Minding Your Own Business

June 24, 2009

17 min read


Pinchas (Numbers 25:10-30:1 )

Parshat Pinchas offers us the Torah's outlook on the problematic topic of the zealot.

We all live in modern liberal democracies and one of the few tenets that are sacred to our societies is the strict observance of proper civil procedure. Civilized societies recognize basic human rights. Perhaps the most fundamental of these rights is the right of the individual to due process of law. The denial of due process goes far beyond personal injury. The tolerance of any form of vigilantism is a mark of primitive social development. A society that tolerates vigilantism, necessarily denies basic human rights.

Jewish tradition views the generation of Israelites who wandered through the desert as the "generation of the wise." No other generation of Jews ever attained such a lofty spiritual level in sufficient numbers as to allow a public meeting with God, nor did any other generation enjoy the privilege of being taught by Moses, the supreme teacher of Torah. Never again in history did the Jewish people live on manna or inhabit God's cloud. The desert generation from the Jewish point of view represents the very summit of human civilization. How can we reconcile this with vigilantism?


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Our search for the answer lies along the road of the thirteen attributes of mercy and an attempt to come to grips with the commandment to "love your fellow as you love yourself" (Numbers 19:18), the bedrock upon which the Jewish concept of mutual responsibility is built. Rabbi Moshe Kordovero, the dean of Kaballists before the Ari, connects these two principles in his book, "Tomer Devora."

The thirteen attributes of mercy are to be viewed as outward manifestations of the Divine character traits.

Therein, he notes that the prophet Micha understands the thirteen attributes in terms of character traits of God (Micha 7:18). Thus the thirteen attributes of mercy described in the Book of Exodus (34:6) are to be viewed as forms of behavior that are outward manifestations of the Divine character traits. The teaching of Micha is that God's practice of mercy is to be regarded as the outgrowth of what we humans would consider "emotion."

Rabbi Kordovero explains that he Torah commands us to "walk in His ways,"(Deut. 28:9) and that he wrote the Tomer Devora to enumerate and explain these ways of God that we are to follow. As Micha provided a description of the Divine character, the Tomer Devora is a study of the Divine character as outlined by Micha and its translation into appropriate corresponding human equivalents. The thesis of the work is that the ultimate aim of the commandment to walk in God's ways is the encouragement of the development of God-like behavior.

Only by developing Divine character traits which are then expressed in the real world in the context of human relationships does man give life to the idea of being formed in God's image. The absence of such character traits in man imparts the connotation of a lifeless statue to the holy metaphor of being created in God's image and empties it of significance.


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According to the prophet Micha, the fourth attribute mentioned in Exodus, God's grace, is an expression of the fact that God feels related to the Jewish people. In the words of the prophet He relates to Israel as the "remnant of His inheritance." The Tomer Devora explains the relevance of this character trait to practicing mercy in the following way: As God considers the people of Israel His close relatives, when they do something that merits retribution He says to Himself, "How can I punish Israel? If I punish them I also suffer, so I am really punishing myself!"

But in what way are God and Israel so closely related?

Explains the Tomer Devorah: the collective Jewish soul, from which a tiny strand extends to each individual Jew, is a part of God Himself, as it were. In the same way that a husband and wife are considered emergent parts of a single spiritual entity by the Torah -- where the wife was separated from the body of the husband as described in Genesis 2 -- Israel is a separate entity from God.

But in what way are God and Israel so closely related?

This idea serves as the theme of King Solomon's masterpiece, the Song of Songs. The entire work describes the relationship that binds God to Israel in terms of a love story about a great king and his bride who consummated their intense and abiding love, but became estranged following their wedding through a series of misunderstandings. The entire work is a description of the intensity of their longing for each other and their determination to resume their relationship.

The Torah describes husbands and wives as remnants of each other's flesh (Leviticus 21:2), and this is the foundation on which Micha's description of Israel as God's remnant rests.

The Tomer Devora points out that Micha's remnant image has major implications towards reaching a proper understanding of the relationship between Jew and Jew. For, if we Jews are God's remnant in terms of our collective soul, it follows that we are also the remnants of each other. As each of us is a small part of the collective Jewish soul, it follows that each of us necessarily has a part of every other Jew in him.

Thus when one of us does something that damages himself spiritually, or injures his soul, he unavoidably damages his fellow Jew as well. The part of himself that resides in the soul of his fellow Jew and therefore constitutes a part of that Jew's life force necessarily becomes damaged as well. Thus our misdeeds have the effect of reducing the total available spiritual life force of our fellow Jews along with our own.

As the positive is always more powerful than the negative in spiritual matters, the same principle applies in spades when one of us does something meritorious that strengthens the expression of his soul in the physical world. As his own spiritual life force becomes stronger, so does the corresponding part of himself that constitutes a part of his fellow Jew's soul, so that the spiritual life force of every Jew alive becomes strengthened through his efforts, and thus multiplies the effect of his meritorious deed many times over.


