Simcha Feuerman
Psychology, Torah and the Daf Yomi

Hitting Bottom, The Illusion of Control and More Bava Metzia 61-64


Hitting Bottom

Our Gemara on Amud Beis discusses textual and theological parallels between the prohibition of charging interest, the commandment of wearing Tzitzis and maintaining honest weights and measures in commerce.

Rava says: Why do I need the mention of the exodus from Egypt that the Merciful One wrote in the context of the halachos of the prohibition against interest (see Leviticus 25:37–38), and the mention of the exodus from Egypt with regard to the mitzvah to wear Tzitzis (see Numbers 15:39–41), and the mention of the exodus from Egypt in the context of the prohibition concerning weights? Rava explains: The Holy One, Blessed be He, said: I am He Who distinguished in Egypt between the drop of seed that became a firstborn and the drop of seed that did not become a firstborn, and I killed only the firstborn. I am also He Who is destined to exact punishment from one who attributes ownership of his money to a gentile and thereby lends it to a Jew with interest. Even if he is successful in deceiving the court, God knows the truth. And I am also He Who is destined to exact punishment from one who buries his weights in salt, as this changes their weight in a manner not visible to the eye. And I am also He Who is destined to exact punishment from one who hangs ritual fringes dyed with indigo [kala ilan] dye on his garment and says it is dyed with the sky-blue dye required in ritual fringes. The allusion to God’s ability to distinguish between two apparently like entities is why the exodus is mentioned in all of these contexts.

Mei Hashiloach (II:Shemos, Yisro, 12) develops the idea of the Exodus and God’s ability to pierce falsehood and self-delusion implied in the above passage. Scrupulous honesty in a financial affairs, especially when tempted otherwise, often indicates a deep faith in God as the source of success, not human strength or cunning. The Egyptian slavery and exile represented the hubris of human technology and achievement, believing in mastery over all the forces (whether through magic, technology or both.) The cries of the Jews in the depth of their slavery was a moment where they “hit bottom” realizing that only God could save them. At that darkest moment, they were able to see the illusory nature of the material world, priming them to comprehend the truths of the Torah.

Shemos (2:23)

And after a long time after that, the king of Egypt died. The Israelites were groaning under the bondage and cried out; and their cry for help from the bondage rose up to God.

Ramban (ibid) notes that their cries intensified after the king died and a new ruler continued to subjugate them. Usually people hope for a positive change with a new regime, when the relief did not materialize they were brokenhearted. However, that was the moment when they had nowhere to turn but inward into their souls, and seek out God.

Though we do not ask for suffering, it has the potential to force us to reevaluate our priorities and beliefs in ways that we are unlikely to otherwise do. When you have nowhere to turn, you cannot afford the luxury of betting on the wrong horse. That is when what we really believe and what we have deep in our intuition comes out, which often is a humble and desperate appeal to God whose power is beyond the rational and physical world.


A Life Worth Living

Our Gemara on Amud aleph discusses the famous moral dilemma of a circumstance where you must choose between another person’s survival or your own survival, such as you are in the desert with another person, and only have enough water for one person to survive.

Ben Petora taught: It is preferable that both of them drink and die, and let neither one of them see the death of the other. Until Rabbi Akiva came and taught that the verse states: “And your brother shall live with you,” indicating that your life takes precedence over the life of the other. (The emphasis is on “with you”, so you come first.)

It is difficult to understand Ben Petora’s rationale, given that it is a general principle that the commandments of the Torah do not require martyrdom (Yoma 85b). And even though one must martyr himself instead of committing the fundamental sins of murder, idolatry and sexual immorality (ibid 82b), that is only via action, but through inaction. One cannot be compelled into martyr hood if his inaction would result in a violation of these three sins. This is because the rationale given by the Gemara is, “who is to say your blood is redder than your friend’s blood?”, and the other two sins are scripturally linked. Therefore, it is only logically valid to stop one from taking action, such as a scenario when by threat of death one is ordered to kill another. But if by being passive, another will die instead of him, his own life should take precedence (see Tosafos “Mah Rotzeach”, ibid 82a.) What then was Ben Petora’s reasoning?

The Chazon Ish (YD 69) explains that there is a well known principle that temporary life is also sacred, thus one must violate the Shabbos even to prolong the life of someone who is terminally ill (Yoma 85a). Ben Petora’s argument is that you both must drink now, to stay alive now. The future is indeterminate and not relevant.

