Do We Dehumanize the Other?
Our Gemara on Amud Aleph compares a Canaanite slave to a donkey, in a sense that it is property that can be bought and sold (Am Hadomeh Lechamor). This Talmudinc dictum has been used to accuse Jews of having legal basis for treating non-Jews as if they were animals. Later in this article, I will discuss some of the meanings to this verse and allusion, but I first feel compelled to respond defensively in a global manner. One should never judge a society by its technical laws, but rather by the actions of its members, whose behavior is influenced by the totality of laws, legal system and culture.
Let us not kid ourselves, each of the world’s major religions have in their scripture harsh rhetoric and vicious hatred toward its enemies, often those who violate its moral codes, the heretics and scoffers. Just like deep in the privacy of the Beis Midrash you may hear a rebbe voice negative sentiments against “goyim”, so too I am sure despite Vatican II, in many churches, Jews are still described as killers of Christ. Those sentiments were certainly enacted cruelly during the Crusades and Inquisitions, and in minor ways, no doubt continues in some regions of the world, despite Christianity professing love. Nachmanides, in his famous disputation, quipped that the religion that Chrsitian religion which was purported to bring Messianic peace to the world is responsible for the most bloodshed in history. Of course, let us not forget Islam which not only has violent rhetoric, but through modern times has a large contingent of its adherents who dehumanize and decapitate the infidel. In the Torah, we have similar laws that are technically on the books in regard to infidels, but do we act that way in reality? We saw earlier in Psychology of the Daf, Bava Kamma 35, where the Rambam (Laws of Slaves 9:8) delineates a list of behaviors that one should regard a Canaanite slave, including not yelling at him, and listening to his complaints. This is hardly a religion and culture that dehumanizes innocent civilians, Jew or slave.
We recently became painfully aware of how many of the advocacy groups who espoused “silence is violence” somehow ignored this idea when it came to Jewish rape victims of October 7. Or those who would fire a professor or censure a student for the wrong pronoun, but allow the most vile and violence inciting chants on campus in the name of free-speech. So, please do not lecture me as a Jew, about what it states in the Talmud. Forgive me for quoting the Christian Bible, when I say, “Let he who is without sin among you cast the first stone.”
That aside, the Maharal (Tiferes Yisrael 37 and Gevuros Hashem 4) has a beautiful explanation of the idea of Am Hadomeh Lechamor. Aside from Canaanites, Egyptians also earned the comparison to a donkey, and that comes from the verse in Yechezkel (23:19-20):
וַתַּרְבֶּ֖ה אֶת־תַּזְנוּתֶ֑יהָ לִזְכֹּר֙ אֶת־יְמֵ֣י נְעוּרֶ֔יהָ אֲשֶׁ֥ר זָנְתָ֖ה בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃
But she continued her promiscuity, remembering how in her youth she had behaved immorally in the land of Egypt;
וַֽתַּעְגְּבָ֔ה עַ֖ל פִּֽלַגְשֵׁיהֶ֑ם אֲשֶׁ֤ר בְּשַׂר־חֲמוֹרִים֙ בְּשָׂרָ֔ם וְזִרְמַ֥ת סוּסִ֖ים זִרְמָתָֽם׃
She lusted for concubinage with them, whose promiscuity were like those of donkeys and whose “body part” were like those of stallions.
The Hebrew word Chamor stems from the root, Chomer, which means material matter. The Egyptian is a slave to his desires and thus servitude and chomer are metaphysically equivalent. (Maharal discusses the Canaanites’ chomer and slavery in a different aspect, but we won’t dwell on that for this discussion.) The Jewish spirit is the opposite. The Jewish connection to God and soul is the ultimate liberty. Freedom from enslavement to animal instincts (chomer, chamor) and by dint of connection to the Divine, true autonomy, independence and generative ability. The verse (Shemos 32:16) describes the Stone Tablets as “Charus – Engraved.” Eiruvin (54a) makes a play on words that they offer “cheirus – freedom”.