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According to Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzatto this concept has a source in the Talmud (Ketubot 8b). Rabbi Chiya bar Aba was the teacher of Reish Lakish's children. One of his own [Rabbi Chiya's] little children died tragically and Reish Lakish who was a great man, made a consolation visit. His words of consolation were based on the verse God will see and be provoked by the anger of His sons and daughters (Deut. 32:19). Reish Lakish interpreted the verse as follows: a generation in which the adults provoke God prompts Him to express His anger against its sons and daughters and consequently innocent children die.

The Talmud wonders how can these words be offered as a consolation. Surely instead of comforting they will have the opposite effect and cause even greater upset? The Talmud responds: Reish Lakish meant to tell Rabbi Chiya that he was sufficiently worthy to be called to account for the sins of his generation. Rashi explains: you must be held precious in the eyes of God as He selected you, who are clearly blameless to express His anger at the generation.

The cleansing of our soul through suffering has the power to cleanse the soul of every other Jew as well.

Explains the Ramchal: Because each of us contains a part of the soul of every fellow Jew, the cleansing of our soul through suffering has the power to cleanse the soul of every other Jew as well. God selects the tzadik as the target for the expression of His anger, not because he is the most deserving of suffering, but because it is he who is the most deserving of his soul being cleaned. As an added benefit for the tzadik, if through his suffering, he manages to atone for the sins of his generation, they all become his spiritual dependants.

This dependency is eternal and therefore has expression even in the next world. By inflicting His anger on the tzadik, God insures that:


  1. The generation manages to make it into the world to come, which is the primary purpose of all existence in this world.



  2. The tzadik occupies the superior position there which is his due.



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Rabbi Kordovero employs this concept to explain the rationale behind the commandment to love your fellow Jew as you love yourself. God never asks us to do what is contrary to reason or to human nature. It is true that the commandments of the Torah are divided between Chukim, laws for which we have no explanation, and Mishpatim, laws that we can readily understand and relate to, but even the Chukim of the Torah are never contrary to reason.

We simply do not have the information to figure them out and therefore must accept them on faith but that is not to say that they contradict the dictates of common sense. God gave us our minds to preserve us from ever acting unreasonably. Why should He command us to love our fellow Jew as much as we love ourselves when this contradicts human nature as well as common sense?

But it now emerges that if we perceive reality properly, this commandment makes perfect sense and belongs in the category of Mishpatim. Love of a fellow Jew is really self-love, for one's fellow Jew is oneself literally. As each of us contains a piece of each other's soul, when my fellow Jew is better off so am I. When he is hurt, so am I. His honor is my honor.

Moreover once we accept this concept as a given, it becomes immediately evident that social contract theory cannot serve as our guide to define the parameters of permissible forms of interaction with our fellow Jews. Interactions between Jews can only be adequately analyzed in terms of the considerations which apply to nuclear families. Interactions between close family members are not governed by the objective rules of due process. They reflect the emotional forces of family dynamics.


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But does this mean that a Jewish society whose interactions fall under the umbrella of the commandment to love your fellow as you love yourself is doomed to the sort of chaos that the Pinchas story illustrates? Must Jews walk around in a state of anxiety afraid of falling victim to each other's excessive zeal? Not at all.

All of us realize full well that we, as a society, pay a heavy price for the degree of civil liberty that we tolerate. We know full well that if everyone had to use public transportation, we would have far less pollution and we could substantially eliminate all traffic fatalities. We know that if we legislated against fast-food chains we would substantially reduce the problems of obesity and the diseases that are its outcome. We know that if we censored out the explicit sex and violence from our TV screens, we would drastically reduce the incidence of social violence and rape. Our children are exposed to drugs and violence in public schools because we do not take the necessary steps to restrict the freedom of those responsible for spreading these social diseases. We are aware that serious gun control laws would save the lives of many innocent victims, especially children.

We tolerate social problems, because we don't wish to live under tyranny.

We are not stupid. We tolerate all these problems for a reason. We don't wish to live under tyranny. In the society of rugged individuals that we have attempted to perfect, freedom can only be restrained when there is the clearest present danger to other human beings. Justice Holmes' classic example of "yelling fire in a crowded theatre" comes to mind. We can only preserve our own freedom to express ourselves as the rugged individuals that we feel ourselves to be if we agree to tolerate other people's expressions of their own individuality. Of course, as long as such expressions do not present a clear and present danger.

We have recognized and enshrined certain universal human rights to establish a private space within which every individual can enjoy complete freedom of action. The empty space created within the penumbra of these rights is the only area of individual freedom. Any violation of this space is an invasion of freedom, and therefore, constitutes a threat to the complex and fragile social structure we have so painfully erected.


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We Jews understand this view of the world perfectly, but it really doesn't fit our social dynamic. We are not a society of rugged individuals. We are all chained to each other through our common soul. Each one of us contains a piece of all the others. Whenever we do anything we are expressing everyone else's soul along with our own. Instead of the social stress being on "mind you own business" we have a commandment you shall reprove your fellow and do not bear a sin because of him (Leviticus 19:17). Minding your own business results in being burdened with the other person's sin.

