Friday, March 13, 2009

Crime and Punishment - A Drashah for Ki Tisa 5769

This past Thursday night, I got my first Israeli traffic ticket. Did I get a ticket for I speeding down the 6 at near sonic speed? Do that all the time, but that wasn’t it. No, I got a ticket for stopping to pick up a hitchhiker. One minute my neighbor from down the block is trying to get into my car, and then next minute he’s slamming the door shut, and I hear a knock on my passenger window. See what happens when you try and do a mitzvah?

Actually, it wasn’t so cut and dry. Yes, I did stop to pick up a tremp – a wonderful act. But I also did so smack in the middle of the road. Apparently, that’s not only illegal. It’s also dangerous.
I begged. I pleaded. I tried the עולה tactic. I spoke in English. Nothing worked. The policewoman was adamant. You’re going to have to pay. לא נורא she kept saying. Just pay the fine and move on.
The sad part is that I’m not sure that I disagree with her. After all, I did stop in the middle of traffic – even for a good reason. I did something rather dangerous; I was lucky someone wasn’t directly behind me. And as much as I wanted her to let me off with a warning, for the past 24 hours, I’ve been a more careful driver. I won’t do that again. I’ll be sure to pull over to the side of the road. And I wonder to myself, had she let me off with a warning, would I be as careful next time? In essence what I’m asking is: was she right? Did she really have to punish me?