Maharal says that we know from a mystical standpoint opposites are the same. Light and Dark, cold and hot are merely on a continuum. Dark is just a far end manifestation of much less light, and cold is on the end of a continuum of heat. However, color and sound are not opposites, so whiteness is not remotely related to quiet, except by way of metaphor. So too, the Egyptians and the Jews were inexorably linked, with the Egyptian mentality on the far end of the freedom-slavery scale, representing lack of spiritual existential determination and agency, and with a tendency toward self-liberation and freedom. This is why the Egyptians were able to enslave the Jews, as they had the same spiritual power as the Jews, just through the dark side.
(My Chavrusa of almost 30 years, Dov Nierman, commented on this: This may be why the Egyptians were known to be experts in magic (Menachos 85a), as this is a corresponding opposite to the spiritual power of the Jewish nation.)
The Maharal uses this idea to explain the following verse in a unique manner (Devarim 23:8-9):
לֹֽא־תְתַעֵ֣ב אֲדֹמִ֔י כִּ֥י אָחִ֖יךָ ה֑וּא לֹא־תְתַעֵ֣ב מִצְרִ֔י כִּי־גֵ֖ר הָיִ֥יתָ בְאַרְצֽוֹ׃
Do not despise the Egyptian, for you were a stranger in his land.
בָּנִ֛ים אֲשֶׁר־יִוָּלְד֥וּ לָהֶ֖ם דּ֣וֹר שְׁלִישִׁ֑י יָבֹ֥א לָהֶ֖ם בִּקְהַ֥ל ה’
Children who will be born to them, in the third generation, will enter into Hashem’s community.
The pashut peshat is that we should show gratitude for the Egyptians, since after all, they did host us in their land, and therefore the third generation of converts is allowed to marry into the Jewish nation.
Maharal goes deeper. One cannot permanently distance an Egyptian convert because they have within them the same quality as the Jew, they are on the freedom-slavery continuum. This is why you were able to dwell in their land and this is why you eventually must admit them into Jewish society, because once they begin their journey toward freedom they have the quality within them to become as you.
This is a profound theological and psychological truth, that opposites are closer to each other than we think, and within one extreme is the potential for the other, good or bad.
Premonitions of Doom
Our Gemara on Amud Aleph tells us the happy and then tragic story “Nechunia, the One Who Dug Cisterns”.
תָּנוּ רַבָּנַן: מַעֲשֶׂה בְּבִתּוֹ שֶׁל נְחוּנְיָא חוֹפֵר שִׁיחִין שֶׁנָּפְלָה לְבוֹר גָּדוֹל, בָּאוּ וְהוֹדִיעוּ אֶת רַבִּי חֲנִינָא בֶּן דּוֹסָא. שָׁעָה רִאשׁוֹנָה אָמַר לָהֶם: שָׁלוֹם. שְׁנִיָּה אָמַר לָהֶם: שָׁלוֹם. שְׁלִישִׁית אָמַר לָהֶם: עָלְתָה.
An incident occurred involving the daughter of Neḥunya the ditchdigger, where she fell into a large cistern and no one could extricate her from it. They came and informed Rabbi Ḥanina ben Dosa so that he would pray on her behalf. When the first hour had passed from the time of her fall, he said to them: She is at peace and unharmed. After the second hour, he said to them: She is at peace. After the third hour, he said to them: She has ascended from the well, and indeed this was the case.
אָמְרוּ לָהּ: מִי הֶעֱלִךְ? אָמְרָה לָהֶם: זָכָר שֶׁל רְחֵלִים נִזְדַּמֵּן לִי, וְזָקֵן אֶחָד מַנְהִיגוֹ. אָמְרוּ לוֹ: נָבִיא אַתָּה? אָמַר לָהֶם: ״לֹא נָבִיא אָנֹכִי, וְלֹא בֶּן נָבִיא אָנֹכִי״, אֶלָּא כָּךְ אָמַרְתִּי: דָּבָר שֶׁאוֹתוֹ צַדִּיק מִצְטַעֵר בּוֹ – יִכָּשֵׁל בּוֹ זַרְעוֹ?
