“Cutting It Fine” — Parashat Re’eh 5775

“We are all Hashem’s children”. I’ve been told that since as long as I can remember. The source for this statement is in Parashat Re’eh [Devarim 14:1] “You are children of Hashem, do not cut yourselves and do not disfigure yourselves over a dead person”. The Torah defines the prohibition of “cutting” with the words “lo titgodedu”. The verb “la’gud” means “to cut”, and the reflexive “titgodedu” means “to cut one’s self”. The Torah is prohibiting the practice of self-mutilation as a sign of mourning.

Even today certain cultures draw blood as a sign of grief. The Torah prohibits this kind of behaviour. This is not the first time that this prohibition is mentioned in the Torah. It is first discussed in Parashat Emor [Vayikra 21:5] “They shall not disfigure themselves and they shall not shave their heads, and they shall not cut their own flesh”. While in Parashat Emor the prohibition is aimed at the Kohanim, in Parashat Re’eh it is extended to cover all of Israel.

The obvious question is, “What does the prohibition of self-mutilation have to do with being Hashem’s children?” The Torah could just as easily have said “You are children of Hashem, you may not eat cheeseburgers.” Many of the medieval commentators[1] explain that any mourning that leads a person to mutilate himself is considered excessive, and is forbidden.

The Talmud in Tractate Moed Katan [27b] discusses the laws of mourning and notes that the restrictions on a mourner are slowly relaxed from the burial: from the first seven days (shiva) when the mourner sits on the floor and does not change his clothing, to thirty days (shloshim) when the mourner does not shave, to the first year (Yahrezeit) when the mourner cannot listen to music or wear new clothing. After that time a person is commanded to completely cease mourning. Hashem says to him, as it were, “You are not more merciful than I!”

Death is an integral part of life, but it does not mean the end of the lives of those who remain alive. We are Hashem’s children. No matter how close we were to the person that died, our Father in Heaven is still with us and He will always remain with us. This must comfort us. For this reason it is forbidden to irreversibly mutilate ourselves as a sign of mourning.

But there is another way of understanding this verse. The Talmud in Tractate Yevamot [13b] understands “lo titgodedu” as meaning “Do not break into groups”. According to this interpretation, the root of the word “titgodedu” is the word “egged” — “unit”- and the reflexive “titgodedu” means “to divide the whole into smaller units”. One result of this prohibition is that there should not be two separate courts in one city. Understood colloquially, Am Yisrael are prohibited from infighting. There is a famous joke about a Jewish castaway who finds himself alone on a desert island and he builds two shuls: one that he davens at and one that he won’t step foot into. This behaviour, while often pathetically descriptive of the Jewish people, is explicitly and emphatically prohibited.

The same question we asked above can be asked about infighting: “What does the prohibition of not going to Rabbi Such-and-Such’s shul because he is an apikoress[2] have to do with being Hashem’s children?” The answer is simple. We are all children of one God who gave us one Torah. When we act as if only a small subset of Am Yisrael is blessed with the correct Torah and that everyone else is grossly mistaken, we are saying that a multiplicity of Torahs can exist. This, in turn, is equivalent to stating that a multiplicity of gods can exit, and this, of course, is a terrible sin.

It is important to note that the prohibition of infighting is not a separate prohibition or an alternate way of understanding the verse. It is an additional prohibition and it builds on the prohibition of cutting one’s self. The Rambam, writing in the Laws of Idolatry [12:14], states that the prohibition of infighting is “a part (mi’klal)” of the prohibition of cutting one’s self, as “it causes great division (machloket)”. The Rambam is really saying that both interpretations of the word “titgodedu” indicate a form of tearing. One describes the tearing of the human skin, and the other describes the tearing of the national skin[3]. When Am Yisrael engages in infighting, we are literally tearing ourselves apart.

The Netziv of Volozhn sees things differently. He asks how it is possible for the prohibitions of self-mutilation and infighting to stem from the fact that we are Hashem’s children, when the very next verse in the Torah clearly states [Devarim 14:2] “Because you are a holy nation to Hashem, and Hashem has chosen you as a nation of merit[4] from all the nations on the face of the earth”. The Torah’s use of the word “because” is clearly giving the reason why we are forbidden from “titgodedu-ing”, whatever that might mean. So what does being the “children of Hashem” have to do with it?

On the basis of this question, the Netziv asserts that the Torah is giving two separate prohibitions, each with its own justification. Infighting is prohibited because we are children of Hashem, because infighting makes it appear as if there are two (or more) Torahs. Self-mutilation is prohibited because we are a holy people, because holy people do not mutilate themselves in any manner.

I’d like to take the interpretation of the Netziv and to flip it on its head. That is to say, let’s assume that infighting and self-mutilation are indeed two separate prohibitions. I suggest, however, that the prohibition of self-mutilation stems from Am Yisrael being Hashem’s children, and the prohibition of infighting comes from “being a holy nation to Hashem”. We’ve already explained the first half of this equation: self-mutilation is prohibited because it is an act of excessive mourning, and as children of an eternal God this kind of behaviour is inappropriate.

The second half of the equation is a bit more intricate. Recall that the prohibition of self-mutilation had already been given to the Kohanim in Parashat Emor. Immediately after giving this prohibition to the Kohanim the Torah tells us [Vayikra 21:6] “[The Kohanim] shall be holy to Hashem and they shall not profane Hashem’s name”. Kehuna — priesthood — is a difficult concept to get one’s head around, as it is essentially saying that not all Jews are created equal. Only a Kohen can work in the Beit HaMikdash. Only a Kohen cannot go to funerals. One might be lead to say that only a Kohen “shall be holy to Hashem”.

But this is just not so. Kohanim are not a self-contained caste, like the Hindu Brahmin. A Kohen is not better or worse than an Israelite or a Levite. A Kohen is not forbidden from marrying someone who is not a Kohen. A Kohen is different in that certain avenues of worshipping Hashem are open to him and to him only.

I know what you’re thinking: words, words, words. A Kohen can offer sacrifices and I cannot, ergo he is better than me. To counter just this kind of thinking, the Torah tells us “lo titgodedu”. Do not break into groups. A Kohen is not the only person who is holy. You also “shall be holy to Hashem”. While we might serve in different role, every Jew is equally holy. In our striving for Godliness, there is no limit how high anyone can climb. A person who relegates himself to a group — to any group — is imposing upon himself an artificial limitation, and the Torah will not hear of this.

At the end of the day it all comes down to cutting: cutting your skin, cutting yourself out of the group, or cutting yourself short. This kind of behaviour must simply be cut out.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5775

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Moshe Dov ben Malka

[1] For instance, the Ibn Ezra and the Ramban.

[2] An apikoress is a person who eats cheeseburgers on Yom Kippur without making a bracha.

[3] See the interpretation of Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch ad loc who expounds upon this idea.

[4] The Hebrew term “Am Segula” is extremely difficult to translate into English. It refers to a nation with a special mission — a mission of bringing Godliness into our corporeal world.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2000 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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