Shaarei Yosher, sec. 5: Sharing – Part 3

WITH THIS it is possible to get a feeling for the idea that is told in the Talmud in an amazing story about the holy man Nachum ish Gam Zu. One time he did not fulfill the mitzvah of charity as he felt he should. He decreed upon himself that his eyes go blind, his hands whither, and his feet be amputated. His decree was fulfilled. This is following the way of great leaders, who if they feel about themselves that they failed in the requirements of their duty, make a request to be relieved of those duties. So too this holy man conducted himself. Since he knew about himself that all his abilities aren’t his, and he is just appointed to utilize them, when he saw a flaw in fulfilling his duties he decreed that all his limbs be dismissed from their jobs.
וכן אפשר להרגיש בענין המסופר בגמ׳ תענית (דף כ״א.) מעשה נורא, באיש קדוש נחום איש גם זו שעל ידי שפעם אחת לא מלא חובתו במצות צדקה לפי הרגשתו, גזר על עצמו שיסומאו עיניו ויתגדמו ידיו ויתקטעו רגליו וכן נתקיימה גזירתו, והוא כפי הדרך הנהוג אצל השרים הגדולים שאם מרגיש בעצמו שלא מלא חובת משמרתו, הוא מגיש בקשה לפטרו ממשמרתו, כל זה נהג בעצמו איש קדוש זה אחרי שידע בעצמו שכל כוחותיו אינם שלו והוא רק כגזבר על זה, לכן אם רק קרה לו משגה בשמירת תפקיד הגזברות שלו, גזר על כל אבריו להתפטר מעבודתם,

Nachum ish Gimzo, meaning Nachum of the town of Gimzo, would accept everything that happened to him with equanimity, and with trust that everything happened according to G-d’s plan. When something occurred that would seem to most people to be tragic, he was known to say “Gam zu letovah – this too is for the best.” The other rabbis of the era therefore punned on his name and called him Nachum ish “Gam zu.”

Here is the story Rav Shimon is referring to, as told in the gemara (Taanis 21a; translation slightly adapted from the Soncino):

It was said of Nahum Ish Gamzo that he was blinded in both his eyes. His two hands were cut off. His two legs were amputated and his whole body was covered with boils and he was lying in a dilapidated house on a bed the feet of which were standing in bowls of water in order to prevent the ants from crawling on to him [since he was unable to drive them off his body himself]. His students sought to remove his bed [from the house] and afterward take out the utensils [from thence]. He said to them, “My sons, take out the utensils and afterward take out my bed for I assure you that as long as I am in the house, the house will not fall.” They took out the utensils and afterward took out his bed and the house [immediately] fell down.

His students said to him, “Rabbi, you are [clearly] a thoroughly righteous person [so] why has [all this suffering] happened to you?” He said to them, “I brought it on myself, for one time I was walking on the way to the house of my father-in-law and I had with me three donkeys, one laden with food, one with drink and one with all kinds of finery. A poor man came and stood in my way and said to me, “Rabbi, sustain me [with something to eat].” I said to him, “Wait until I unload [something] from the donkey. I did not succeed to unload [something] from the donkey before he died [from hunger]. I went and fell upon his face and I said, ‘My eyes, which did not have pity upon your eyes, may they become blind. My hands, which did not have pity upon your hands, may they be cut off. My legs, which did not have pity on your legs, may they be amputated.’ And my conscience was not quiet until I said, ‘May my whole body be covered with boils’” They [his students] said to him, “Alas for us that we should see you like this.” He said to them, “Alas for me if you did not see me like this!”

The ending in the Jerusalem Talmud is even more shocking:

… Rabbi Aqiva visited him.

[R' Aqiva] said to [Nachum Ish Gamzu]: Woe to me that I see you like this!

He said to him: Woe to me that I do not see you like this!

[R' Aqiva] said to him: Why are you cursing me?

[Nachum ish Gamzu] said to him: Why do you belittle life’s challenges (yisurin)?