They said to her: Who brought you up out of the well? She said to them: A male sheep, i.e., a ram, happened to come to me, and a certain old man, i.e., Abraham, was leading it, and he pulled me out. They said to Rabbi Ḥanina ben Dosa: Are you a prophet? How did you know she had ascended? Rabbi Ḥanina ben Dosa said to them: “I am no prophet, neither am I a prophet’s son” (Amos 7:14), but this is what I said to myself: Shall the offspring of Neḥunya stumble by means of the very matter which distressed that righteous man?
אָמַר רַבִּי אַחָא: אַף עַל פִּי כֵן, מֵת בְּנוֹ בַּצָּמָא. שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״וּסְבִיבָיו נִשְׂעֲרָה מְאֹד״ – מְלַמֵּד שֶׁהַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא מְדַקְדֵּק עִם סְבִיבָיו אֲפִילּוּ כְּחוּט הַשַּׂעֲרָה. רַבִּי נְחוּנְיָא אָמַר מֵהָכָא: ״אֵל נַעֲרָץ בְּסוֹד קְדֹשִׁים רַבָּה, וְנוֹרָא עַל כׇּל סְבִיבָיו״.
Rabbi Aḥa says: Although Neḥunya ensured that others would have water, even so, his son died of thirst, fulfilling that which is stated: “And around Him it storms [nisara] mightily” (Psalms 50:3). This teaches that the Holy One, Blessed be He, is scrupulous with those around Him, i.e., the righteous, even to the extent of a hairsbreadth [hasa’ara], so that even minor transgressions elicit a severe punishment. Rabbi Neḥunya says: The same idea may be learned from here, in the following verse: “A God dreaded in the great council of the holy ones, and feared by all those that surround Him” (Psalms 89:8), indicating that God is most careful and exacting with those that surround Him, i.e., the righteous.
Numerous commentaries try to explain how Nechunia was so sure that his daughter would be safe, in that the merit of his providing water would protect her, and then subsequently his son dies of thirst, which would seem to be a similar fate. Why did his son not merit the same providential protection?
Ben Yehoyada notes that the narrative describes the cistern as “large“. The significance of that is that, despite it being large, and much less likely for someone to get trapped and stuck in it, nevertheless, initially Nechunia’s daughter was. Nechunia reasoned that if God was meaning to punish him, He would have carried that out through a smaller pit. The fact that it was a large pit, and so unlikely for her to become trapped, coupled with the fact that a larger pit has more merit because it meant that Nechunia went the extra mile in providing even more water for the people, he could not see that God would punish him in that way. It also would lead to disillusionment by others to see somebody who is dedicated to a mitzvah suffer so ironically. Meaning to say, Nechunia understood that perhaps God might judge him more strictly, but via a circumstance where it would lead others to having less faith. This is why, when it came to his son, and the miracle already was demonstrated, as well as the fact that it wasn’t ironically a large pit that could provide much water, whatever judgments that were due against him and his family, were finally executed.
I will add that it is telling that his son also died of a water-related matter, in a sense that he died of thirst. And it is, (pun intended), difficult to swallow that a person who supplied water to other Jews should end up suffering the death of his son from thirst. However, to add to Ben Yehoyada, I would say that there must have been a tikkun and/or spiritual weak spot in his family pertaining to the issue of water. This is why Nechunia was so careful with this mitzvah, because he sensed that there was a need, somehow to counter a curse, or shadow, related to this matter. It helped enough for his daughter, but ultimately not enough for his son.
