Freedom to Feel
Our Gemara on Amud Beis discusses an incident where Rabban Gamliel blinded the eye of his Canaanite slave Tavi, and he experienced great joy as a result. Rabban Gamliel always wanted to free Tavi, because he was considered an extraordinarily learned and pious individual (see Mishna Succah 2:1, Mishna Berachos 2:7.) Yet, it is generally prohibited to emancipate a Canaanite slave, as discussed in Gittin (38b). The injury provided a perfect opportunity for Rabban Gamliel to free his slave, as blinding the eye of one’s slave results in his emancipation (see Exodus 21:27).
However, assuming it is forbidden to free a slave, is it really acceptable to then be joyous? A commandment is the opportunity to perform in accordance with the will of God, if we unable to do so, we should appear despondent, not pleased, even if Tavi was a special case and deserving to be free. As the Gemara in Avodah Zara (3b) rhetorically declares in regard to those who were happy to leave the Succah: “Granted that one is exempt from performing the mitzva and is permitted to leave his Succah, but should one kick it?”
A possible answer is that the prohibition of freeing a slave is not absolute, as we find Rabbi Eliezer freed his slave in order that he become a full Jew so that he could be the tenth man for his minyan. The Gemara (Gittin ibid) records a dispute and not all hold that this is a commandment, so perhaps Rabbi Gamliel followed that position. Ritva (Megillah 28a) holds that the prohibition, though based on a verse, is rabbinic. If so, that also indicates an idea that if one becomes exempt from a rabbinic commandment, it is not considered disrespectful to seem pleased about it. Other Rishonim hold the prohibition is De’oraysa, with certain built in leniencies (Chinuch 347.)
However, this may also involve a more nuanced idea about how to relate to the commandments and individual experiences. One might argue that since Tavi was an exception, and would make good use of his freedom to accomplish mitzvos, Rabban Gamliel did not feel it was improper to be happy about his freedom. This is not considered disrespectful as Rabban Gamliel supported the ethos of the commandment; he just didn’t believe it applied to Tavi. He could not use such reasoning to deliberately usurp the law, but if somehow Tavi becomes free, it can be seen as a good thing. If this idea is correct, it gives us another reason to speculate about reasons for the commandments. The Gemara Sanhedrin (21a) records a dispute between Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Yehuda, whether the apparent reason for a commandment can influence the application of the halakha; and we rule in accordance with Rabbi Yehuda, that presumed reasons do not influence the halakha. But, even according to Rabbi Yehuda, it might still affect how you are supposed to feel when you are unable to fulfill the commandment.
This raises another question: Why is this not considered heretical to believe that a divine and perfect Torah does not apply to all situations. The Rambam provides us a framework and answer. He says Torah is com[pared to other matters in nature, which can be generally good and reflect divine wisdom, but in specific situations, be quite the opposite. For example, we can all agree that “Gravity” is a vital force in the world, and praise God for his wondrous works. At the same time, none of us would be pleased about gravity when falling from a balcony.
In the Guide for the Perplexed (III:34), Rambam explains that the commandments are generally for one of three purposes: To promote physical health, spiritual health, or the smooth running of society. But just as the general welfare and survival is provided by natural processes, yet individuals may have diseases or defects that nature does not protect them from, so too the Torah is designed to help the majority. There may be times, or individuals, that suffer and are hurt by a particular Torah requirement. Caution is required here in understanding Rambam’s idea. He is not advocating that an individual customize his Torah obligations even if he could verify with absolute certainty that this aspect of the Torah holds him back from experiencing “shleimus”. This person must still follow the laws. This is similar to civil law: One is not exempt from obeying the law that is designed to promote the greatest good and common welfare, even if he can offer a strong argument why it does not promote his personal welfare. The Torah is still a legal system aside from a spiritual system. So even though Rambam states firmly that it is indeed possible for a Torah requirement to be in some way unhelpful and even destructive to an individual at a certain point in time or in life, the legal obligations remain unchanged. (For more discussion about the Torah as both a legal system and religious system, see our Blogpost Psychology of the Daf, Bava Kama 71 https://nefesh.org/SimchaFeuerman/punishment-or-consequence-bava-kamma–psychology-of-the-daf-yomi.html )
Rabban Gamliel had no problem with feeling that the Torah law preventing him from freeing his slave was not good for Tavi, as he may have held like the Rambam. The Rambam holds that there is no guarantee that a Torah rule that is generally positive has to be good for every individual at every time. This does not lessen the requirement to obey, but if circumstances caused an objection, it does not require any regrets.
Our Gemara on Amud Aleph discusses the legal principle of when confessing mitigates financial penalties:
אִיתְּמַר: מוֹדֶה בִּקְנָס, וְאַחַר כָּךְ בָּאוּ עֵדִים – רַב אָמַר: פָּטוּר, וּשְׁמוּאֵל אָמַר: חַיָּיב.
It was stated with regard to one who admits that he is liable to pay a fine, and afterward witnesses come and testify to his liability, that Rav says he is exempt, and Shmuel says he is liable. Even according to Rav, his admission must obligate him in some fashion for it to exempt him. The Gemara describes a scenario where his admission is moot, so it also does not exempt him from a fine should witnesses later come forward:
If he says: I did not steal anything, and witnesses came and testified that he did steal an animal, and subsequently the thief says: Yes, I did steal the animal, and I also slaughtered it, or I also sold it, and witnesses came and testified that he slaughtered or sold it, he is liable to pay the fourfold or fivefold payment. The reason he is liable is that through his admission he sought to exempt himself from any payment whatsoever. In order for an admission to exempt the perpetrator from a fine, it must include an admission that leads to liability to make some payment.
