Redeeming the Impure
Our Gemara on Amud Aleph discusses the susceptibility of a Red Heifer to become impure (something that only applies to a food item that at least at one time was ready for consumption and can be consumed.) This is because the Red Heifer could be potentially redeemed, and then eaten. Therefore, even if it is highly unlikely to actually be redeemed, it still has the legal status of an edible food item because of the potential to do so.
Gemara Moed Kattan (28a) notes:
אָמַר רַבִּי אַמֵּי: לָמָּה נִסְמְכָה מִיתַת מִרְיָם לְפָרָשַׁת פָּרָה אֲדוּמָּה? לוֹמַר לָךְ: מָה פָּרָה אֲדוּמָּה מְכַפֶּרֶת — אַף מִיתָתָן שֶׁל צַדִּיקִים מְכַפֶּרֶת.
Rabbi Ami said: Why was the Torah portion that describes the death of Miriam juxtaposed to the portion dealing with the red heifer? To tell you: Just as the red heifer atones for sin, so too, the death of the righteous atones for sin.
The Ateres Yeshua (Chukas) sees symbolic meaning in the halachos described in our Gemara that relate to the idea of a tzaddik in this world. (I am adapting his thoughts and expressing them differently to make certain points. For his original ideas on this, please check out the primary source.) The Tzaddik exists in this world similar to the Red Heifer. We know the Red Heifer had an unusual quality of purifying the impure, but rendering the pure impure (Yoma 14a). Ateres Yeshua says this is similar to the mission of the Tzaddik, who must enter into the physical world and elevate it. He first enters the realm of the impure, becomes involved In physicality, but then elevates it. This is metaphorically represented in the halacha that the Red Heifer is considered food because of its potential to be redeemed. The physical in this world (food) can be considered true spiritual sustenance because it has the potential to be elevated.
Lest you think this is some arcane chassidic philosophy, we find the exact sentiment expressed in the final chapter of Mesilas Yesharim.
וְהִנֵּה הָאִישׁ הַמִּתְקַדֵּשׁ בִּקְדֻשַּׁת בּוֹרְאוֹ אֲפִלּוּ מַעֲשָׂיו הַגַּשְׁמִיִּים חוֹזְרִים לִהְיוֹת עִנְיָנֵי קְדֻשָּׁה מַמָּשׁ, וְסִימָנָךְ אֲכִילַת קָדָשִׁים שֶׁהִיא עַצְמָהּ מִצְוַת עֲשֵׂה, וְאָמְרוּ זַ”ל (פסחים נט ב): כֹּהֲנִים אוֹכְלִים וּבְעָלִים מִתְכַּפְּרִים.
Behold, for the man sanctified with the holiness of his Creator, even his physical deeds become actual matters of holiness. A sign of this is in “the eating of temple offerings”, which our sages of blessed memory said: “the priests eat and the owners obtain atonement” (Pesachim 59b).
וְאָמְנָם לְפִי שֶׁאִי אֶפְשָׁר לָאָדָם שֶׁיָּשִׂים הוּא אֶת עַצְמוֹ בַּמַּצָּב הַזֶּה כִּי כָבֵד הוּא מִמֶּנּוּ, כִּי סוֹף סוֹף חָמְרוֹ הוּא בָּשָׂר וָדָם, עַל כֵּן אָמַרְתִּי שֶׁסּוֹף הַקְּדֻשָּׁה מַתָּנָה, כִּי מָה שֶׁיּוּכַל הָאָדָם לַעֲשׂוֹת הוּא הַהִשְׁתַּדְּלוּת בִּרְדִיפַת הַיְּדִיעָה הָאֲמִתִּית וְהַתְמָדַת הַהַשְׂכָּלָה בִּקְדֻשַּׁת הַמַּעֲשֶׂה
However, it is impossible for a man to place himself in such a state. For it is beyond his ability. He is after all a physical creature, of flesh and blood. Thus I said that the end of Holiness is a gift. For that which is in man’s ability to do is the initial exertion, pursuing true knowledge and continual thought on the sanctification of deed.