There is a Jewish mystical idea that a person can sense spiritual lacunae or dangers. For example, Iyov (3:25) speaks of having a premonitory dread. I especially note the commentaries of Malbim and Alshich on that verse, who say that a person might sense a spiritual truth that he cannot grasp with concrete thought, but nonetheless represents important information about his status and vulnerabilities. There is also a Gemara (Megilla 3a) which says that sometimes a person might suddenly feel a fright fall upon him, and though he is not consciously aware of it, his “mazal” sees the danger. (Mazal here seems to mean an angelic manifestation of his consciousness in a higher realm, or a guardian angel, or perhaps that is one in the same.) Similar to this, Baer Heytev (OC 584:3) says in the name of the Arizal, that during the Days of Awe, “If one weeps spontaneously, seemingly from his own accord to an unaccustomed degree, it is a sign that he is being judged at that time in Heaven.” Pele Yoetz (“Tahara”) also discusses this concept in relation to all emotions felt during prayer: “When a person feels a sudden arousal, either out of joy or out of sadness, it is because even though he does not see, his mazal senses what is decreed for him from above, or for his relatives. Likewise, during prayer, sometimes a person is aroused and prays with complete devotion, at times to rejoice and at times to feel sorrow. They reveal to him what is going on in a spiritual realm.”
The lesson in all this is that God’s judgments may be mysterious, and we can never know for sure when we will be granted mercy, salvation or strict retribution, but we should trust our instincts and emotions to inform us of potential dangers and opportunities.
Be Kind to Animals Because You Never Know…
Our Gemara on Amud Aleph discusses the idea of making sure that despite someone having been convicted with the death penalty, the mitzvah of “Love thy neighbor” dictates that we choose the least painful and most dignified way to administer the punishment. For example, if the death punishment involves stoning (which actually is preceded by being thrown from a high structure, it should be constructed sufficiently high that he dies quickly, without any unnecessary suffering.”
I will share an unusual application of this principle, from the Shalah (Torah Shebikhsav, Re’eh, Torah Ohr). He says since it is possible that a human may be reincarnated as an animal, the mitzvah of slaughter with a properly sharp knife may also be a fulfillment of this directive. That is, within the soul of this animal, is a human soul, and thus when he is slaughtered properly he finally attains his tikkun or repair. Therefore, this act must be done compassionately.
The mystics attributed a holiness and meaning to everything in the world that is seemingly mundane. Everything is multi-valent, with unknown depth and properties. This elevates the idea of being kind to animals to a different level, but really articulates an approach to the world that all is sacred.
Do Not Scapegoat the Leader
Our Gemara on Amud Aleph discusses the legal technicalities of how an acquisition of a flock of sheep is finalized:
Reish Lakish says in the name of Rabbi Yannai: With regard to one who sells a flock of sheep to another, once he conveys the mashkukhit to the buyer, he has acquired the flock.
But what is this “mashkukhit”? It is referring to the goat that goes at the front of the flock that they follow. The Gemara notes: This explanation of Rabbi Ya’akov is similar to that which a certain Galilean taught in the presence of Rav Ḥisda concerning this goat: When a shepherd is angry with his flock, he renders the goat leading them, i.e., the mashkukhit, blind. (This way all the goats that follow will stumble.) Similarly, when God is angry with the Jewish people, he appoints unsuitable leaders for them.
This is a powerful statement of accountability. Classically, when people are unhappy with the government they blame the leaders. However, in a God-centered society, accountability is on everyone because nothing is random. Of course the leaders are responsible for their actions qua leaders, but the people are liable as well. One of my favorite professors, Norman Tokayer Z”L, used to say, “You know, just because your mother hated you, does not mean you had to believe her.” He meant to push back against the popular psychoanalytic mother-bashing, which was to say that human choice and individual responsibility exists no matter our upbringing and leadership. And, our Gemara turns this on its head. Not only are we responsible for ourselves despite our leaders, but we are even responsible for our leaders.