I will add another explanation for Ben Petora’s position, albeit poetic and derush. Ben Petora uses an interesting phrase: “let neither one of them see the death of the other.” This extra point seems superfluous. I believe Ben Petora is adding an additional justification. The idea of surviving while watching his friend die is simply too painful and horrible to think of, that the Torah cannot expect a person to make such a painful decision. This would be similar to various rabbinic arguments that certain otherwise possible interpretations of law cannot be accepted because it is counter intuitive that the Torah would obligate something that runs against the ways of “pleasantness and peace”, see for example Succah 32a-b, and Yevamos 87b.)


The Illusion of Control

Our Gemara on Amud Beis conceptualizes the prohibition of charging interest as any financial compensation that is an incentive for the lender to delay payment of his debt. In essence, time is money, and the charging of interest is an enactment of the value that having access to money at one time over another brings profit. Assuming that the rate of interest is not exploitative, the Torah asks us to run against a normal instinct to manage money wisely and be extraordinarily charitable and trusting in God’s providence by forgoing access to funds that could be invested.

Mei Hashiloach (I:Vayikra, Behar 2) notes that the scripture juxtaposes three mitzvos in Vayikra (ch. 25): Shemittah (not working or profiting from the land during the seventh year), the freeing of slaves in the Yovel year, and the prohibition of taking interest. Shemitta represents a loss of control over the land, as once every seven years it is essentially ownerless. The freeing of the slaves during the Yovel year reminds us that we cannot really own another person. And the prohibition against charging interest teaches us that we do not even own time itself. (Though one can own a canaanite slave, the expression of non-ownership of a person is exemplified in the Halacha of a Jewish slave. This is just like how one may charge interest from a gentile, but still the legal requirement of non-usury from a Jew, teaches the concept of non-ownership in principle. A mitzvah might teach its lesson in an emblematic manner, but not require it broadly.)

All three of these laws are the Torah’s message to free ourselves from our conception of control, and particularly control over the spheres of time, our land and our bodies, which are very human habitual delusions.


Profiting from the Prophets

Our Gemara on Amud Aleph uses the Hebrew word “Sachar” to describe the potential and likelihood for profit versus loss that one can achieve in a business venture. If he is a silent partner with another by contributing the funds and the other contributes the business efforts, whether it is categorized as charging interest via the profit or merely being in a partnership depends on many factors, including that there is equal or greater likelihood of sharing loss as well as profit. In standard interest charging, the lender receives the payment no matter the investment outcome.

In any case, we see that linguistically the word “sachar” means profit or gain. The Akeidas Yitschok (44) uses this semantic idea to argue with the Rambam on a key theological issue. The Mishna Avos (1:3) warns:

“Do not be like servants who serve the master in the expectation of receiving a “peras”, but be like servants who serve the master without the expectation of receiving a reward.

Rambam translates “peras” as a bonus that one gives to a servant, or even a child, whom there is no obligation to give payment. In essence, a tip. He says this is in contradistinction to “sachar”, which is payment or wages, which a person deserves. According to the Rambam, the Mishna is requiring an even higher degree of devotion to God. Not only should one not feel he deserves a reward from God as payment, but also not even look forward to a bonus. We are to be such dedicated servants of God that we perform His will out of gratitude, love and loyalty.

Akeidas Yitschok translates these two words differently. “Peras” means a payment for some equivalent transfer of value or work, but “Sachar” means profit or gain as in our Gemara (which he quotes.)

There are several usages of the word “sachar” in rabbinic literature that connote a benefit for mitzvos, but the question is, do we translate them as “payment” or “profit”? There are theological implications to these translations. For example, the Gemara and Mishna speaks of “Schar Mitzvah” (Kiddushin 39, Avodah Zarah 3a, and Avos 2:1.) What if this “Schar Mitzvah”? Is it reward? We could say that, though it is a little difficult to understand why we discuss reward for mitzvos as a concept, when one isn’t supposed to perform with the expectation of compensation. We could answer the same answers we were told in third grade, which is, you aren’t supposed to expect reward, but nonetheless there will be a reward. This is, of course, one of the Rambam’s Thirteen Principles of Faith. Yet, there is still something odd about so much bandwidth devoted toward discussion of a reward that you aren’t supposed to be motivated by.

The Akeidas Yitschok adds another dimension to this by using his translation of these two phrases, which we saw are different than the Rambam. Pirke Avos is warning us not to perform mitzvos expecting compensation or payment, but the teachings that use the term “Schar Mitzvah” mean profit or gain from mitzvah, much as one profits from an investment. The Akeidas Yitschok explains that mitzvos bring personal and societal benefits, and this is “Schar Mitzvah”. Furthermore, such benefit is not forbidden by Mishna Avos to serve as a motivator, as it is not a cheapening of the relationship with God not lack of devotion. To the contrary, by recognizing that mitzvos have many positive effects that come automatically, it is high praise.

About the Author
Rabbi, Psychotherapist with 30 years experience specializing in high conflict couples and families.
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