False Pride and Real Guilt
Our Gemara from 17b to 18a discussed how certain actions are viewed, from their inception or from their end point? For example, if an animal stomps upon a vessel, and the vessel does not break, but then from that force, rolls and breaks. If we follow the initial stomp, it would be the damage of “foot”, requiring full payment. But if we follow the end, where the vessel broke by banging into another object, this is comparable to the damage of “tzeroros” (ricocheting pebbles), and only is liable for half damages.
Whether we attribute something to its beginning or end, has implications in other areas. The Gemara Niddah (70b) records a question that the Wise Men of Alexandria asked the sages. The verse (Bereishis 19:26) tells us:
וַתַּבֵּ֥ט אִשְׁתּ֖וֹ מֵאַחֲרָ֑יו וַתְּהִ֖י נְצִ֥יב מֶֽלַח
Lot’s wife looked back, and she thereupon turned into a pillar of salt.
The Wise Men of Alexandria asked, does Lot’s wife’s corpse have ritual impurity applied to her dead body, or since she turned into a pillar of salt, there is no longer anything left that represents the prior dead matter? The Gemara considered the question foolish, presumably because once she was fully transformed to salt, she was simply salt. Just as, presumably, the dirt we touch and even the dust we breathe, may once have been part of decaying corpses.
Pardes Yosef (Toldos) asks why were the sages scoffing at their question? In other areas in halakha we debate whether the original point affects the end point? For example, Rashi (Avodah Zarah 47a, “Ibur”) rules that something that has a status of a forbidden worshiped object does not lose its forbidden status even if undergoing a physical change. Pardes Yosef answers that the situation with Lot’s wife is not subject to this debate about beginning status or end because she never became a corpse. That is, she was miraculously transformed to salt while she was still alive, so there was no ritual impurity and that is why it was a foolish question.
Regarding her particular fate, Rashi says it was measure for measure, as she used salt as a ruse to snitch on her husband who was harboring guests (a capital crime in Sodom). She asked neighbors if she could borrow salt for “her guests”, which was a passive aggressive move, revealing Lot’s activity. Ha’amek Davar (ibid) asks, if this is so, why does the verse make it dependent on her looking back? Even if she didn’t look back she deserved the same punishment! He answers (at least how I interpret his answer) that true she may have deserved this punishment, but one does not always receive their punishment. The destroying angels were activated and present at that time, so her delaying and looking back got her caught up in the destruction, and then her particular punishment was suited to her sinful behavior. We might imagine she looked back on the destruction and was smugly self-righteous, which then caused her to be judged more harshly. As Bereishis Rabbah (45:5) says, if you summon judgment on others, you summon it upon yourself.
When we see others suffering, one of the uglier human traits is to deny how this signals our own vulnerability, and even culpability. This leads one to make self-righteous rationalizations why we wouldn’t deserve that. Even when hearing about a person who has cancer or was in an accident, there is an inner compulsion to avoid facing the implications of our own fragility by telling ourselves, “She didn’t eat healthy, or he drove recklessly.” Even if those explanations might have some truth, we don’t want to make the mistake of Lot’s wife. The failure to pause and self-reflect ironically may arouse more heavenly judgment than facing our shortcomings. Rus Rabbah (2:8) says that when a peer dies, the entire group should be concerned.
Of course, taken to the extreme, a person could have dysfunctional anxiety and survivor’s guilt. But a moral life offers protections against neurotic fears by directing normal human impulses and feelings into productive and meaningful responses to tragedies instead of avoidance. There is no need to wallow in helplessness nor deny the realities. Rather, when tragedy strikes close to home we can ask, “Why was I spared and what can I do to make life meaningful?”
Freud remarked on the protective quality of religion and moral accountability in quelling excess anxiety and neurosis:
“It tallies well that devout believers are safeguarded in a high degree against certain neurotic illnesses; their acceptance of the universal neurosis [i.e., religion according to Freud,] spares them the task of constructing a personal one.” (S.E., The Future of an Illusion, 21:44.)
Freud made these remarks with no fondness for religion, yet his words proved prophetic. We have come to witness the emergence of a world culture that does not believe in God yet burdens everyone with all kinds of restrictions and rules: pronouns, woke-ism, excessive and irrational COVID precautions and naive forms of environmental activism. By all means save the environment and fight for human rights, but also don’t kill fetuses because of a “right to choose”). The ugliest example of this smug misplaced piety has been from liberal Ivy League students and professors who are protective of women’s rights and displaced Palestinians yet they ignore the atrocities committed by Hamas and declare them to be the heroes and “freedom fighters”. (Because we know Hamas will surely establish a country which will welcome LGBTQ persons and champion women’s rights, if only the big, bad Israelis would leave them in peace.) This distorted thinking comes from deep neurotic anxiety and guilt. Without religion to properly guide those impulses they create a grotesque and fake morality in order to rationalize, insulate and deny their deepest fears about their basic unworthiness and fragility that all humans share.
