Friday, May 17, 2013

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Naso 5773–Guilt. Self. It.

      וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר יְהוָ֖ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר׃
      דַּבֵּר֮ אֶל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵל֒ אִ֣ישׁ אֹֽו־אִשָּׁ֗ה כִּ֤י יַעֲשׂוּ֙ מִכָּל־חַטֹּ֣את הָֽאָדָ֔ם לִמְעֹ֥ל מַ֖עַל בַּיהוָ֑ה וְאָֽשְׁמָ֖ה הַנֶּ֥פֶשׁ הַהִֽוא׃
      וְהִתְוַדּ֗וּ אֶֽת־חַטָּאתָם֮ אֲשֶׁ֣ר עָשׂוּ֒ וְהֵשִׁ֤יב אֶת־אֲשָׁמוֹ֙ בְּרֹאשׁ֔וֹ וַחֲמִישִׁת֖וֹ יֹסֵ֣ף עָלָ֑יו וְנָתַ֕ן לַאֲשֶׁ֖ר אָשַׁ֥ם לֽוֹ׃

5:5 The L”rd spoke to Moses saying:
6 Speak to the Israelites: When a man or woman commits any wrong toward a fellow man, thus breaking faith with the L”rd, and that person realizes his guilt,
he shall confess the wrong that he has done. He shall make restitution in the principal amount and add one-fifth to it, giving it to him whom he has wronged.

Confession is good for the soul. Though we more often hear this sentiment couched in Christian (and in particular Catholic) terms, it can be reasonably argued that it is a universally acceptable idea. Being burdened with guilt is rarely, if ever, a good and healthy thing for a human being.

There is much about these words of Torah to be lauded, appreciated, and embraced. They establish a requirement for recognizing , repenting, and making restitution for wrongs committed between one human being and another. Between any human being an another. They establish a penalty to be included as part of restitution. They note that such offenses break faith with G”d. Wrong another person and you have, effectively, wronged G”d. That’s another powerful incentive to not commit wrongs against others (as if we needed more incentive?)

In the Hebrew, the verb used for confession is in the hitpael, a reflexive verb form. This tells us that we must confess to ourselves. It would be easy for some to perform a ritual of expiation without admitting their own guilt to themselves. Twelve-step programs ask for a triad of confession – asking people to admit to G”d, themselves, and another human being the exact nature of their wrongs. Implicit in the words of the Torah are the need for self-confession, and, through the public acts of expiation and restitution, confession to other humans. One can argue that confession to G”d is also implicit here, through the ritual act of expiation, though the text only explicitly requires a self-confession. (Then again, we can ask if confession to G”d is ever necessary when the understanding of G”d is of an omniscient divinity. Yet replete throughout our sacred texts are indications that G”d is not entirely omniscient. While one can easily make the argument that a lot of what we are required to do that appear to be for G”d’s sake are actually for the sake of human beings, it’s equally possible that there are indeed things that G”d needs/requires/wants from us. Our free will might also make it impossible for G”d to truly be omniscient. I’d better stop-my head hurts.)

All of the positive things these words teach us are great. but I see one huge hole here. The hole is actually based on how the new JPS translation translates the last three words of verse 5:6. They settled on “and that person realizes his guilt.”

I have a problem with that. It creates one enormous loophole. What happens when you don’t realize your guilt? Or pretend to not realize your guilt? Are you still obligated to confess and make restitution? Yes, elsewhere in Torah we are given the obligation to let people know of their wrongs, and/or warn them of the consequences of their sinful acts. Nevertheless, there’s no mention of that here.

The Torah also doesn’t stipulate a time frame here. That “self realization” could comes days, weeks, months, years, decades later.  The Torah is making some assumptions here. It is assuming that the self-realization will happen, and that it will happen in a timely fashion. Guilt is difficult to keep bottled up, and it is not an unreasonable assumption to believe that guilt will usually (and eventually) out. However, what do you do in situations where the realization never comes, or comes many years later. Is a mere one-fifth added to the restitution sufficient after that much time, or should there be more “interest” added?

I realize I am being nit-picky here, and even stretching the context-which appears to be about property theft, but in doing so I’m following in the footsteps of the rabbis and sages. There are times when Torah is quite explicit, but a great deal of the time it is not so, and it is not an easy process to always come to a consensus about what might be implicit in the text.

Note that my issue, as I stated, is with the translation. What do the words וְאָֽשְׁמָ֖ה הַנֶּ֥פֶשׁ הַהִֽוא׃ really mean? Wrongdoing/guilt, the self/soul, specific 3rd person singular pronoun. Guilt of the self (is) it/she. It is guilt of the soul.

This is not necessarily about self-realization. It could simply be telling us that the very act of wronging another human being simply produces the condition of guilt in the soul/self. It does not perforce imply self-realization of that guilt. Back in parashat Vayikra, we do read the clear requirement: “and he realizes his guilt-or the sin of which he is guilty is brought to his knowledge” (Lev 4:28) Yet not here.

Self-realized or not, the person who wrongs another person has broken faith with G”d, bears guilt, must confess, and must make restitution.

So why did the JPS editors decide to provide their verbal loophole? Many commentators have said over the centuries that self-realization and acknowledgement of a sin are crucial to any potentially efficacious ritual atonement, so the JPS committee certainly has the weight of the sages on their side. They took the liberty of assuming that the text implied a self-realization.

Nevertheless I wonder why the original text is less clear. What is the Torah trying to teach us? Is it a reminder that self-realization does not always happen? If so, then why not add the earlier thought from parashat Vayikra that someone else could point out the person’s guilt to them?

וְאָֽשְׁמָ֖ה הַנֶּ֥פֶשׁ הַהִֽוא׃

Those three words are my project for this Shabbat. I will run them through my organic computer and see if I can determine what they might truly mean (or at the very least, what they might mean to me.) I commend the same activity to you.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2013 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Naso 5772 - Keeping Me On My Toes II
Naso 5771 - The Nazarite Conundrum
Nasso 5770 - Cherubic Puzzles
Naso 5768 - G"d's Roadies
Naso 5767 (Redux 5759) - The Fourth Fold
Naso 5765-Northeast Gaza-Side Story
Naso 5763--Lemon Pledge
Naso 5759-The Fourth Fold
Naso 5760-Bitter Waters
Naso 5761-Keeping Me On My Toes
Naso 5762-Wondrous Names (Haftarah Naso from Judges)

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