In a few days, many of us, even those not ordinarily given to excessive piety, will cower before the ark on Yom Kippur and take our best shot at penitence. My favorite bit of prayer has always been the Al Chet, in which we confess a whole litany of transgressions, some substantial and others, like foolish talk and proud looks, endearingly minute. This year, however, we may need to add another line to the timeless prayer: Forgive us, O Lord, for the sins we have committed before You with the best of intentions.
This isn’t just an afterthought. It’s an urgent moral imperative. Just ask Rav.
Better known as Rabbi Abba bar Aivu, this giant lived in the third century and was probably the most celebrated of the Amoraim, the scholars whose fierce discussions of Jewish law were eventually collected in the Gemara. One year, the Talmud tells us in Tractate Yoma, just before Yom Kippur, Rav grew antsy: He’d had a quarrel with a certain butcher, and the butcher—whom the Talmud implicitly suggests was in the wrong—refused to apologize to the sage. Eager to have the matter resolved before the Day of Judgment, Rav headed over to see the butcher; “I will go to placate him,” he said to himself. On his way, he ran into one of his students, Rabbi Huna, and confided in him; Huna, horrified, warned his master that no good can come out of such meeting, but Rav refused to listen. Immediately once he entered the butcher’s shop, the butcher looked up at Rav and fumed. “Go away!” he shouted at Rav. “I have nothing in common with you!” As the butcher spoke these angry words, a bone from the animal he was slicing with his sharp knife flew and struck him in the throat, killing him on the spot.
It’s a strange and gruesome story, and like all things Talmudic, it, too, has attracted many interpretations. Are we supposed to read the tale as a parable warning us that the strong and the proud—none prouder or stronger than the obstinate butcher wielding his cleaver—will perish while the smart and the humble will endure? Is this a confirmation that those who follow God’s will and anxiously keep His commandments will thrive while those more concerned with the fleshy affairs of the here and now will not? The commentaries are many. My favorite, however, is a rather radical take suggested by the great French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas.
Having spent WWII as a concentration camp prisoner, Levinas returned to a subdued Paris after the Nazi defeat and devoted his career, unsurprisingly, to thinking about that most indecipherable and obtuse of creatures, the Other. And it’s thinking about the Other, Levinas argues, that Rav so spectacularly failed to do.
The butcher, Levinas argues in one of his seminal essays, had it just right: He truly had nothing in common with Rav. “Mankind,” Levinas writes, “is spread out on different levels. It is made up of multiple worlds that are closed to one another because of their unequal heights. Men do not yet form one humanity.” The story, he concludes, “wants to speak to us of the purity which can kill, in a mankind as yet unequally evolved, and of the enormity of the responsibility which Rav took upon himself in his premature confidence in the humanity of the Other.”
The sages who currently helm our ship of state should pay attention. Like Rav, many of them are wise, true, sensitive souls who look at their fellow man with nothing but compassion and who approach their duties with nothing but the desire to do good. And like Rav, they assume that all they need in order to shepherd those who have transgressed against them into the glow of repentance is an audience with the wrongdoers. They cannot conceive of another scenario. They cannot imagine that their actions may have horrid effects.
We got a touching glimpse of this worldview earlier this summer, when President Barack Obama, visiting Kenya, said in a speech that he was baffled by those African dictators who appointed themselves despots for life. “I don’t understand why people want to stay so long,” the president confessed, “especially when they have got a lot of money.”
Why, indeed, would they? What other motivation might anyone possess to cling to power once the obvious and the reasonable matter of remuneration has been addressed? The president could imagine no darker matter in the universe, and, like Rav, called on his interlocutors to do teshuva.
Sadly, the president’s failings are every bit as disastrous of those of the ancient rabbi. In Syria, in Russia, in Iran, and elsewhere we’ve sharp reminders of how astute Levinas, a survivor of one of history’s worst brutalities, had been when he argued that we do not yet form one humanity. The barrel-bombers of children and their suppliers; the hangmen of the innocent; those who fire their machine guns on moonless mountain passages only to reap the lives of exhausted families fleeing oppression and misery—all those occupy a different world, lower than our own. Reasoning with them is worse than futile: It’s deadly.
As we’re in the mood to do good, let us keep this warning in mind. Instead of scrambling to find ways to absorb the waves of refugees crashing on our shores, let’s amend the conditions that got them fleeing in the first place. To do that, we must first accept the wisdom of Levinas, repair to a quiet corner, and say a little prayer seeking forgiveness for those ghastly things we’ve done out of nothing but the purest of intentions.
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