Rav Nachman and the Furry
Our Gemara on Amud Bais states that while it’s expected for an animal to eat, if it eats from a table—this unusual behavior results in categorizing the damage as non-usual, subject only to half-damages. This observation of an animal’s atypical behavior brings to mind the well-known Rav Nachman story (found in Sippurei Ma’asiyos).
The story, available on the Breslov.org website (https://breslov.org/rebbe-nachmans-story-the-turkey-prince/), recounts a prince who descended into madness, believing himself to be a turkey. He felt compelled to sit naked under the table, pecking at bones and pieces of bread like a turkey. Despite all efforts, the royal physicians despaired of curing his madness, leaving the king in profound grief.
A sage arrived, declaring, “I will undertake to cure him.” He undressed and joined the prince under the table, adopting the behavior of picking crumbs and bones. “Who are you?” asked the prince. “What are you doing here?” The sage replied, “And you? What brings you here?”
“I am a turkey,” said the prince. “I’m also a turkey,” responded the sage.
They sat together in this manner until they forged a strong bond. One day, the sage signaled the king’s servants to bring them shirts, suggesting to the prince, “What makes you think a turkey can’t wear a shirt? You can wear a shirt and still be a turkey.” With that, they both put on shirts.
Continuing this approach, the sage encouraged the prince to wear pants when they were provided, questioning, “Why can’t a turkey wear pants?” Gradually, they both dressed entirely. Then, signaling for regular food from the table, the sage prompted the prince, “What makes you think you’ll stop being a turkey if you eat good food? You can eat whatever you want and still be a turkey!” They both partook of the food.
Finally, the sage suggested, “What makes you think a turkey must sit under the table? Even a turkey can sit at the table.” Continuously guiding the prince, the sage eventually cured him.
While various mystical interpretations exist, I perceive a psychological relational truth in this story. The prince, trapped in his delusion, “identified as a turkey”, impervious to persuasion. The only influence came from the wise man who initially respected him and immersed himself in the prince’s world. Living as a turkey, they built trust, enabling the sage to guide the prince towards more adaptive behaviors. Crucially, the sage didn’t attempt to disprove the prince’s belief; rather, he encouraged the consideration of a turkey coexisting with human behavior.
Carl Jung once remarked that our ability to influence others correlates with their perception of our openness to being influenced by them. This aligns with the imperative to respect subjective feelings and beliefs, even when evidently wrong—especially in such cases. Acknowledging motivations and experiences differs from agreeing with them. Authentic curiosity and interest in understanding others foster openness to persuasion and alternative perspectives. This authenticity cannot be feigned or employed as a strategy. Genuine respect and curiosity to see individuals as they perceive themselves present a significant challenge, particularly when disagreements or frustrations arise. Nonetheless, it’s an endeavor of immense value.
Divine Checks and Balances
Our Gemara on amud aleph discusses the legal implications where one person derives benefit from someone else, but there was no loss incurred. This is not to say that it is permitted to squat on someone’s property, but the Gemara considers that in situations where there is zero loss and wear and tear, there can be no financial liability on the beneficiary.
Rav Shlomo Kluger (Chokhmas HaTorah, Toldos) uses this legal reasoning to explain Yaakov’s justification for stealing his father’s blessing from Esau. When Yitschok learns that he gave the blessings to Yaakov who disguised himself as Esau, he tells Esau (Bereishis 27:35):
וַיֹּ֕אמֶר בָּ֥א אָחִ֖יךָ בְּמִרְמָ֑ה וַיִּקַּ֖ח בִּרְכָתֶֽךָ׃
But he answered, “Your brother came with guile and took away your blessing.”
The Midrash Rabbah (67:4) interprets the word “guile” as “Talmudic reasoning”. Meaning, Yaakov used some halakhic argument to justify his appropriating the blessings for himself. What was the legal argument? Rav Kluger says, the Midrash (65:13) also tells us that Esau was not particularly respectful of his father’s religious convictions. If he did not find a kosher animal to slaughter, he would grab whatever he could trap. The Midrash derives this from the verbose description of Esau’s (27:5), “לצוד ציד להביא” “to trap game and to bring”, implying he will do whatever it takes to bring back something. Yaakov reasoned, “Esau will probably bring something non-kosher and that meal could not have possibly brought Father to a state of divine inspiration. Though I gained, Esau did not lose out, as he never would have received the blessings anyhow. Therefore, I have no further liabilities to Esau.”
However, I wonder how Rav Kluger fits his peshat in with the clearly stated verse (Bereishis 25:31) that indicates Yaakov bought the firstborn rights fair and square? What legal argument is more powerful than that? We must answer that there were two different legal issues. True, Yaakov purchased the rights to the firstborn but perhaps Essu would argue that the blessing was essentially a non-transferable right? Perhaps only Yitschok gets to decide who receives a blessing and no one has the right to sell it?
