Thursday, May 17, 2012

Shake off the Dust: Big Dreams on Dusty Roads

This week’s parasha, Behar Bachukotai, outlines an ambitious social vision. It is an over-achieving package of legislation whose purpose is to hold up those who fall out of financial grace through a series of communal supports: sabbatical year remission of land, loan cancellation, redeeming of land by relatives and a global return of property to original owners every fifty years at the Jubilee year. It also prohibits interest to poor lenders, basically a commandment to give interest free loans to poorer compatriots:

Now when your brother sinks down in poverty
And his hand falters beside you,
Then shall you strengthen him
As though a sojourner and resident-settler,
And he is to live beside you.
Do not take from him biting-interest or profit,
But hold your God in awe,
So that your brother may live beside you!
(Leviticus 25:35-36)
וְכִי-יָמוּךְ אָחִיךָ
וּמָטָה יָדוֹ עִמָּךְ
וְהֶחֱזַקְתָּ בּוֹ
גֵּר וְתוֹשָׁב 
וָחַי עִמָּךְ.
אַל-תִּקַּח מֵאִתּוֹ נֶשֶׁךְ וְתַרְבִּית
וְיָרֵאתָ מֵאֱלֹהֶיךָ;
וְחֵי אָחִיךָ, עִמָּךְ.
 (ויקרא כה:לה-לו)

This vision is so ambitious, that the rest of the history of halakha describes how subsequent generations ended up rolling back these laws. First the jubilee year was relegated to messianic times, then the Shmitta cancellation of loans was revamped. Finally – in modern times – the prohibition on interest was dispensed for institutions, allowing financial institutions to “halakhically take interest”.
It is the story of what happens when grand visions meet the dusty roads of reality. Depending on who you are talking to, this chapter of Jewish legal history is either the sad tale of how a daring prophetic vision was ground to mincemeat by cynical lawyer-Rabbis seeking to protect their community’s financial interests, or – conversely - the tale of how an ancient, outdated idea was revolutionized by courageous halakhic innovators to streamline Jewish values for a new generation.

On this dramatic backdrop I’d like to discuss a minor Rabbinic text, which discusses how our minor day to day negotiations might be connected to the grander visions. The Tosefta (Avodah Zara 1:3) describes four actions that are not only prohibited in themselves, but that even their “dust” is considered problematic. Two of these four refer to commandments in our parsha: Not only is it prohibited to give a loan with interest, it is also prohibited to sell a loan to someone else. Not only is it prohibited to grow fruits on the sabbatical year, it is also prohibited to purchase fruits from a non-Jewish farmer who is outside the sabbatical system. And thus says the Tosefta:

ארבע אבקות הן:
אבק רבית, אבק שביעית,
אבק עבודת כוכבים, אבק לשון הרע. 
אבק של רבית: לא ישא אדם ויתן בהלואתו של חברו מפני אבק רבית. 
אבק שביעית: לא ישא אדם ויתן עם העובד כוכבים בפירות מפני אבק שביעית. 
אבק עבודת כוכבים: לא ישא אדם ויתן עם העובד כוכבים ביום אידו מפני אבק עבודת כוכבים. 
אבק לשון הרע: לא ישא אדם ויתן בטובתו של חברו מפני אבק לשון הרע.

There are four “dusts”:
the dust of interest,
the dust of Shmita (the sabbatical year)
the dust of idolatry
and the dust of the evil tongue (gossip).

The dust of interest – one should not converse/negotiate in the loan of their friend, because of the “dust of interest”. […]
The dust of gossip – one should not converse in the good aspects of one’s fellow – because of the dust of the evil tongue.

What ties these four acts together? I’d suggest that the willingness to let go of profit (ban on interest), to relinquish one’s grasp on your property (sabbatical year), the push back against social pressures (idolatry) and the creation of an ethic of daily speech (gossip) – are the most far-reaching agendas of the Torah. And it is precisely in such far-reaching visions that one must avoid not only the act itself, but even the almost invisible auxiliary aspects of them: their dust.
The Tosefta wants of us to be so committed to this vision, that even the dust of the act is repugnant in our eyes. What someone else barely notices, a thin film coating the act – should be enough for us to pull back from it.

This sounds like an almost impossible demand, on the boundary of a zealotry, and obsessive-compulsive concern for the ramifications of our actions that creates hollowed human beings, afraid of acting in the world. The metaphor of dust would be very fitting for such a view: like dust, sin becomes an infinitesimally small, almost invisible particle, whose existence requires of us to back away from the world to a dust-free zone, pending an asthma attack of biblical proportions.
However, I would suggest that the metaphor of dust serves to make the exact opposite statement: that these actions are simultaneously undesirable and yet completely normal.
This “tolerance” towards the dust of life, appears in the mishna, in the following statement:

A person should not enter the Temple Mount with his walking stick, his coat or the dust on his feet. And he shouldn’t make of it a shortcut…
לא יכנס להר הבית במקלו, ובמנעלו, ובפונדתו, ובאבק שעל רגליו, ולא יעשנו קפנדריא  (משנה ברכות ט:ח)

Dust is in itself not an improper part of life – it is what happens when we journey, when we do not “sit in the house of the lord all my days”. We want people to be on journeys from the “holy center” to the pathways of life, and back again. And yet upon entering the holy – to leave the dust at the door.

The Talmud says as much about gossip, when it admits: “the dust of gossip - a person cannot save themselves from doing each day” (Talmud Bavli Yevamot 165a). This statement could be one of the eternal weakness – and therefor damnation – of human kind. But the Talmud is not apologizing here – it is stating a fact: if the Torah is to be given to humans, free agents who are walking the paths of the world, certain conclusions will follow. We are asked to take up a delicate dance: labeling questionable actions as dust on the one hand, while recognizing that the journey of life will necessarily require of us to roll around in that dust from time to time. It is only such an open-eyed perspective that can bring about the big revolutions that the Torah seeks to see in the world.

Rabbi Mishael Zion | Bronfman Fellowships | Behar Bechukotai | Text and the City