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What You Do Might Come Back to Haunt You  (1 Samuel 11:14-12:22)

In Shmuel’s parting words to the people after having inaugurated Saul as king, he expressed his grave concern for the people’s loyalty to God. He presents the people with a choice: “If you will revere the Lord, worship Him and obey Him, and will not flout the Lord’s command, if both you and the king who rules over you will follow the Lord your God, [well and good]. But if you do not obey the Lord and you flout the Lord’s command, the hand of the Lord will strike you and your fathers (uv’avotecha).” (1 Samuel 12:14-15)

Samuel’s message seems clear. If the nation is loyal, it will be rewarded and if it is disloyal, it will be punished. However, how are we to understand the end of the second verse which seemingly implies that the dead will suffer for the sins of the living? Targum Yonatan, the Jewish Aramaic translation of the Prophets, resolved this problem by reinterpreting the end of the verse to mean “as it did your fathers”, namely that you will be punished for your sins just as your ancestors were for theirs.  [Note that while this “translation” makes sense it veers from the original Hebrew text.] Rabbi David Kimche (12th century Provence), on the other hand, interpreted “fathers” to mean “monarchs” since the “king is like a parent to his subjects”. The verse then, according to Kimche, asserts that when the people sin, its leaders will also bear the consequences.

In the following Talmudic anecdote, Rabbi Yohanan takes an entirely different approach, reading the verse super-literally: “When Rabbi Yohanan was informed that the Persians had come to Babylonia, he reeled and fell [on account of their reputation for persecution] …  They (the Persians) issued three decrees [as a punishment for three transgressions]: They decreed against kosher meat, [which Rabbi Yohanan understood to be] a punishment for neglecting priestly gifts. They decreed against the use of bathhouses, [which Rabbi Yohanan explained as punishment for] neglecting the use of the mikvah. They [the Persians] exhumed the dead [from their graves], [which Rabbi Yohanan explained as punishment for] rejoicing on the idolatrous festivals [of their neighbors which had the potential to abet the loss of their Jewish identities, hence, symbolizing death]; as it is said: “Then shall the hand of the Lord be against you, and against your fathers”, and Rabbah bar Shmuel said that that referred to the exhumation of the dead, for the Master said, ‘For the sins of the living the dead are exhumed’.” (adapted from Yevamot 63b)

This anecdote implies that the world operates according to the rules of poetic justice (midah k’neged midah – measure for measure). It contends that the Persian persecution of the Jews was brought about by the people’s sins. In its last example, the people’s dead ancestors were punished by being exhumed as a result of their children’s participation in acts which would lead to their spiritual death through idolatry and assimilation, namely, the sinful behavior of the people brought punishment not just upon themselves but upon their ancestors as well.

The sages often use the idea of poetic justice as a didactic tool to teach people to weigh the consequences of their actions before they act. His message is as poignant today as it was back then.

About the Author
Mordechai Silverstein is a teacher of Torah who has lived in Jerusalem for over 30 years. He specializes in helping people build personalized Torah study programs.
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