Shoftim: The Complaint of the Letter Yud
As we move forward into the legal parts of the book of Deuteronomy, a question keeps coming up. If Moses presents two laws in sequence, what does the first one have to do with the second? Does Moses keep changing topic randomly, or is there a rhyme and reason? It's almost a signature style of this part of the book. Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, of blessed memory writes:
[T]his very lack of clear continuity between the topics, the fact that matters that would seem to be unrelated are juxtaposed, has itself become a source not only of aggadic [i.e., Midrashic] interpretations but also of a number of halakhic rulings. Our sages note that even scholars who generally do not draw conclusions from the juxtaposition of difference subjects admit that in the book of Deuteronomy, such juxtaposition exists for a reason. Indeed, the order (or lack thereof) in the book teaches us that halakhic inferences may be drawn from one subject to another within the Torah.
To be fair to Moses, the subject matter of this week's reading, for the most part, has a certain sort of unity to it. Many of the laws, right throughout the reading, concern the institutions of the State that the Jewish people are soon to build in the land of Israel. There is to be a judiciary, a police force, and (when the people request it) a king. Moses elaborates the rights and responsibilities that accrue to the priesthood. He also tells us about the institution of the Prophet.
But, true to form, interspersed between these laws, Moses presents a seeming hodgepodge of unrelated laws: not to plant a tree in the sanctuary; not to erect a column in a public place of worship; not to offer as a sacrifice an animal with a temporary blemish; laws against witchcraft and necromancy; an obligation to designate cities of refuge on the west of the river Jordan in addition to the three refuge cities that Moses had already designated on the eastern bank; not to move a boundary marker in order to steal someone's property; the wars of law; and the laws concerning the ritual slaughter of a calf at the site of an unsolved murder.
A central interest of the Rabbis is to explain what the laws in the book of Deuteronomy have to do with one another, and why Moses places them where he does. For example, the law to establish a judiciary and police force is immediately followed by the law against planting an Asheira-tree by the sanctuary. An Asheira was some sort of ritual object used by the Canaanites to honour a Ugaritic goddess. Sometimes the object was a wooden pole, and sometimes a living tree. But what does that law have to do with establishing a judiciary, and why does this law appear in a reading that - despite its many tangents - is primarily devoted to what you might call constitutional law?
Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that the highest court of appeal in Jewish law - the Sanhedrin - would eventually sit on the Temple Mount, in the very place where these trees are expressly forbidden. But this is hardly satisfying. We're not explicitly told in this week's reading that the judges will sit on the Temple Mount, and it's not as if the Torah is anyway happy with people planting Asheirot in other places!
In the Talmud, Reish Lakish says:
Anyone who appoints over the community a judge who is unworthy, it is as though he plants an Asheira tree among the Jewish people, as it is stated: “You shall make judges and officers for yourself”, and juxtaposed to it, it is written: “You shall not plant yourself an Asheira of any kind of tree”. Rav Ashi says [that in a addition]: in a place where there are Torah scholars [who he could have appointed instead of this unworthy judge], it is as though he planted the tree next to the altar, as it is stated: “[You shall not plant yourself an Asheira of any kind of tree] beside the altar of the Lord your God...”
Okay. So, the two laws come together in order to teach us that one who transgresses the first is like a person who transgresses the second; one who appoints an unworthy judge is like someone who plants an idolatrous Asheira tree. But why think that that's an apt comparison? Rabbi Aharon Yaakov Greenburg, in his collection on the weekly Torah reading, Iturei Hatorah, writes in the name of Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik:
Idolatrous objects are generally recognisable as such, and anybody who sees a statue [of a god] knows that it is associated with idolatry and knows to distance himself from it. But this isn't the case with an Asheira tree. From the outside it looks like a verdant and beautiful tree, but in its inside, it is idolatrous. The same is true of an unworthy judge. To the naked eye he is cloaked in the robes of the Rabbis, but on the inside he is corrupt and he leads the masses astray.