To this Yaakov would answer, even if Father attempted to give it to you, you would not have gotten it, because you would have fed him non-kosher food. This also will answer another question, how did Yaakov know for sure that Esau would bring non-kosher food? Even the Midrash says that if he was fortunate enough to trap a Kosher animal, he would have brought that. Using our current reasoning, all Yaakov needs to do is create reasonable doubt because this is a post facto demand for compensation. If Esau cannot prove that he lost out, because he may never have been able to get the blessings anyway, then he cannot extract payment from Yaakov.
Reflecting on this story, it does make you wonder what is the divine purpose that our very identity and ancestral origin story has to be rife with intrigue and underhanded, indirect machinations to receive our birthright? We are rightfully entitled to it, why did God make it so complicated with so many consequences for Yaakov’s life and future history?
I believe the main function of this is to create humility. Being the chosen people could easily lead to being “the only people”, and regard everyone else as less than Human. (It is certainly is how Jews have been treated at times throughout history.) Therefore, to humble us, we don’t get to feel like we’re absolutely entitled. And, perhaps, even the other nations of the world don’t have to feel utterly dejected. They also were contenders, and in some fundamental way can still be contenders in God‘s plan.
The idea that leaders must be humbled by circumstances and their past is taught in regard to the Davidic dynasty In Gemara Yoma (22b):
אָמַר רַב יְהוּדָה אָמַר שְׁמוּאֵל: מִפְּנֵי מָה לֹא נִמְשְׁכָה מַלְכוּת בֵּית שָׁאוּל — מִפְּנֵי שֶׁלֹּא הָיָה בּוֹ שׁוּם דּוֹפִי, דְּאָמַר רַבִּי יוֹחָנָן מִשּׁוּם רַבִּי שִׁמְעוֹן בֶּן יְהוֹצָדָק: אֵין מַעֲמִידִין פַּרְנָס עַל הַצִּיבּוּר אֶלָּא אִם כֵּן קוּפָּה שֶׁל שְׁרָצִים תְּלוּיָה לוֹ מֵאֲחוֹרָיו. שֶׁאִם תָּזוּחַ דַּעְתּוֹ עָלָיו אוֹמְרִין לוֹ: חֲזוֹר לַאֲחוֹרֶיךָ.
Rav Yehuda said that Shmuel said: Why did the kingship of the house of Saul not continue on to succeeding generations? It is because there was no flaw in his ancestry; he was of impeccable lineage. As Rabbi Yoḥanan said in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Yehotzadak: One appoints a leader over the community only if he has a box full of creeping animals hanging behind him, i.e., he has something inappropriate in his ancestry that preceded him. Why is that? It is so that if he exhibits a haughty attitude toward the community, one can say to him: Turn and look behind you and be reminded of your humble roots. This is why David’s kingdom lasted while Saul’s did not, as David descended from a family with problematic ancestry, namely Tamar (see Genesis, chapter 38) and Ruth the Moabite (see Ruth 4:18–22).
The Jewish monarchy did not have checks and balances that we would have in a modern democracy, but nevertheless there were divine checks and balances.
The Devil Within
Our Gemara on amud aleph observes that a desolate, abandoned home seems to deteriorate more rapidly, offering a squatter a rationale for how they benefit the owner. What causes an abandoned structure to become decrepit? The Gemara offers a concrete reason: the occupant makes small repairs on the spot, thereby mitigating larger damage. Consider a home with a small leak—if repaired, the damage is contained. However, if left unchecked, the leak can ruin other parts of the home, leading to mold and pest infestation. Yet, the Gemara presents another reason as well—there’s a special demon that enters an abandoned home and destroys its gate.
What does this demon signify? As highlighted in other Psychology of the Daf posts, both spirituality and psychology focus on the soul, often referring to similar ideas from different perspectives.
Be’er Mayyim Chayyim (Shemos 1:19 and 31:15) explains that demons and destructive forces are drawn to wilderness and desolation because kelippos are attracted to emptiness and avoid civilization. (Kelippos, literally shells, represent aspects of the physical world far from God’s spiritual influence; empty husks.) Why? Because godliness involves creation, filling, and nurturing life. Constructiveness, civilization-building, and especially performing mitzvos—where the Torah for a Jew serves as the foundation for civilization—align with this notion. Rambam (Moreh 3:22) delves into the etymology and metaphysicality of Satan, rooted in deviating or veering off course from attachment to God (see Bamidbar 22:32). Reish Lakish tells us (Bava Basra 16a):
אָמַר רֵישׁ לָקִישׁ: הוּא שָׂטָן, הוּא יֵצֶר הָרָע, הוּא מַלְאַךְ הַמָּוֶת
Satan, the evil inclination, and the Angel of Death are one, that is, they are three aspects of the same essence.
Sin represents a deviation from this attachment, an entropic force in the physical world, prone to deteriorate without the divine life-giving, organizing force (see Psychology of the Daf, Bava Kama 4). Thus, empty spaces metaphorically attract the demonic due to their chaotic nature, contrary to the divine order.
Finally, Maharsha notes that this demon targets the gate, signifying that destruction commences there. Neglecting boundaries invites chaos and the demonic into one’s life.