5767 - #06


Eila Ezkara found in the Repetition of the Yom Kippur Musaf is an extremely moving prayer that centres on the tragic story of the Ten Martyrs, ten great sages who died at the hands of the Romans. The prayer begins with a mockery of justice as the Roman emperor attempts to justify his barbarous treatment of these great men by declaring them culpable, as surrogates, for the criminal behaviour of Yosef’s brothers in selling Yosef into slavery. It is a mockery for why should one pay for the sin of another.1 It is a mockery for how can one even think of the sons of Yaakov in such a denigrating manner. They were great and holy men, not simple criminals; anyone familiar with the midrashic presentations on this story and the words of the various commentators would know the complexity and depth of consideration in their behaviour. The problem is that anyone familiar with the actual Torah text would also know the wayward ease with which one can easily develop the perception of this Roman emperor.

            This challenge of understanding is not an isolated occurrence. Again and again we find a sense of tension between the presentation of a story or episode in the text and the words of the midrash and the commentaries. The paradox is actually inherent in the text. We constantly encounter stories of great and holy people yet, strangely, these stories do not seem to support this description of their nature; rather they, in fact, challenge it. Hagar and Yishmael are not only exiled from their home but are sent into a hostile environment, by Avraham Avinu and Sarah Imeinu, with only minimum resources.2 Is this the behaviour we would expect from the righteous? Nonetheless this is the nature of numerous stories in the text, stories that not only do not seem to demonstrate the saintliness of our founding family but even point to, what would seem to be, inherent moral weaknesses. In a similar vein, we can also consider a parallel problem in connection to the presentation, in the text, of such individuals as Esav. The midrash clearly enunciates and proclaims his evil; but does the text support this perception? The simple reading of the text can, in fact, even bring forth emotions of sympathy for Esav. A strange dichotomy seems to exist. Our oral tradition informs us of the inherent nature of many Biblical personalities. The problem is that the text often does not seem to support these presentations.

            An argument that the Torah text presents our forefathers in a truthful manner, even with faults, does not solve this difficulty. A continuous debate exists amongst the commentators in regard to how we should look at tzadikkim, righteous individuals, especially those mentioned in the Bible. There are those who maintain that we must see them in a category beyond the confines of humanity and understand their stories and lives fully within a context of unearthly virtue. The Biblical text clearly presents a challenge to such a perspective. There are those, though, who maintain that we must see them as human beings and understand the stories of their lives from a perspective of humanity. Even this perspective is also challenged by the text. The issue is not fallibility. The famous words of Ramban, Bereishit 12:10 do not


alleviate this problem of the text by asserting that we are willing to accept the reality of weakness, albeit minimal, in the members of our founding family. The stories we encounter in the Chumash do not simply relay errors in judgement or thoughtless indiscretions. In cases such as the story of Hagar and Yishmael, we encounter, what would seem to be, clear moral indiscretion. Such behaviour would seem to be out of character even for one with a commitment to general moral principles, let alone two individuals of such magnitude who are intended to serve as powerful models of an ideal. This is precisely why the text is so difficult. Saying, especially over and over again, that they were still human does not suffice to answer this question. Simple acceptance of the views of the midrash also does not suffice to answer this challenge. Why does the Torah present the stories in the manner that it does? If the midrashic explanations of the events are true, why does the Torah not just convey what occurred directly in the text? Effectively, why create the question and the challenge?  

         The story of Hagar and Yishmael becomes pivotal in presenting a solution to this quandary and offering an important insight into our reading of the Torah text. In instructing Avraham to listen to the words of Sarah Imeinu, God is really informing us that Sarah was correct. This may be an important assumption for the reading of other Biblical stories as well. Upon just reading a story such as this one, the reader will arrive at a certain perception of the story and the characters in the story. In this case, the simple reading of the story would seem to be negative. But then we are told that God said this behaviour was correct. We are being told that this behaviour was actually positive; that this behaviour, in fact, supports the assertion that this is a story of righteousness. Effectively we are given the answer to the question; we just don’t know the reason. The point of the midrashim and the commentaries may be, in fact, to present this reason. They are not re-writing the story. Their objective is actually to give insight so that we can understand that indeed this story is a story of righteousness. But why not just present it that way?

         The Torah is presenting a most important lesson about righteousness. Virtue does not exist in a vacuum. The actions of a tzaddik do not flow solely from his/her being; we cannot see righteousness just in the evaluation of a behaviour in the context solely of a personality. Ethical behaviour must consider the surroundings and the situation. There are indeed cases where a behaviour considered ethical in a vacuum, without consideration of circumstances, would become unethical in specific conditions. And there are situations that would turn immoral behaviour, deemed as such in a vacuum, into a righteous action.

         This may be a great underlying lesson of the Torah text. In relaying these paradoxical stories, the Torah is telling us of the need to evaluate the entire context of an event. The Torah is teaching us a process. We could have been told the entire story, as eventually elucidated in the midrash and commentaries but then we would not have learned emphatically the need to see beyond the simple, first perception of an event. We are ultimately being told that righteousness is not easy to achieve nor, often, easy to be determined and perceived. It demands thought, analysis and complex decisions. The Torah repeats this lesson again and again. Here is the simple perception of this event. The individuals in this story, though, are great, righteous individuals;3 the story would seem not to support such an assertion. But the answer is that they are virtuous. Go and learn. Go and work it out. Thereby you’ll learn what being a tzaddik or striving to be a tzaddik is really all about. It is a product of thought.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht e-mail


1 Of course, this is a broad and complex issue in Jewish thought as we seem to find conflicting sources on this subject. The reality is that we are also all interrelated and, as such, one’s behaviour may reflect upon the nature of another. Nevertheless, the simplistic presentation of the culpability, as presented in the prayer, reflects, within the theme of this story, an intent to pervert justice in the words of the Roman emperor.   

2 The full story covers Bereishit c. 16 and 21:9-21.

3 When one also considers the words of Ramban in challenging the actions of Avraham, one sees that the process is even more complex. The potential to see incorrect behaviours in the stories is not totally discarded. The result adds a further dimension to this process. The result is that one is truly learning the mechanism of righteousness rather than a dogmatic presentation of actions. Virtue cannot be mimicked. One cannot become a tzaddik by simply observing the actions of the righteous and incorporating such behaviour in one’s actions. One has to understand the process of thought behind the actions. The tzaddik is ultimately not one who acts correctly. He or she is one who analyzes and decides correctly. The infrequent cases of a mistake make this point. The fact that at first sight the general population often does not see the correctness of a behaviour makes this point.


Nishma, 2007

Return to top