As per his character, Nachum Ish Gamzu saw his suffering as a positive thing; so much so that he did not hesitate to utter words that made it sound like he would wish it on someone else. He refers to yisurin, from the same root as mussar, corrective instruction. To enjoy the use of legs doesn’t mean to have them free of pain and illness, but to sanctify them to the service of others. That’s what legs are for.

As we saw, money is given to a person as part of the whole, so that it’s really the community’s money even while it is right for him to enjoy the lion’s share. He too is part of the community. And in his world, the “ani” (the “I”) extends outward from atzmi, his self. (Recall the citation of Hillel: Im ein ani li, mi lie? Ukesha’ni le’atzmi, mah ani? – and when my “ani” is for my self, what am I?) Rav Shimon uses this story of Nachum Ish Gamzu to show the same thing is true of a person’s etzem, his very bones.


סליק לגבי’ ר”ע א”ל אי לי שאני רואה אותך כך א”ל אי לי שאני אין רואה אותך בכך.  א”ל מה את מקללני א”ל ומה את מבעט ביסורין.

A Physics Metaphor for Coming to Terms with Theodicy

As I’ve mentioned in the past, Aristotle believed that motion was caused by an intellect imparting impetus to an object, which then moved until the impetus ran out. Newton replaced this model of physics with his three laws, including:

Law I: Every body persists in its state of being at rest or of moving uniformly straight forward, except insofar as it is compelled to change its state by force impressed.

Inertia and linear momentum. Newton replaced impetus, which has a finite lifespan, with the notion of momentum, and the conservation of momentum. If no external force acts on a closed system of objects, the momentum of the closed system remains constant.

But in practice, we living here on earth never see momentum conserved. A rolling ball doesn’t roll forever, to stay at a constant speed, you need to occasionally put your foot on the gas pedal. Thanks to air drag and other forms of friction, there is always a “force impressed” to reduce the momentum. In daily experience, Aristotle’s impetus matches what we see — but it is really Newton who was correct.

Similarly, we have metaphysical laws of Divine Justice and Mercy. But like the conservation of momentum, there are always other factors that occlude our seeing these laws in action. So at times Hashem poses yisurim, challenges in our lives, that don’t seem fair or merciful. And so “שכר מצוה בהאי עלמא ליכא — reward for mitzvos is lacking in this world.” (Qiddushin 39b)

But it doesn’t make the rule less true, it just means that we must be aware that at least in the governance of this world, there are other factors that occlude our view.

When a Paradox is not a Disproof

The central theme of religion is whether the values, ritual, and system of thought work. The issues of genesis, the flood, or the tower of Babel are tangential, and out the outskirts of the Torah as a “theory” of meaning and purpose in life.

It’s like studying modern physics. We currently have two systems: quantum mechanics (QM) which was born in the head of Max Planck and developed by numerous other people. Including Einstein. There is also relativity (which has two parts: special and general), which was pretty much entirely Einstein’s.

QM works well in the domain of the very small, relativity works well with the very large. (In between, Newton’s old system is a good enough approximation and people don’t bother with such things.) But they are based on contradictory assumptions. For example, relativity is  Background Independent. This means it isn’t about things that happen within space and time, but the nature of space and time is itself part of the theory. This is not true of QM. Figuring out quantum gravity — a theory of gravity that fits both QM and relativity, is a challenge. Filling this challenge are things like string and membrane theories, the Higgs Boson (the subject of the book “The God Particle”), and others.

Because each works so well so often in ways it was not designed to, that the typical physicist is sure some resolution of the two that will preserve nearly all of both theories is out there, waiting discovery. For that matter, we have chips of semiconductors designed using QM in our GPS systems carrying out computations that include compensating for the relativistic effects of the satellite being in motion relative to earth. So, even though the two theories are built on contradictory assumptions, scientists place trust (bitachon) in them. They have faith (emunah) that each will have to be tweaked only minorly to get them to fit, not a major overhaul.

