Rabbi Mordechai Torczyner
Rosh Kollel Yeshiva University – Torah MiTzion Beit Midrash Zichron Dov Toronto
Beauty and the Reformed Beast
A man who was on trial for shooting an endangered bald eagle told the judge he could explain: He would not have done it, but his children hadn’t eaten a decent meal in weeks, and so he had killed the bald eagle to feed them. He swore he would never do it again, and the judge gave him the minimum penalty. As the man was leaving the courtroom, the judge asked, “Well, what does a bald eagle taste like?” The man answered: “Something like a cross between a California Condor and an Ivory-Billed Woodpecker.”
The dodo is gone, the sabre-toothed tiger has disappeared – and, according to our parshah, we might soon see many more species go extinct. Hashem pledges that when we follow the Torah, we will be rewarded with peace and plenty in Israel, and “I will eradicate harmful beasts from the land (Vayikra 26:6).” But what will Hashem do with all of those animals?
In a midrash (Sifra Bechukotai 1:2), Rabbi Yehudah says Hashem will remove them from the world. Rabbi Shimon, on the other hand, says Hashem will simply prevent them from causing harm.
This debate is relevant to more than the fate of the sabre-toothed tiger; the two visions, eradication of evil and conversion of evil to good, describe two distinct eschatological views regarding how evil will be brought to an end. Rabbi Yehudah sees the Messianic era as a time when agents of destruction are themselves annihilated. Rabbi Shimon, on the other hand, anticipates that those agents of destruction will be reformed.
Taking this debate one step further, we may see here two views of the character of Gd’s Creations, whether animal or human being. Rabbi Yehudah’s vision of Annihilation declares that Good is not inevitable; the window for repentance is a privilege, which may be closed. Rabbi Shimon’s vision of Reformation promises that a remnant of Good endures within every being, and we will ultimately return to Divine favor.
Our society opts for the optimistic view of Rabbi Shimon. Like Beruriah arguing that we should pray for the wicked to repent rather than to disappear (Berachot 10a), like the Rambam requiring our community to work with even the most recalcitrant students to bring them to the point where they are suited to learn Torah (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Talmud Torah 4:1), we believe in that ultimate good. We invite back relatives and guests who don’t know how to share control of a conversation, and we try to sensitize them to polite society. We associate even with people who are insensitive in their language, and hope to help them become more careful. Unless we would be placed in personal danger, we offer children, spouses, siblings, second chances. Where personal safety is not in question, we side with Rabbi Shimon and believe that no person is irredeemable.
When assessing ourselves, we also opt for Rabbi Shimon’s optimism. Rather than write off the beast within ourselves as evil, a la Rabbi Yehudah, we take the view of Rabbi Shimon and rob the beast of its fangs by turning our bestial traits in a positive direction. Lazy people can use their laziness to procrastinate sinning. Hyper-critical people can use this trait to identify their own flaws and learn from the weaknesses of others. People who are frugal can use that economy to avoid self-indulgence. Rabbi Shimon’s approach of reforming the bad can help us salvage more than personal ego, it can help us act on the positive potential implanted within us.
Our parshah follows up its dramatic tochachah warning of punishment with a dry technical discussion about erech. Erech is a personal price, a shekel sum assigned to every human being; one might choose to donate his or someone else’s erech-value to the Beit HaMikdash. The sum is based solely on age and gender, not righteousness or wealth or family or wisdom or skills.
Don Isaac Abarbanel explained the Torah’s transition from the graphic tochachah threat to the dry laws of erech: After all of those dire predictions of punishment, we might come to question ourselves, our legitimacy in the covenant with Hashem, and our value as human beings and Jews. To this the Torah responds: everybody has an erech, everybody has a value.
Perhaps, one day, Hashem will take the route of Rabbi Yehudah and eliminate the animal and the animalistic, but we, within our own capacities and our own time, can apply Rabbi Shimon’s idea. We can recognize the good and use it to turn the animal – in our neighbors, in our relatives, and in ourselves – to the best.