I usually eat seudah shlishis at home and spend the time learning with my wife while my kids (from the time they were little ad hayom) use the moments of ra'va d'ra'avin to be at their most disruptive : ) The past few months we have been working on the sefer Mei Marom on Avos by R' Ya'akov Moshe Charlop, one of the great talmidim of RA"Y Kook, and I thought I would share with you one insight of his that relates to the parsha. I'm going to do this slowly step-by-step through the shakla v'terya, so bear with me.
The Mishna in Avos (2:6) speaks of a
skull that Hillel saw floating which occasioned him to remark, "You
were drowned because you drowned others, and those who drowned you will
themselves be drowned," or, to put in in modern terms, "What
comes around goes around." One of the questions the Mishna forces
us to confront is whether killing a murderer is morally wrong. Hillel's
dictum seems to imply that even though the person who was drowned was himself guilty
of murder, those who meted out justice and killed him are
themselves no better. The fact that the murderer had to be killed
in some way by someone in order for there to be justice in the world does
not absolve from guilt those who chose to carry out the act.
The Tosfos Yom Tov reminds us that this
same principle is used by the Rambam to explain why the Egyptians were
guilty for their enslavement of Bnei Yisrael. Even though it was
foretold at the Bris bein haBesarim that the Jewish people would be sent
into galus, each and every Mitzri had the choice whether or not to be the
one to serve as the agent of that enslavement and persecution. The
fact that there was a decree out there does not absolve the individual
The Ramban (Parshas Lech Lecha) takes
issue with this Rambam. If there is a nevuah that the Jewish people
should be enslaved, then rather than criticize and punish those who carry
that neuvah out, argues the Ramban, we should praise and reward them. The
Mitzrim were fulfilling the ratzon Hashem and obeying the words of a Navi,
were they not!? (See this past post where we discussed this machlokes, also see Mesech Chochma, parshas Lech Lecha).
The Tosfos Yom Tov, at the end of his
long discussion on this Mishna, defends the Rambam. When do we say
that a person gets a kiyum mitzvah for carrying out the words of a Navi?
Only when the person in question has the intent to fulfill the ratzon
Hashem as communicated by the Navi. However, if a person acts with
violence simply because he is cruel, because he is selfish, because he
enjoys evil, even though as a byproduct of what he did the wishes of a Navi were accomplished as well, that person is not excused for his actions; he gets no credit and is instead punished.
In other words, according to the Tosfos
Yom Tov, it is the intention, the motivation behind the act, which determines
guilt or innocence.
Why would the Ramban not buy this counterargument?
Simple: The Ramban felt that if intent and motivation are
all that stand between guilt and innocence, then the punishment doesn't
fit the crime. Since when do intention and motivation, what lies
in the heart and mind, count so highly in Jewish law that they would
warrant 10 makkos and the drowning that took place at kri'as Yam Suf? Since when does having impure motivation when fulfilling
the ratzon Hashem, in this case the mitzvah of fulfilling the words of
a Navi, so corrupt the deed as to render it into a heinous crime?
It is precisely around this point that
the machlokes revolves. Unlike the Ramban, the Rambam/Tos Y"T
do not assume that the the punishment meted out to the Mitzrim was for
a good deed carried out with bad intentions -- it's not that the Mitzrim
carried out the words of a Navi but didn't say a "l'shem yichud"
beforehand and therefore got patched. The reason the Mitzrim got
punished is because their intentions reveal that they were not carrying
out the words of the Navi at all, but were instead carrying out their own
agenda. Killing, even if sanctioned by a Navi, if done with the wrong
intention becomes transformed from a kiyum mitzvah into an act of murder.
It's not a kosher act with bad intentions -- it's a crime.
(The Chofetz Chaim explains that since Shaul let Agag live when he fought Amalek, it proved that Shaul was motivated by his emotions, not purely to fulfill the ratzon Hashem. Therefore, Shmuel accused him of doing evil -- it was not just a passive oversight, but the entire war was a crime given that it was waged for personal agenda and not lishma.)
R' Charlop broadens our focus and explains
that what we have here is two competing theories of ethics. Let's
move away from the topic of nevuah to something that we can better relate
to. Take as an example the midah of anger: we probably all agree
that wanton anger is a bad thing, but it's a midah that has its uses. A
teacher or a parent may need to show anger now and then to curb certain
behaviors in their children or students. Is anger therefore a bad
trait, just that there is a "matir," a justification, that allows
it sometimes to be used? Or is there no real purpose to calling anger
a "bad midah" at all -- every midah might be called good or bad;
it all depends on motivation, use, function? The Rambam's view seems
to be that there are "b'etzem," intrinsically good and bad traits.
Sometimes a Navi may sanction cruelty. Sometimes a need may arise for a person to show anger. The
justification is just a narrow "matir" for a specific situation,
but it does not redefine the act in question or the midah in question as
something other than cruel. Absent the justifying ratzon Hashem,
the "mitzvah" motivation, one is left with an inexcusable act. Is it any wonder the Mitzrim
were punished? Ramban, on the other hand, does not define things
as "b'etzem" good or evil; what purpose do such categories
serve? His definitions are more utilitarian, instrumentalist. When
there is no reason for it being expressed, anger is frowned on; cruelty
is wrong. When there is a need, these same traits can be viewed in
a positive light. It's not that the words of the Navi or the mitzvah need
are a "matir" for something wrong -- it's that under specific
conditions these acts are not "wrong" at all. The end result redefines the act or the midah as bring positive and beneficial. Motivation and intent are tangential to the equation, if they have an impact at all.
The structure is beautiful, but I have
one nagging problem that bothers me (you knew it was too good to be true, right?) The Ramban
in P' Lech Lecha, after rejecting the Rambam's view, suggests on his own that the Mitzrim were punished because they had no intention of fulfilling the
nevuah of "v'avadum v'inu osam." We see that the Ramban
himself does take into account intent and motivation just as much as the Rambam.