For similar reasons, these science vs Bereishis questions don’t really bother me. Neither is really about what happened in the past; scientific theories makes claims about the past to explain what we observe astronomically and archeologically, the Torah tells us about our past to help us work toward our future. These areas of conflict really are side-topics in each discipline.

It might even be that the reason our generation finds these topics so pressing is a flaw in today’s zeitgeist. Science and technology have brought us so much since the Industrial Revolution that we perhaps forget that it’s not the only venue. As Rabbi Soloveitchik would put it, Cognitive Man is so successful “fill[ing] the earth and subdu[ing] it”, as per Hashem’s blessing of Adam in Bereishis 1, that we forget the Lonely Man of Faith. We feel a pressure to get our religion to play ball on science’s court, when in reality we are looking at the fringes of what religion is for. Truth must be consistent, but the problem isn’t a pressing one.

Each “theory” works so well so consistently in their own domains, I presume that some resolution will someday be found — much like a quantum mechanical understanding of gravity, an understanding of the small-scale workings of a phenomenon only significant in the large scale. One cannot ignore science in the pursuit of the Divine, but neither can one ignore the Torah; nothing is gained by wallpapering over one source of truth in favor of the other. I can live until then with the open questions.

Shaarei Yosher, sec. 5: Sharing – Part 2

With this idea one can understand how charity has the effect of enriching the one who performs it, as the sages say on the verse “‘aseir ta’aseir – you shall surely tithe’ – tithe, so that you shall become rich – shetis’asheir” . Someone who is appointed over a small part of the national treasury who does a good job guarding at his appointment as appropriate will be next appointed to oversee a sum greater than that, if he is not promoted in some other way. If they find a flaw in his guard duty, no fine qualities to be found in him will help, and they will demote him to a smaller task. Similarly in the treasuries of heaven which are given to man. If he tithes appropriately, he satisfies his job of disbursement as he is supposed to conduct himself according to the Torah, giving to each as is appropriate according to the teachings of the Torah, then he will become wealthy and be appointed to disburse a greater treasure. And so on, upward and upward so that he can fulfill his lofty desire to do good for the masses through his stewardship of the treasury. In this way a man of reliable spirit does the will of his Maker.
ועל פי דעה זו יובן סגולת הצדקה שמעשרת את בעליה, כמו שדרשו חז״ל על הכתוב “‘עשר תעשר’ – עשר בשביל שתתעשר” (תענית דף ט.), שכמו שהממונה על אוצרות הממשלה באוצר קטן, אם ישמור תפקידו כראוי אז יתמנה להיות גזבר על אוצר גדול מזה, אף אם לא יצטיין במעלות אחרות, ולהיפך, אם יתגלה חסרון במשמרתו, לא יועילו לו כל מעלות שימצאו בו, ויורידוהו למשרה קטנה מזה, כל כך באוצרות שמים הנתנים לאדם, אם מעשר כראוי ממלא תפקיד הגזברות שלו כראוי ליטול לעצמו כפי דרכי התורה, ומחלק למי שראוי כל כך על פי הוראת התורה, אז יתעשר ויתמנה לגזברות על אוצר גדול מזה וכן הלאה למעלה למעלה, למען יתקיים רצון העליון בהטבת הכלל על ידי שמירת האוצר, ובזה איש נאמן רוח עושה רצון קונו יתברך.

In the previous portion, Rav Shimon advised us to see ourselves not as possessors, but as the part of the Jewish People that happens to be holding something on behalf of the whole. Here Rav Shimon explains a causal connection between giving to others and getting reward. Someone who shares Hashem’s bounty plays his role with what he is given, and thus it furthers Hashem’s goals to share with him even more. And even though a person only gives a percentage of his wealth, Hashem will still increase his entire wealth in order to increase that percentage.

This is why Rav Yochanan (Taanis 9a) homiletically explained “aseir ta’aser” (Devarim 22:41) ias “aseir bishvil shetis’asheir — tithe so that you will become rich.”  This isn’t merely testing G-d — that would be prohibited. It’s not even a promise of personal reward, offering a selfish reason to do the right thing. It is a fundamental expression of “im ein ani li, mi li — if I am not for myself, who will be for me?” Become rich, because the broader, fully developed “ani” of someone connect well beyond himself could use the wealth.