וְהִנֵּה אִישׁ כָּזֶה הוּא עַצְמוֹ נֶחְשָׁב כַּמִּשְׁכָּן, כַּמִּקְדָּשׁ, וְכַמִּזְבֵּחַ, וּכְמַאֲמָרָם זִכְרוֹנָם לִבְרָכָה (בראשית רבה מז:ח): וַיַּעַל מֵעָלָיו אֱלֹהִים (בראשית לה:יג), הָאָבוֹת הֵן הֵן הַמֶּרְכָּבָה, וְכֵן אָמְרוּ (רש”י בראשית לה:יג): הַצַּדִּיקִים הֵן הֵן הַמֶּרְכָּבָה.
Such a man is himself considered as a tabernacle, a temple and an altar. This is as our sages said (Gen. Rabba 62:6): “‘and G-d went up from him’ (Gen.35:13) – the forefathers are the divine chariot”. Likewise, they said: “the righteous are the divine chariot”.
כִּי הַשְּׁכִינָה שׁוֹרָה עֲלֵיהֶם כְּמוֹ שֶׁהָיְתָה שׁוֹרָה בַּמִּקְדָּשׁ. וּמֵעַתָּה הַמַּאֲכָל שֶׁהֵם אוֹכְלִים הוּא כְּקָרְבָּן שֶׁעוֹלֶה עַל גַּבֵּי הָאִשִּׁים, כִּי וַדַּאי הוּא שֶׁיִּהְיֶה נֶחְשָׁב לְעִלּוּי גָּדוֹל אֶל אוֹתָם הַדְּבָרִים שֶׁהָיוּ עוֹלִים עַל גַּבֵּי הַמִּזְבֵּחַ כֵּיוָן שֶׁהָיוּ נִקְרָבִים לִפְנֵי הַשְּׁכִינָה.
For the Shechina (divine presence) dwells within them just as it dwelled in the Temple. Due to this, the food they eat is like a sacrifice offered upon the fire of the altar, for certainly it was a great elevation for those things to be offered on the altar, since they were offered before the Shechina.
וְכָל כָּךְ יִתְרוֹן הָיָה לָהֶם בָּזֶה, עַד שֶׁהָיָה כָּל מִינָם מִתְבָּרֵךְ בְּכָל הָעוֹלָם, וּכְמַאֲמָרָם זַ”ל בַּמִּדְרָשׁ, כֵּן הַמַּאֲכָל וְהַמִּשְׁתֶּה שֶׁהָאִישׁ הַקָּדוֹשׁ אוֹכֵל, עִלּוּי הוּא לַמַּאֲכָל הַהוּא וְלַמִּשְׁתֶּה הַהוּא, וּכְאִלּוּ נִקְרָב עַל גַּבֵּי הַמִּזְבֵּחַ מַמָּשׁ. וְהוּא הָעִנְיָן שֶׁאָמְרוּ עָלָיו זַ”ל (כתובות ק”ה ב): כָּל הַמֵּבִיא דּוֹרוֹן לְתַלְמִיד חָכָם כְּאִלּוּ הִקְרִיב בִּכּוּרִים. וְכֵן אָמְרוּ (יומא עא א): יְמַלֵּא גְּרוֹנָם שֶׁל תַּלְמִידֵי חֲכָמִים יַיִן בִּמְקוֹם נְסָכִים.
The elevation was to such an extent that its kind, all over the world, was blessed, as our sages stated in a Midrash. So too, the food and drink which the holy man eats elevates that food or drink as if it had actually been offered on the altar. This is similar to what our sages, of blessed memory, said: “one who brings a gift to a Torah scholar is as if he had offered first-fruits (Bikurim)” (Ketuvot 105b), and “[if a man wishes to offer a wine libation upon the altar], let him fill the throat of the Torah scholars with wine” (Yomah 71a).
At the time that Ramchal wrote Mesilas Yesharim, he was under a Herem to no longer write Kabbalistic works (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moshe_Chaim_Luzzatto ).
Out of what must have been incredible internal pressures, and even dare I say, frustration, arose one if the greatest human written achievements of all time. Like a diamond, Mesilas Yesharim was formed under intense forces and pressure. Without saying one word of Kabbalah, he wrote a classic of ethics that must have hidden kabbalistic undertones. This comes clear in the final chapter where he described the role of the Tzaddik in elevating the material world (only after first having totally mastered ascetics.)