This discussion gives one a taste for the Rabbinic project of reconciling the internal difficulties of this reading, namely: making sense of the juxtaposition of one law with the next. Perhaps the biggest external difficulty with this weeks reading is how to reconcile its apparent commandment to establish a monarchy with the the attitude that God and his prophet manifest, in the book of Samuel, when the people finally request the establishment of said monarchy.
On the one hand, Moses tells us, in this week's reading to "establish a king" once we "have taken possession of [the land] and settled in it, and you say, “I will set a king over me, like all the surrounding nations”" As Rabbi Sacks explains:
This is a positive command. Maimonides counts it among the 613 [commandments of the Bible]. On the other hand, of no other command anywhere does it say that that it is to be acted on when the people say that they want to be "like all the surrounding nations." The Torah doesn't tell us to be like everyone else. The word kadosh, "holy," means, roughly, to be set apart, singular, distinctive, unique. Jews are supposed to have the courage to be different, to be in but not entirely of the surrounding world. Matters are made no clearer when we turn to the famous episode in which the Israelites did actually ask for a king, in the days of Samuel (1 Samuel 8). Samuel is upset. He thinks the people are rejecting him. Not so, says God, the people are rejecting Me (1 Sam. 8:7). Yet God does not command Samuel to resist the request. To the contrary, He says, in effect, tell them what monarchy will cost, what the people stand to lose. Then, if they still want a king, give them a king.
And Samuel certainly doesn't hold back. This is what he tells the people:
This will be the practice of the king who will rule over you: He will take your sons and appoint them as his charioteers and horsemen, and they will serve as out-runners for his chariots. He will appoint them as his chiefs of thousands and of fifties; or they will have to plow his fields, reap his harvest, and make his weapons and the equipment for his chariots. He will take your daughters as perfumers, cooks, and bakers. He will seize your choice fields, vineyards, and olive groves, and give them to his courtiers. He will take a tenth part of your grain and vintage and give it to his eunuchs and courtiers. He will take your male and female slaves, your choice young men, and your asses, and put them to work for him. He will take a tenth part of your flocks, and you shall become his slaves. The day will come when you cry out because of the king whom you yourselves have chosen; and the LORD will not answer you on that day.
Was Samuel right? Did things ever get so bad? Probably. King Solomon is often presented as the height of Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel. He was, after all, the king to finally build the Temple in Jerusalem. But when he dies, we get a sense of just how much of a toll his building projects had imposed upon the people. He had conscripted whole tribes into forced labour. In the wake of his death, Jeroboam (who had been appointed by King Solomon to lead the forced labour in the North) came to plead with Solomon's heir, Rehoboam, saying:
“Your father made our yoke heavy. Now lighten the harsh labor and the heavy yoke which your father laid on us, and we will serve you.”
After three days, King Rehoboam responds, and says:
“My father made your yoke heavy, but I will add to your yoke; my father flogged you with whips, but I will flog you with scorpions.”
In these words, we get a picture of just how burdensome the monarchy had become to the masses. Samuel had been right. In the wake of King Rehoboam's ill-advised response, the Kingdom breaks into two. Ten of the twelve tribes of Israel break away under Jeroboam, leaving Solmon's heir, Rehoboam, ruling over a much diminished Kingdom of Judah.