Sefer Daf al Daf quotes Sefer Ya’alas Chen (Vayikra 16:29-30) asks on the following verses which describe Yom Kippur:
וְהָיְתָ֥ה לָכֶ֖ם לְחֻקַּ֣ת עוֹלָ֑ם בַּחֹ֣דֶשׁ הַ֠שְּׁבִיעִ֠י בֶּֽעָשׂ֨וֹר לַחֹ֜דֶשׁ תְּעַנּ֣וּ אֶת־נַפְשֹֽׁתֵיכֶ֗ם וְכׇל־מְלָאכָה֙ לֹ֣א תַעֲשׂ֔וּ הָֽאֶזְרָ֔ח וְהַגֵּ֖ר הַגָּ֥ר בְּתוֹכְכֶֽם׃
And this shall be to you a law for all time: In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall afflict yourselves (by fasting); and you shall do no manner of work, neither the citizen nor the alien who resides among you.
כי ביום הזה יכפר עליכם לטהר אתכם מכל חטאתיכם
For on this day you shall be forgiven to purify you from all your sins
The verses seem to say, “You should fast because on this day you will be forgiven and purified.” But if forgiveness was so sure in coming, the day should be a celebration, as we found in regard to Solomon upon completing the Temple. The Gemara Shabbos (30a) tells us that the Jews did not fast that Yom Kippur, as they received clear indications that they were already forgiven.
Of course if we read the verse less literally, then it is saying, “You should fast because on this day IN ORDER for you to be forgiven and purified.” However, Ya’alas Chen uses our Gemara to explain the verse literally. The function of confession and repentance on Yom Kippur is to forestall punishment, just as confessing in the earthly court prevents additional fines. Yet, since we saw that the admission must involve some liability for payment in order for it to be a valid admission, our confessions on Yom Kippur would not be valid either without a form of “payment”. This is the function of fasting and affliction. Now we can read the verse literally, “Since you are paying out and admitting, you will be forgiven and not held liable for additional punishments.”
In life, sometimes forgiveness cannot be achieved by admission alone. There are times when you have to pay up in some way, and then ask forgiveness. In human relationships too, some betrayals and transgressions may not be forgiven with sincere apologies alone but may need a personal sacrifice beyond the mere admission of guilt.
Old Fights, Are They Water Under the Bridge?
Our Gemara on Amud discusses the concept that certain actions that are pending, can be considered in a legal sense, as if already performed.
Rabbi Shimon holds that any blood that is ready to be sprinkled is considered as though it had already been sprinkled, and likewise, any animal that is ready to be redeemed is considered as if it had already been redeemed.
The idea that potential becomes actual is a symbolic spiritual notion. The Shalah (Vavey Ha’amudim 27:2) uses this concept to explain the verse about the waters at the time of creation (Bereishis 1:9):
God said, “Let the water below the sky be gathered into one area, that the dry land may appear.” And it was so.
Why does the verse describe the water as a gathering “into one area“? Why not simply say, “The waters shall gather as one?” Shalah says this implies that the waters actually did not fully and completely become one, because in potential, they needed to be ready to have a grand splitting, upending the programming of nature at the Red Sea. The fact that potentially the waters would split so dramatically in the future, baked-in a lack of unity even at the first moments of creation.
Union of water also represents marriage, as seen in the Gemara Sotah (2a): Hashem makes the matches between Man and Woman, and it is as difficult (or as great a miracle) as the splitting of the Red Sea. Maharal explains this further: It takes equal force to accomplish opposites. Just as the waters of the sea were naturally joined, and it took such a supernatural miracle to separate them, so too a marriage between two people is equally miraculous. People naturally resist giving themselves over fully to another, and therefore, the miracle of a marital union takes the same force to combine that which normally is separate.
The Maharal’s idea that the water of the sea is naturally connected, seems to be saying the opposite of the Shalah. The Shalah says the world’s water was never fully connected at creation, because in potential they would ultimately be separated, while Maharal says they had a natural draw to be connected to each other. In truth, there is no contradiction, because water does naturally stay together as Maharal says, and God may need to have programmed a certain potentiality for it to separate, in order for that miracle to occur at the Red Sea.
I will add, in another way both are true. Water has an interesting quality that when you separate it into drops, each drop appears self-contained and complete, as if it never was joined. The reverse is also true. If you take two drops of water and join them together, they will look seamless and complete as if they always were together. These two opposite potentialities exist in human relationships and marriage. It is a miracle to get together, but if you do it right, you remain in a powerful way, as you always were meant to be.
One final point. Just as the potential for separation remained inside the water from the very beginning, affecting its ability to separate millennia later at the Red Sea, perhaps certain marriages have fault lines that hold back achieving full connection. If these fault lines are not addressed, they continue to recur over and over again in different fights that are really the same fight. The potential for separation causes separation – even when there is a moment of connection. Some matters must be dealt with at their root. Yet, when they are properly healed, the connection is so strong, it looks as if it always was this way.