This theme of Crime and Punishment occupies my mind precisely as we read about חטא העגל. When the Jewish people build the עגל, we know what they really deserve:
וְעַתָּה הַנִּיחָה לִּי, וְיִחַר-אַפִּי בָהֶם וַאֲכַלֵּם; וְאֶעֱשֶׂה אוֹתְךָ, לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל.
And now leave me and I my anger will grow, and I will destroy them, and I will make you into a great nation.
The punishment the people deserve is total annihilation. It’s over. Yet Moshe, with his quick thinking and passionate pleas saves the people from certain death. He descends down the mountain, deals with the Golden calf, and then returns to God to plead for mercy.
וַיָּשָׁב מֹשֶׁה אֶל-ה', וַיֹּאמַר: אָנָּא, חָטָא הָעָם הַזֶּה חֲטָאָה גְדֹלָה, וַיַּעֲשׂוּ לָהֶם, אֱלֹהֵי זָהָב. וְעַתָּה, אִם-תִּשָּׂא חַטָּאתָם; וְאִם-אַיִן--מְחֵנִי נָא, מִסִּפְרְךָ אֲשֶׁר כָּתָבְתָּ.
Moshe returned to God and he said, Please - this nation has committed a grave sin and they made an god of gold. And now, if you carry their sin -- and if not, erase from the book which You have written.
“Look God,” he tells him. “While they might deserve to be destroyed, I can’t let you do it. In fact, I insist that you forgive them. Because if you don’t, I don’t want to have any part of this entire endeavor. If you cut them out, you cut me out too.”
God’s answer is more subtle and circumspect:
וַיֹּאמֶר ה' אֶל-מֹשֶׁה: מִי אֲשֶׁר חָטָא-לִי, אֶמְחֶנּוּ מִסִּפְרִי..
And God said to Moshe: He who sinned against me I will erase him from My book.
And we then immediately read:
וַיִּגֹּף יְהוָה, אֶת-הָעָם, עַל אֲשֶׁר עָשׂוּ אֶת-הָעֵגֶל, אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה אַהֲרֹן
And God smote the nation on the fact that they made a calf that Aharon made.
What was the plague? Rashi says that it was מיתה בידי שמים – the divine death penalty. Ramban points out that we don’t even know how many were killed. I think I know why we don’t know who they are: because, as part of their punishment God erased them from the Torah. They no longer exist, not even as a number to be counted. That’s some punishment.
But I’d like to ask the question a different way: why did God need to punish the nation? After all, if He’s really the ה' ה' אל רחום וחנון, do we think for a moment that He gets any pleasure out of punishing the Jewish people? You know that phrase, “This hurts me more than it hurts you”? With God, it’s really true. It does hurt Him more than it hurts us. And yet punish us He does.
In fact, we mention the specter of punishment each and every day. Where? In the קריאת שמע. After we declare our faith in God and accept the yoke of Mitzvot upon ourselves, we turn in the second chapter to the theme of reward and punishment. והיה אם שמוע תשמעו אל מצוותי – if you listen to God’s commandments – then ונתתי מטר ארצכם בעתו – you get rain, and food and plenty and prosperity. But, השמרו לכם פן יפתה לבבכם – don’t slip up and slide down that terrible path towards idolatry, because if you do – ועצר את השמים ולא יהיה מטר – no rain, no food, much death and loss of ארץ ישראל. We say it twice a day, morning and night.
No one wants punishment. I am often struck on Yom Kippur by the very end of the וידוי, when we ask God for compassion and forgiveness. We say,
יהי רצון מלפניך ה' אלקי ואלקי אבותי, שלא אחטא עוד. ומה שחטאתי לפניך מרק ברחמיך הרבים, אבל לא על ידי יסורים וחלים רעים.
Let it be your will, my God and the God of my fathers, that I will not sin any more. And that which I have sinned before You cleanse in Your great compassion, but not through affliction or difficult sickness.
Who wants יסורים? No one. But sometime, perversely, we need them, because while we all like positive reinforcement, somehow punishment is so much stronger and more pronounced, that it serves as a more effective method of education and reinforcement.
This is actually a topic of great debate is today’s current political and economic crisis, especially regarding the financial bailout not only of banks, but also of homeowners who bit off bigger mortgages than they could handle, often recklessly. Commentators call this moral hazard, which Wikipedia defines as,
The prospect that a party insulated from risk may behave differently from the way it would behave if it were fully exposed to the risk. Moral hazard arises because an individual or institution does not bear the full consequences of its actions, and therefore has a tendency to act less carefully than it otherwise would, leaving another party to bear some responsibility for the consequences of those actions.
Put simply, if you don’t suffer from mistakes – or sins – the chances increase that you’ll simply repeat the same mistake (or sin) again.
Reward an punishment become especially important when we tackle the job of parenting. Let’s be honest: no parent likes punishing their children. It’s almost always easier to capitulate, forgive and forget, and hope that the behavior doesn’t happen again. But without the punishment, it always, always does happen again, usually in a more pronounced and severe manner.
No parent likes denying their children the things that they want. Who needs it? They’ll only whine, complain, and make our lives miserable. “Why can’t I have that ipod, cellphone, dboard, wii”? It doesn’t matter what it is. It often feels cruel to say “No, you can’t have it.” If you can’t afford it, that’s one matter. But many of us can, and we still say no. Why do we fight and argue and refuse when the path of least resistance a simple “yes”?
We say no because of a Rashi in the parshah. When Moshe climbs up הר סיני and tells God that, , חָטָא הָעָם הַזֶּה חֲטָאָה גְדֹלָה, וַיַּעֲשׂוּ לָהֶם, אֱלֹהֵי זָהָב, Rashi says that he actually said much, much more.
אתה הוא שגרמת להם, שהשפעת להם זהב וכל חפצם, מה יעשו שלא יחטאו. משל למלך שהיה מאכיל ומשקה את בנו ומקשטו ותולה לו כיס בצוארו ומעמידו בפתח בית זונות, מה יעשה הבן שלא יחטא
It is You who caused them [to sin], that you gave them as much gold as they wished; what should they do so as not to sin? This can be compared to a king that fed and gave drink to his son, adorned him, hung a wallet full of money around his neck and stood him before a house of harlots. What should he do so as not to sin?
When our children hear a “no,” as much as they don’t like it and don’t want it, often it’s the very thing they need the most.

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