However we might seek to resolve the tension between the commandment to establish a monarchy and the Bible's clear ambivalence towards that monarchy, what is clear is that Solomon failed to abide by the various strictures that this week's reading lays down, when it commands future kings of Israel not to accumulate money, horses, and wives. King Solomon accumulated all three. And yet he was the wisest of all men. The Midrash I want to share with you this week (which appears in a number of different collections in slightly different guises) addresses how such a wise man could be led so far astray:
Solomon stood up and rationalised his way around the edict of the holy one, blessed be He, and said, "Why did the holy one, blessed be He, say "don't multiply wives"? Was it not to prevent them from leading [the] heart [of a king] astray? I will multiply [wives] and my heart will not stray." Our Rabbis said, that at that moment, the letter yud that appears in the word "multiply" arose, and stretched itself out before the holy one, blessed be He, and said, "Master of all worlds, didn't you say that not one letter of the Torah would be expunged? Take note that Solomon stood up and expunged me! And perhaps today one [letter] will be expunged, and tomorrow another, until the entire Torah will have been expunged." The holy one, blessed be He, said to [the Torah], "Solomon and a thousand like him should be expunged, but not a tittle of you [let alone an entire letter] will I expunge"... What is written about [Solomon]? "And it was, in his old age, Solomon's wives turned his heart" (I Kings 11:4). Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai said, it would have been better for Solomon to have been a sewer cleaner than to have this verse of Scripture written about him. And therefore, Solmon said of himself, "My thoughts turned to consider wisdom and madness and folly" (Ecclesiastes 2:12). [The Midrash explains these words as if] Solomon [had] said, "that which my wisdom rationalised around the Torah, when I thought of myself that I could know the knowledge of the Torah; [that so-called wisdom] was [actually] madness and folly." Why [was it folly]? [The verse continues in Ecclesiastes 2:12)] "because what is man that he goes after the king who already made these things?" [The Midrash explains these words as if] Solomon [had] said, "Who is it that has permission to think after the character traits and rulings of the King, the King of kings, the holy One, blessed be He, things which are hewn before him? For every single thing that comes out from him has already been discussed in the heavenly abode, and it has been told to them, so that everyone should know and testify that his law is a law of truth and his edicts are true, and all of his words are enlightened."
It's worth noting that the Torah doesn't often explain why it commands what it commands. Indeed, we read in the Talmud:
Rabbi Yitzchak says: For what reason were the rationales of Torah commandments not [generally] revealed? It was because the rationales of two verses were revealed, and the greatest in the world, failed in those matters. It is written [with regard to a king]: “He shall not add many wives for himself, [that his heart should not turn away]” (Deuteronomy 17:17). Solomon said: I will add many, but I will not turn away. And it is written: “For it came to pass, when Solomon was old, that his wives turned his heart [after other gods]” (I Kings 11:4)...
We've discussed already, in this series, the controversial philosophical position of Edna Ullmann-Margalit that not all knowledge is good. There might be things that we're better off not knowing. She gives the example of a lawyer who believes she'll do a better job defending her client if she doesn't try to find out whether he's guilty or not. This lawyer believes that all defendants deserve a competent defense, but if she knew that her client was guilty, she wouldn't be able to perform this important function as well as she would without that knowledge. Rabbi Yitzchak seems to think that we're all better off not knowing why God commands the things he does. Why? Because as soon as we know the reasons for the commandments, we might start to rationalise our way out of being committed to them, just as Solomon did. The more wise you are, the more you'll be able to find ways of justifying even the most heinous crimes. But if you don't know why God commands the things he does, the door to such self-justifying rationalisation will be closed.
Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (despite his criticism of Solomon) believed that it was acceptable to make legal rulings based upon the presumed rationale behind given commandments. His Rabbinic peers disagreed. But even those who disagreed with Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai seem to have been happy to suggest rationalisations for the commandments, so long as their speculations weren't used in order to make new legal rulings. Indeed, search the Talmud for the phrase, "מפני מה אמרה תורה" (why did the Torah say...) and you'll find plenty of examples. In the medieval times, Saadya Gaon, Maimonides, Nachmanides, and the anonymous author of the Sefer HaChinuch all sought to provide explanations for God's commandments, as did Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch in modern times. So, it would be rash, I think, to read our Midrashic criticism of Solomon in terms of an anti-intellectual attitude that would have us obey God's commandments without thinking. Rather, the idea is that wisdom, however central its value, can be misused.