Malki-Tzedeq and Birkhas Avos

Compare these two snippets. I added color to highlight my point.

First, Bereishis 14:19-20. A massive regional war just completed, and Avraham joins the kings he fought with. Malki-Tzedeq the king of Shaleim (the future Jerusalem) and priest of the Kel Elyon (most high G-d) serves food and blesses him:

וַיְבָרְכֵהוּ וַיֹּאמַר: “בָּרוּךְ אַבְרָם לְאֵ-ל עֶלְיוֹן קֹנֵה שָׁמַיִם וָאָרֶץ.
וּבָרוּךְ אֵ-ל עֶלְיוֹן אֲשֶׁר מִגֵּן צָרֶיךָ בְּיָדֶךָ”, וַיִּתֶּן לוֹ מַעֲשֵׂר מִכֹּל.

He blessed him and said:
“Blessed be Avraham to the Most High G-d, Owner of heaven and earth.
“And Blessed be the Most High G-d who delivered your enemies in your hands.”
And he gave him a tenth of all [the booty].

And now, Birkhas Avos, the first blessing of the Amidah:

אֵ-ל עֶלְיון. גּומֵל חֲסָדִים טובִים. וְקונֵה הַכּל. וְזוכֵר חַסְדֵּי אָבות. וּמֵבִיא גואֵל לִבְנֵי בְנֵיהֶם לְמַעַן שְׁמו בְּאַהֲבָה: מֶלֶךְ עוזֵר וּמושִׁיעַ וּמָגֵן: בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’, מָגֵן אַבְרָהָם:

… Most High G-d, Supporter through good generosity, Owner of everything, Who remembers the generosity of the forefathers and brings the redeemer to their children’s children for the sake of His Reputation, with love.
King, Helper, Savior, and Protector.
Blessed are You Hashem, the Protector of Avraham.

And in case you find comparing “Qonei shamayim va’aretz” and “Qonei hakol” a stretch, note that on Friday night, in a shortened repetition of the Amidah, the Chazan does use “Qonei Shamayim va’aretz“. Chazal did consider them roughly identical; although it would be interesting to explore why they changed the expression from “heaven and earth” to “everything”.

To further this comparison, Malki-Tzedek’s titles for G-d — “Keil Elyon” and “Qoneih haKol” — are uniquely found in this story (here and in Avraham’s reply) and nowhere else in Tanakh. They also make very weak theological claims: “Keil Elyon” is true — Hashem is the Highest Power. But it can be asserted by a Canaanite who happens to believe that El is greater than his other deities. Similarly, as the Creator, of course Hashem owns what he created. But to only call Him “Owner” also includes people who don’t believe in creation. These phrases make sense for Malkhi-Tzedeq, who was trying to preach monotheism even before Avraham. (Our sages associate him with Sheim, Noach’s son.) They allow him to build a student base without confronting too many of their beliefs up-front. But they are odd expressions for us Jews to use in prayer — and in fact they do not appear elsewhere in the siddur, either.

I think therefore it’s clear that the Amidah is making reference to Malki-Tzedeq’s blessing. And moreso, a blessing of “אֱ-להֵינוּ וֵא-להֵי אֲבותֵינוּ. אֱ-להֵי אַבְרָהָם, אֱלהֵי יִצְחָק, וֵאלהֵי יַעֲקב — G-d as we perceive Him, G-d as perceived by Avraham, by Yitzchaq, and by Yaaqov” uses terms from a less developed perception of Deity, language of Malki-Tzedeq who attempts to be a priest between idolators and the Creator without confronting his “congregation”.

I am not sure what to make oft this — it’s counterintuitive. Perhaps the point is just that — to identify the lofty conception of G-d the avos discovered with the concept their contemporaries grappled for when they looked at creation. That the G-d of revelation is the G-d of nature.