob can be both a liar and thief, and the man who wrestles with an angel and wins the name of Israel; David can be both the anointed of God and an adulterer. But as this week’s Daf Yomi reading showed, the rabbis of the Talmud were by no means at ease with this kind of ambiguity. In a long discussion that begins in Shabbat 55b, they consider some of the most famous sinners in the Bible and argue passionately that in fact none of them did what the Bible expressly says they did.
To see how the Talmud moves easily from abstract, technical problems to the largest moral questions, it’s helpful to start following the discussion a few pages earlier. Chapter Five of tractate Shabbat is mostly concerned with the kinds of things animals can and cannot carry on Shabbat. As we have seen earlier, it is forbidden on Shabbat to take any item from a private domain, such as a house, into a public domain, such as a road, or vice versa. The same thing applies to animals, which cannot carry loads on Shabbat.
But, the Mishnah asks in Shabbat 51b, does this ban include an animal’s normal equipment? “With what may an animal go out and with what may it not go out?” The answer, analyzed at length in the Gemara, is that animals are allowed to wear the kinds of things necessary for leading them, including collars, halters, and (for certain difficult species) nose rings; but they are not allowed to wear more elaborate gear. In the course of the discussion, the rabbis reveal a good deal about animal husbandry in Talmudic times, including the practice of tying up a ewe’s tail to facilitate breeding, and the use of certain kinds of wood as medicine for sheepworms.
One detail the Mishnah includes along the way is that “The cow of Elazar ben Azaryah used to go out with a strap between her horns, against the will of the Sages.” This raises two problems: first, why would a revered sage transgress Shabbat in this way; and second, why does the Mishnah say “the cow,” as if Elazar only had one, when in fact he was a very rich man who “used to tithe twelve thousand calves from his herd every year”? The answer, the Gemara reveals, is that it was not actually a cow belonging to Elazar that went out with a strap, but a cow that belonged to his neighbor. “However, because he did not protest against her, it was called his cow.”
From this minor episode, then, the rabbis deduce an important moral rule: the obligation to protest against transgressions committed by fellow Jews. “Whoever has the ability to protest against the members of his household but does not protest is punished for the transgressions of the members of his household”; and the same holds true for the transgressions of one’s town and of the entire world. All of us are responsible for one another, and we are judged not only as individuals but as members of a community. The Gemara goes on to analyze a passage from the Book of Ezekiel that suggests that God’s judgment will fall not just on the wicked but on righteous people who did not cry out against wickedness.
This naturally raises an even more ultimate question, perhaps the basic question of all theodicy. Do human beings suffer and die for no reason, or is our suffering always a punishment for some sin we have committed? Rav Ami has no doubt, stating sternly: “There is no death without transgression, and there is no suffering without sin.” It follows that, since all of us die, we have all committed at least some transgression; we are steeped in guilt and can no more avoid it than we can live forever.
It is perhaps to counter this harsh conclusion that other rabbis start to bring examples of men who were totally righteous, yet still had to die. Moses and Aaron, for instance: Did they not observe the entire Torah? No, the Gemara responds, even they sinned, when Moses impatiently struck the rock at Kadesh in order to make it produce water, thus failing to put his trust in God: “Had you believed in me,” God tells Moses, “your time to depart from the world would not have arrived.”
But according to a baraita, even if Moses and Aaron were justly punished, there were four men in the Bible who never sinned at all, but died solely “as a result of the serpent’s counsel”—that is, because Adam’s original sin introduced death into the world. These four are Benjamin the son of Jacob, Amram the father of Moses, Jesse the father of David, and Kilav the son of David. Their example, the Gemara decides, refutes Rav Ami: We can only conclude that “there is death without transgression and there is suffering without sin.”
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