As a final point, this discussion takes place on what is one of the shortest dappim in Shas, and the Ramchal himself lived for less than 40 years. The Tzaddik, a living Parah Adumah, embraces the opposites. He takes the physical and makes it spiritual. He may have a short life, but is most alive. He can be forbidden from expressing kabbalah openly, but writes one of the greatest religious tracts of all time. Paradox inside paradox.
The Real Hiddur Mitzvah
Our Gemara on Amud Beis discusses a case where a person pledges an ox for an Olah sacrifice, uses language “it is incumbent upon me” which obligates him to replace the ox if it is damaged or stolen. If someone stole this ox, what liabilities would the thief incur to reimburse the owner ? On the one hand, since the owner dedicated an ox, and is responsible to bring it no matter what, the thief should reimburse him with a similar quality ox, or the equivalent value. On the other hand, since the owner has a technical requirement, to fulfill his pledge to bring an Olah sacrifice, perhaps the thief need only give the owner the minimum replacement, such as a lamb?
מַאי? מִי אָמְרִינַן: שֵׁם עוֹלָה קַבֵּיל עִילָּוֵיהּ; אוֹ דִלְמָא, מָצֵי אֲמַר לֵיהּ: אֲנָא מִצְוָה מִן הַמּוּבְחָר בָּעֵינָא לְמֶיעְבַּד?
Rava elaborates: What is the halakha in this case? Do we say that he accepted upon himself to sacrifice an animal with the status of a burnt-offering, in which case any animal that fulfills this requirement will suffice? If so, the thief may compensate the owner with a sheep or bird, as the owner can sacrifice that animal as a burnt-offering. Or perhaps the owner can say to the thief: I want to perform the mitzva in the optimal manner, which is by sacrificing a bull. Therefore, you must pay me back with a bull.
Subsequently, Rava ruled on the lenient side.
Based on this, poskim discuss a modern day application of this principle. What if somebody bought an extremely expensive mehudar Esrog, and then it was stolen on Succos. Would the thief have to pay or supply him with an Esrog of the same quality, or would any kosher Esrog be sufficient?
Shu”t Maharam Mintz (113) compares this case to our Gemara and therefore rules that any kosher Esrog would be sufficient. Shu”t Chacham Tzvi (120) argues that this situation is different, as the Esrog also has a market resale value, unlike the already dedicated sacrifice, and so the market value of the Esrog must be paid.
Regardless, the Chacham Tzvi is only ruling differently based on the technical value of the Esrog. Therefore, if the theft was on day 7 of Succos, even though the owner would have still wanted his $500 Esrog, the thief would only have to pay him the market value which would be rather low, or supply him with a marginal Esrog.
This teaches an important lesson. The personal value of the mitzvah is in the sacrifice and dedication shown. One way this dedication is shown is via purchasing the highest quality Esrog, but the mitzvah is still the same mitzvah. You can argue, since the owner’s intentions and sacrifice were enacted, it’s of less importance what Esrog he actually uses. However, it might not feel the same. Ego can interfere in a mitzvah when one invests so much.
There is a famous SY Agnon story about a man who bought a mehudar expensive Esrog. Upon noticing his neighbor’s child forlorn because she accidentally dropped her father’s Esrog, and fearful that he would be angry, the man replaced her Esrog with his. In a similar Chassidic story, a poor man sells all his possessions in order to purchase a prize Esrog. In one version of the story, the wife merely accidentally drops the Esrog, and in another version of the story, finding out that he “squandered” his money, she angrily throws the Esrog on the floor, and in both cases, the Esrog becomes invalidated from the damage of the fall. Instead of losing his temper, the rabbi calmly accepts his fate. He says, “I lost my Esrog, should I also lose my share in the world to come (by losing his temper and humiliating his wife?)”
Crime and Punishment
Our Gemara on Amud Beis discusses why the Gazlan (brazen robber) only pays the principal, while a Ganav (stealthy burglar) pays double as a fine. The Gazlan simply does not care about anything or is motivated by some drive that is beyond any shame. However, the Ganav obviously feels some shame as he steals under cover. This man is more fearful of people than God, and therefore is punished more harshly. Rabban Gamliel adds a parable to explain this further:
To what is this matter comparable? To two people who were living in the same city, and both of them prepared a feast. One of them invited the people of the city to his feast but he did not invite the king’s sons. And the other did not invite the people of the city and also did not invite the king’s sons. Which of them deserves a greater punishment? You must say that it is this one who invited the people of the city but did not invite the king’s sons. Likewise, both the Ganav and the Gazlan show disdain for God, but the Gazlan does not display more respect for people.