Wisdom in search of truth is surely a core value of the Jewish religion. Saadya Gaon goes so far as to argue that if you failed to engage sufficiently in philosophical reflection, you will be held to account in the world to come. This is how he reads the verse in Isaiah (40:21), in which people are asked, accusingly: "Do you not know? Have you not heard? Have you not been told from the very first? Have you not discerned how the earth was founded?" Moreover, he thinks we have an obligation to use our minds to figure out, for our selves, how best to act; an obligation he sees expressed in the verse, "Let us choose for us that which is right; let us know among ourselves what is good" (Job 34:4). Judaism places a premium on wisdom.
But the problem is when wisdom is misused. And the greater your intellect, the greater the possible misuse. The trouble is this: when we really want to do something, we often try to co-opt the full might of out intellect to fabricate a justification, even if we know (somewhere deep down) that it's the wrong thing to do. Ultimately, that's what Solomon was doing, when he tried to use his wisdom to skip around the laws that are supposed to fall upon a King of Israel.
So much is clear, but one aspect of the Midrash begs to be addressed. The letter yud. It complains that Solomon seeks to expunge it. Ultimately, it's vindicated when Solomon sees the error of his ways. But why the letter yud? The Hebrew phrase, "don't multiply" (לא ירבה) has many letters in it. Shouldn't they all be up in arms? Why just the yud, the first letter of "multiply"? In fact, if anything, Solomon was seeking to expunge the word "don't" whilst leaving the word "multiply" in tact!
Various people have addressed this question. A. Y. Greenburg cites a suggestion that the letter yud was appropriate because its numerical value is 10, and there are, if you count them right, 10 restrictions placed upon a King in this week's Torah reading (Deuteronomy 17:15-20). He also cites the suggestion of the Apter Rebbe (Rabbi Avraham Yeshoshua Heschel, 1748-1825). He notes that the letter yud in the word Moabite (מואבי) allowed Boaz to marry Ruth. Ruth was a Moabite. The Torah forbids a Jew from marrying a Moabite, but the yud at the end of the word "Moabite", in the relevant verse, indicates that only Moabite men are forbidden from marrying into the Jewish people, because of the heartlessness with which they treated the Jews in the wilderness. Moabite women, like Ruth, on the other hand, were free to convert. Had it not been for the yud (i.e., had it read מואב instead of מואבי), the prohibition would have applied to men and women.
In other words, the letter yud played an important role in allowing Ruth to become a Jewess, and Solomon was her descendant. But now that he's behaving in this way, the letter yud fears that people will come to view the conversion of Ruth as a mistake. On this inventive reading, the letter doesn't fear being expunged from the word "mutliply"; it fears that it's being expunged from the word "Moabite." These answers are creative, but they're not as good as the question. So, with due humility, I want to offer another suggestion.
The letter yud, in the word "mutliply" (in Hebrew ירבה) has the function of putting the verb into the future tense. Sometimes, what we do, when we misuse wisdom in order to justify wrongdoing, is simply to ignore the future. When Solomon decided to mutliply wives, his heart wasn't tempted to go astray. Not at that moment in time. But he wasn't looking into the future. He wasn't thinking about how his heart would be inclined in years to come. Just because something feels right now, it doesn't mean that the long-term consequences will be good.
Jerry Seinfeld has a stand-up routine. He says:
I never get enough sleep. I stay up late at night, cause I'm Night Guy. Night Guy wants to stay up late. 'What about getting up after five hours sleep?', oh that's Morning Guy's problem. That's not my problem, I'm Night Guy. I stay up as late as I want. So you get up in the morning, you're ... you're exhausted, groggy, oooh I hate that Night Guy! See, Night Guy always screws Morning Guy. There's nothing Morning Guy can do. The only thing Morning Guy can do is try and oversleep often enough so that Day Guy looses his job and Night Guy has no money to go out anymore.
Perhaps the lesson of the Midrash is that true wisdom has foresight, and not just insight. True wisdom can't be used to justify the immoral because, however good it might feel now, true wisdom has its eye on the future, and on the consequences of our actions. True wisdom would never seek to expunge the yud of the future tense; as Solomon came to recognise, that would be to place wisdom in the service of madness and folly.