And yet, the Torah provides us with a framework where despite all this we easily avoid the pitfall of invading each other's space and tyrannizing our fellow. Our responsibility for each other's behavior is expressed in the following verse. The hidden sins are for the Lord, our God, but the revealed sins are for us and our children forever, to carry out all the words of our Torah. (Deut. 29:28)

Hidden sins are guaranteed to remain hidden if the law of the Torah is followed. According to the rules of Lashon Hara ("evil speech"), it is strictly forbidden to expose anyone's hidden sin except in very restricted circumstances. Thus, if I observe my fellow Jew doing something wrong, I am not allowed to reveal his transgression to anyone. While I myself have the obligation of admonishing him, that is as far as the matter is allowed to go. States the Talmud:

There are three types of people that God hates: people who speak one way with their mouths and another in their hearts; people who can testify for their friends and choose to mind their own business instead; and people who observe their fellow committing a sexual transgression and come to testify about them when they are the only witness. As in the following story: Tuvia committed a sin and Zigud came by himself to Rabbi Papa to testify against him. Rabbi Papa administered lashes to Zigud. He protested, "Tuvia sins and Zigud gets lashes?" Rabbi Papa answered, "Certainly! It is written A lone witness shall not stand up against anyone (Deut. 19) and you came alone to testify. All you accomplished was to slander Tuvia." (Pesachim, 113b)

To expose himself to the possibility of public censure a Jew has to go out of his way to commit his transgression in public. As long as he keeps his transgressions private, they remain God's problem to deal with, not ours. Just as I entrust God with my own life, I entrust Him to take good care of the parts of my soul that are implanted in my fellow Jews.


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A Jew who lives by the laws of the Torah understands fully well that he must not commit a transgression in public. He realizes that he will not be allowed to bring down the prevailing standard of public morality. His fellow Jews are instructed by God to admonish him and stop him as soon as he brings his action into the public domain.

Secular society has no recourse but to shelter individual privacy and freedom behind the protective barrier of socially created rights, because there is no way on earth to stop a private action from becoming public in a secular world. There is no secular law of Lashon Hara nor could there ever be one. It goes counter to the principle of freedom of expression, the very cement that supports the barrier behind which all the other rights are sheltered. Genuine privacy, therefore, cannot exist by definition in the secular world. As there is no practical way of maintaining the distinction between public and private actions, society must protect public behavior by recognizing the area in which it takes place as private in order to preserve individual freedoms.

The Torah takes a different route. Had Zimri engaged in relations with Kozbi in private, he could have kept all his honors and still been fully recognized a day later as the leader of a Tribe of Israel. Even if Pinchas had witnessed Zimri committing his sin, he would have been obligated as a Torah Jew to conceal this knowledge and commanded to pay Zimri the public respect as though nothing at all had happened.

Zimri went out of his way to commit his sin in front of a mass audience.

What is more, even if hundreds of people would have witnessed the sin, as long as they each saw it from a different window, Zimri's sin would not have been allowed to become public knowledge by the rules of Lashon Hara. None of them would have been able to come to court on their own, and they would not have been allowed to share their information with each other, and therefore, could not have discovered that there was more than one observer. Not only would he have remained unexposed to the threat of the zealot, his social status would have remained totally unaltered.

But Zimri went out of his way to commit his sin in front of a mass audience. As such he was making a statement, teaching a message instead of expressing his individual desires. He was telling everyone that there was no need to hide what he was doing, because it was the right thing to do. Had he been allowed to continue as though nothing had happened some little corner of everyone's own soul would have started proclaiming in a loud voice that indeed there was nothing wrong with Zimri's deed.


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We all know that when an acknowledged role model and/or trend-setter commits a public transgression it reverberates through society and has a deleterious effect especially on the young. When such people are discovered to be taking drugs for example, it makes seem acceptable to indulge yourself. If he or she can do it and still be admired, why shouldn't I? Who knows how many young lives are lost as a result?

When such people do not take their marriage vows seriously, we all know that it weakens the structure of the family. Who knows what the prevailing standard of marital fidelity would be if famous people were observed to be faithful to their spouses?

In the secular world, we are forced to face these dangers and tolerate these evils in order to avoid tyrannizing each other, which is the greatest of all evils. The inability to guarantee privacy leaves us with no alternative.

In the world of Torah, we are able to guarantee people absolute privacy. The same system that allowed Pinchas to kill Zimri without the benefit of due process would have guaranteed Zimri's right to do as he thought fit in private.

Any attempt to interfere and expose him would have brought public censure on the head of the busybody instead of Zimri and would have been considered the greater evil.

We Jews are not forced into the position of having to accept the lesser evil. Is there any reason we should submit ourselves to it when we don't have to do so?

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