Ben Yehoyada asks how does Rabban Gamliel’s mashal add insight? Noticing the use of the term “King’s sons” in the parable he explains that Rabban Gamliel is addressing those who believe that God is too lofty to look down upon the world, and leaves it to His underlings, i.e. the forces of nature or spirits that idolaters worship. Even if someone had such an incorrect notion, acting as a Ganav is still disrespectful to God, because he is attempting to hide from God’s emissaries. This is what is meant by the King’s sons in the parable.
Ben Yehoyada’s explanation works for someone who has a distorted theology but at least holds himself accountable to some higher powers. What about the complete atheist who behaves as a Ganav? He is not hiding from Man more than God, he just doesn’t even believe in God. While parables that explain mitzvos do not have to work perfectly for every situation, I believe we can still understand how the parable might apply to the atheist Ganav. A sense of shame and morality is not necessarily dependent on belief in God, although certainly enhanced by it. Thus, the Ganav who shows some sense of shame, should also have been motivated by his shame to refrain from this action altogether. Therefore he is punished harshly. On the other hand, the Gazlan is obviously compelled by internal forces that show no regard for anything. Whatever his issue is, extra punishments will not have much effect.
Hashem is merciful and does not punish if there is no value in it. This is something to think about when parents or teachers discipline children. Some children need the discipline and punishment to learn a lesson. However, other children may have challenges and internal pressures that will not be mitigated by harsh punishments. How can you tell what is appropriate? If the child behaves in a way that is so self destructive that the punishment seems to have no deterrent effect, In such a case, it probably is because the child is battling with forces that will not easily be subdued. The child certainly needs discipline of a sort, but not punishment. It is notable that the actual etymology of the word discipline is to teach or instruct, not punish. It is not good to throw punishments on someone who lacks the self control or cognition to manage his behavior even if there will be consequences.
Talmudic Panic Attacks
Our Gemara on Amud Aleph discusses the plight of a pious person who suffered pain in his heart. He was recommended a treatment of fresh goat’s milk suckled directly from the goat, which involved a violation of rabbinic law of keeping cattle in Eretz Yisrael. His colleagues criticized him for this transgression.
Maharsha asks, why should he be held liable as this was apparently a serious medical condition? He answers, perhaps this was a condition that was not life-threatening and he should have refrained.
It is hard to imagine one could have pain in the heart and it would not entail danger. Yet there is such a modern affliction known as a panic attack. A panic attack can include symptoms of extreme chest pain and mimic sensations of a heart attack. Perhaps this is what the fellow was experiencing. Interestingly, goats milk seems to raise dopamine levels, which might be helpful in modulating anxiety. (See this study: https://www.mdpi.com/2218-1989/13/4/497 and this study: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26317601/ )
A person may have a random panic attack once or twice in his lifetime, and no treatment is necessary. However, others might have them frequently causing even more fear and panic about them occurring in public or while driving. Some have panic attacks while sleeping, suddenly waking up with intense fear, sweat and shortness of breath.
Treatment for panic attacks can be both via anti anxiety medications such as SSRI’s and various modalities of talk therapy to either address the unconscious fears that are causing the anxiety or to develop coping mechanisms when the attack occurs, such as breathing exercises and acceptance, and to address distorted fears and beliefs. The therapy can involve a form of exposure therapy, gradually re-creating and triggering the symptoms of a panic attack in a safe, repetitive manner, while learning to tolerate them. Once the physical sensations of panic no longer feel threatening, the attacks begin to resolve.
My personal experience and approach involves using cognitive behavioral therapy to bring immediate relief, and then to also consider the life situation and possible reasons that might be triggering these feelings. Medication is a personal choice. Some clients feel medication is stigmatizing or covering up the root cause, which I respect. At the same time, a cost benefit analysis should be made, especially if the talk therapy is not alleviating the symptoms. One can discuss the philosophy of medication and if it really represents avoidance of the issue or it is just a helpful tool, but why philosophize too much when the suffering is strong and not getting better, while the medication can bring relief?