Thursday, January 10, 2013

R' Ya'akov Moshe Charlop on why the Mitzrim deserved to be punished

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 of responsibility.

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.   


  1. Two thumbs up. But why talk about a middah, when you could be talking about actions? Is the Ramban saying that enslaving and crushing innocent people is morally neutral until classified by determining what Hashem's will was?

    1. Why not? Babies in an עיר הנידחת. Execution by סנהדרין even after the witnesses recant [after תוך כדי דיבור]. In general, the word "innocent" is meaningless until defined by Hashem's will. לא תרצח is not fulfilled by avoidance due to moral repugnance, but because it was given at Sinai.

      The Rambam in שמונה פרקים, disagrees, and says there are certain actions which are intrinsically wrong: Essentially returning to the fundamental dispute of - does human philosophy have any validity, or is our philosophy determined purely by Hashem's will.

      Incidentally, applying Jewish Law to the issue of the punishment of the Mitzrim seems to be inappropriate, since for עכו"ם, Hashem is מצרף מחשבה למעשה.

      There is a story in the מעם לועז about the Ramban deputizing someone to make sure that when a certain מוסר went to be tovel, he would not come out, וכך הוי. About a week later, the deputy dies a מיתה משונה. People came to the Ramban saying that this proved that the whole מעשה was wrong.
      Replied the Ramban: the action was correct. The agent was punished because he had inappropriate pleasure when he did it [as opposed to pleasure in קיום המצוה.]

    2. The Hafla'a in Kesuvos 3, but more clearly and far more generally in his Givas Pinchas #2, says that an oneis gamur who says, what the heck, I might as well enjoy myself, is chayav exactly like a guy who is a meizid gamur. This would be helpful in answering the Rambam's kashe on the Mitzrim getting in trouble, or, since the Rambam doesn't say it, it's a raya farkert. Anyway, obviously the Hafla'a doesn't apply to someone administering Missas Beis Din. He's allowed to enjoy himself. Fore! A Kana'ai, is, I think most people say, not allowed to enjoy himself. So lechoira was see that there are some things that are b'etzem Kosher, some that are not, and some that are in between.

    3. Interesting, since I haven't found any sources for מתעסק בחלבים ועריות other that simple סברה: שכל נהנה.

      Is somebody who has to [אונס] eat on Yom Kippur allowed to enjoy himself?

    4. Not according to the Haflaah, that's for sure.

      I was in the Kollel this morning looking for the Givas Pinchas, which is not available online, and to look at the Haflaah again, and I ran one of the Rosh Yeshivas of the mechina in the building, and he was well aware of the Haflaa, but only from the Haflaah, not the Givas Pinchas, and I'm not convinced you can make a klal from what he says there. On amud beis he applies it on the basis of מעלה מעל on her husband, and on aa he applies it to im lo basi.

  2. 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?

    Well, intention does have a very important role in yibum: If not done for the right intention, it's arayos.

  3. Anonymous2:37 PM

    ""What comes around goes around.""

    Yosef put Mitzrim to work building storage facilities for the surplus of
    the first 7 years-- now bnei Yisrael were put to work building Pisome &
    Ra'amses; Yosef left the Egyptian people landless (47:20)-- now bnei Yisrael were disenfranchised...

    "10 makkos and the drowning" for "enslavement and persecution"

    or for refusing to release bnei Yisrael from 7:13 on?

  4. chaim b.11:02 AM

    >>>Is somebody who has to [אונס] eat on Yom Kippur allowed to enjoy himself?

    Unless you are eating food that is pagum completely, isn't enjoying it (at least to some degree) inevitable?

    1. Yes, but he's talking about sitting down with a big smile and a hineni muchan. Or someone who has to eat chazer, or turtles, and he says "Great! I've always wanted to taste them."

    2. I figured out what you mean. You're thinking of mis'aseik bichlavim v'arayos, and there, basic hanaah is hanaah. He's talking about hana'ah beyond what is unavoidable, like לא אפשר וקמכוין, which makes you like a meizid.

  5. I talked about this on Shabbos. I realized that the way you/rav Charlop have it is backwards. The Ramban is saying that like Hashem yislach lah, kavana is what matters. Also the Gemara in eiruvin about the fisherman throwing a net and unwittingly saving a child. The Rambam is not even talking about that. He's addressing yediah ubechira. Additional relevant case- what Yosef said to his brothers.