Arik Ascherman

Bearing False Witness to Steal a Coveted Home: Shavuot, Naso and the JNF

Shabbat Naso begins this year just as the Shavuot ends, creating a “yoma arikhta,’” a sort of long continuous day. (In Israel. Abroad, there are two days of Shavuot, and Naso will be in another week)

Naso, just like Shabbat Derekh Eretz, teaches us that we must never act unjustly, or forget real human beings, because we are lost in the clouds of the Revelation we celebrate on Shavuot.

As I wrote last week, the Hassidic rebbe Menachem Mendel of Warka said that the Shabbat before Shavuot should be called “Shabbat Derekh Eretz” the Sabbath of basic human decency, because “Derekh eretz kadma l’Torah”  Basic human decency precedes the Revelation, both figuratively and chronologically.

We also have another phrase in the Jewish tradition expressing a similar idea, “Naval b’reshut HaTorah,” a person who commit evil or immoral acts that the  Torah hasn’t explicitly forbidden. Ramban originally coined the phrase in his commentary to Leviticus 19:2. He argued that the fact that we are allowed to eat meat and drink wine, shouldn’t permit gluttony. Likewise, there are sexual behaviors not explicitly prohibited what aren’t in line with “You shall he holy.”

I would expand this phrase because It could also be translated as acting evilly or immorally in the name of the Torah.  I have a simple rule. One cannot harm or oppress other human beings in the name of God or Torah.  Like any rule of thumb, there are exceptions. If we jail a person to protect society, we are harming that person. God may have a different understanding of what is good for fellow human beings than we do. But, it is so easy to justify harm to fellow human beings in the name of noble values like religion, nationalism, etc.   My rule generally holds.

As we relive the Revelation on Shavuot, we must be wary of interpretations justifying injustice.

Last week I spoke of our current campaign on behalf of the Sumarin family. You can go back and read the details. To briefly summarize, the Keren Kayemet L’Yisrael-Jewish National Fund asked the State of Israel in 1989 to seize the family home in Silwan, East Jerusalem (and some 14 other properties), and trade them to the KKL-JNF. Many of these properties were then turned over to Elad, dedicated to “Judaizing” the neighborhood.  The justification was the “Absentee Property Law,” but the family was never absent. The three legal heirs were abroad but other family members always lived in the home.  Since that time, other than the period of a freeze declared after thousands wrote to the KKL-JNF, the KKL-JNF has been working to evict the family.  What may be the family’s last gasp appeal will be on June 30th.

To date, over 1,300 have written to the KKL-JNF around the world, asking them not to evict the family.

Essentially, the attempt to evict the family from their home violates at least three of the Ten Commandments.  Elad and the KKL-JNF coveted the property. In order to steal it, the KKL-JNF and the office of the Custodian For Absentee Properties bore false witness, claiming the property was abandoned.  Arguably this also violates the commandment prohibiting worshiping other gods. We read in parashat Naso, “When a man or a woman commits any wrong towards a fellow human being, thus breaking faith with Adonai” (Numbers 5:6). The division in our tradition between mitzvoth beyn adam l’makom (commandments dealing with our relationship with God) and those beyn adam l’khavero (interpersonal commandments) is a false dichotomy because when we sin against a fellow human being, we sin against God.  Again, you cannot love God by harming fellow human beings. The first time my mother took me to synagogue, she told me, “You can pray in there as much as you want, but if you come out and punch somebody, it did you no good.

Here is what Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch writes about the prohibition against coveting:

“The Mekhilta distinguishes here between “khemda coveting” and “ta’avah desire” While “desire” designates longing, “don’t covet” is internal. “Coveting” teaches about the desires that lead to acts. For example, “Don’t covet silver and gold “ (Deuteronomy 7:25) and also “Nobody will covet your land (Exodus 34:24). This certainly doesn’t mean, “Nobody will want your land,” rather than “Nobody will exploit the fact that you are not present in your home” and out of desire for your land will invade your borders. “

The context in Exodus is the command to make a pilgrimage to the Temple on Shavuot, Sukkot and Passover. God promises to drive other nations out of our way, so that nobody will take over one’s empty home when one is making the pilgrimage.  One can therefore argue that the Torah only promises that God won’t allow others to covet and take over our homes when they are empty, but it is OK for us to falsely claim that that a home is empty if we covet the home of non-Jews.

So, this is another way of understanding naval b’reshut haTorah: Acting in the name of the Torah (or the Jewish People, or Zionism) in order to violate explicit commands in the Torah.  Often this is done by claiming that the Torah’s commands are only pertinent to how we treat fellow Jews. I wonder how Ruth the Moabitess would have fared at their hands.

After the Revelation in Parashat Yitro, there is a abrupt return from the heights to earth. We have all of the detailed and nitty gritty commandment in Parashat Mishpatim. When the Ten Commandments are repeated in V’Etkhanan in Deuteronomy, there isn’t the same amount of detail immediately after, but there is wording very similar to the opening of Mishpatim, “And this is the commandment-the laws and the rules that Adonai your God has commanded….:(Deuteronomy 6:1)

Parashat Naso, like the reminder to act with derekh eretz, brings us back to earth –to very human problems. It reminds me of the midrash that the angels were angry with God for giving the Torah to humanity.  God asks Moses to explain. Moses says that the Torah is for humans because angels don’t need it. The Torah addresses human challenges that angels don’t have to deal with. (Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 88b).

Naso deals with the question of what happens when somebody sins against a fellow human being? What happens when a man is seized by the spirit of jealousy, (Our sages in the Babylonian Talmud Sotah 3a called this a “spirit of folly”) because he suspects that his wife has cheated on him. (The Torah doesn’t ask what happens if a woman is jealous, and doesn’t address here the issue of same sex couples.) We also learn of the man who so desires to serve God that he imposes upon himself various restrictions.  I recall what I learned from my partner Einat, in a dvar Torah that she gave over 30 years ago. She taught that the priestly blessing in our Torah portion comes to bring some peace to these tempest tossed souls –what the jealous man or the person driven to take extraordinary steps to serve God perhaps lack.

In other words, the Torah is again teaching us that even if we aspire that our eyes remain focused on the mountain top, our feet must be grounded on earth.

Finally, I don’t believe that “derekh eretz precedes Torah” comes to teach us that we can blithely cancel whatever in the Torah violates our sense of derekh eretz.  Rabbi Larry Kushner taught us that we must always first ask what the Torah has to teach us.  However, every word in Torah has 70 interpretations.” That means that there is always exegesis and eisegesis. None of us objectively read what the words are. We also read in. We must strive to do so through the lens of derekh eretz.  May it be Your Will that our souls will stay on the heights of Mt. Sinai, but that our bodies will come down and our feet will be anchored here on earth.  May it be Your Will that we will not exploit lofty words and ideas to justify injustice, and harming others.  Rather, may we act in a way that honors every human being, and brings peace to all humanity, our world and ourselves.

Shabbat Shalom

About the Author
Rabbi Arik Ascherman is the founder and director of the Israeli human rights organization "Torat Tzedek-Torah of Justice." Previously, he led "Rabbis For Human Rights" for 21 years. Rabbi Ascherman is a sought after lecturer, has received numerous prizes for his human rights work and has been featured in several documentary films, including the 2010 "Israel vs Israel." He and "Torat Tzedek" received the Rabbi David J. Forman Memorial Fund's Human Rights Prize fore 5779. Rabbi Ascherman is recognized as a role model for faith based human rights activism.
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