Thursday, September 05, 2019

psychology or ontology

Our parsha tells us that a king is not permitted to take too many wives (machlokes Tanaim exactly how many is too many) "v'lo yasir livavo," lest he be led astray. The Midrash in Parshas Va'Eira (see also Sanhedrin 21) writes that Shlomo haMelech said to himself that he is sure he will not be led astray, and so he took many wives. The letter yud from "lo yarbeh" came to complain to Hashem. "If Shlomo gets away with it," said the yud, "Then it will be as if "lo yabreh" is erased from the Torah."  End of the story is that Shlomo was in fact led astray by his wives despite the confidence he had in his own ability.

The simple lesson of the Midrash is that you're not as smart as you think you are, even if you are Shlomo haMelech, the smartest person alive. If you think you are immune from temptation, if you think the law only applies to lesser people than yourself, you are only fooling yourself and in the end will pay the price.

On the other hand, this is Shlomo haMelech we are talking about. Did he really not appreciate such a simple idea?  Did he really fool himself into not appreciating the danger of his actions?

R' Ahron Kotler (quotes in m'Shulchan R' Eliyahu Baruch) explained that in truth, Shlomo HaMelech did properly asses his own character -- psychologically, he should have been immune from the effects of "lo yasir levavo."  The Torah, however, is more than psychology.  There is an "inyan seguli" to Torah, and therefore, even if al pi teva Shlomo might have been immune, since the Torah says having many wives will lead to temptation, it inevitably will.  (Compare with Shem m'Shmuel VaEira 5672 -- I think the idea is the same.)

I would like to suggest along similar lines that perhaps the Midrash can be understood in light of a talk Rav Soloveitchik once gave in response to a certain Rabbi who suggested that the chazakos and umdenot of Chazal were historically/socially conditioned.  For example,  this Rabbi argued that the idea of "tav l'meisav" that says a woman would rather be married than not, may no longer apply in our time because psychologically and socially things have changed from what once was in the days of Chazal. Rav Soloveitchik thought this was completely incorrect.  The Rav held that the umdenot of Chazal are ontological -- that's how Hashem built the teva of human beings. They are not something determined by psychological tests or assessments of the situation at a certain time and place.  Therefore, since that is how Hashem built us, these are immutable principles.

If this is true of the umdenot of Chazal, kal v'chomer it's true of what is stated in a pasuk.

If "lo yasur levavo" were a psychological umdena, Shlomo would be justified in saying, "That's for most people -- but not me." But if we are talking about the human condition, Shlomo cannot say, "I am not a human being." 

With this I think we can understand the end of the Midrash we well. Why does the letter yud complain that if Shlomo disobeys, it is as if the pasuk is erased from the Torah? If someone is mechalel Shabbos, does it mean that pasuk is erased? If someone eats treif, have they erased a pasuk? (See here where we discussed this).

Based on either hesber of the Midrash above, the difference is clear: Shlomo's error revealed something fundamental about the nature of Torah.  It was not simply a mistake based on ta'avah or based on a too grand assessment of his own abilities.  It was a philosophical error.  The letter yud was complaining because Shlomo's error reduced the din to a psychological maxim instead of an inyan seguli, instead of an ontological truth.  


  1. only two pesukim after the discomfited yud* of "lo yarbeh", we find that anyone in the high chair of king will need a lifetime (kol-y'mei chayav) to learn yiras Hashem**. no one, as king, though 'able' psychologically to completely subject himself to Higher Authority, will be able ontologically to do so, through the course of his natural life...

    but then, yiras Hashem is only the beginning of wisdom, and Shlomo was thoroughly wise [during his lifetime]? psychologically sage, yes, such that he could judge without witnesses; but ontologically sage enough for that task? no (Rosh ha'Shanah 21b)

    *we've a seeming self-contradiction: the yud would know better that to fear 'erasure', as it is itself a part of the Torah!? if thus ontologically established [it knows there is no way that "Shlomo gets away with it"], why then does it display "psychological" insecurity? like the Mekoshesh collecting sticks on Shabbos, it spoke up l'shem shamayim, despite the stony condemnation of surrounding otiot, phrases, pesukim. that littlest of letters was a didactic hero, if the truth be told...

    **one could even read 17:19 to say that when a king learns fully to fear Hashem, he then dies [perhaps, on fully realizing the psychological presumption of his office, he is embarrassed to death before the one true King? {despite the ironic lack of any ontological presumption, if only because the Torah legislates the role}]

    1. "though 'able' psychologically" (first paragraph, comment above) -- meaning the king is modeh, he is agreed to completely subject himself; intends to, fully(?) expects himself to...

      (back to the post proper)

      "...kal v'chomer it's true of what is stated in a pasuk"

      if a king of Israel would acquire many horses for himself, is it forever inevitable, is it an "immutable" certainty of this world, that he will return the people* to Mitzrayim?

      *>the people<! not just a dozen cowboys among them.
      perhaps the pasuk strains to say something else, as in sus (Shemos 14:23) = sus (Dev. 17:16) -- the people shall not be made to associate their king with Egypt's Paro, as they always will in the presence of surplus royal horses (and which association would be tantamount to returning them to Mitzrayim!)?

  2. "a woman would rather be married than not", even to a slanderous scoundrel* (22:19), and even to her rapist* (22:29). some things never change...

    *so she puts up with him (or suffers from the stockholm syndrome, it's not clear which)