STONED TO DEATH WITH LOVE
August 13, 2013
Rabbi H. Greenberg in #892, Ki Seitzei, Parsha Thought

The Talmud also states that G-d uprooted Mount Sinai and placed it over their heads and threatened to crush them (“stone” them) with the mountain unless they accepted the Torah! How can we reconcile these two diametrically opposite characterizations of the Jewish people’s acceptance of the Torah? Did they accept it willingly or did G-d have to threaten them with stoning?

ANOTHER ENIGMATIC MIDRASH

One of the more enigmatic Midrashic texts elaborates on the words in this week’s parsha: “If you shall build a new house make a fence around the roof.”

The Midrash makes the following puzzling statement:

When G-d said “if you shall build a new house…” the ministering angels asked Him, “why did you give the Torah to Israel?”

He replied, “Did I not write in the Torah ‘You shall not take G-d’s name in vain?’”

The ministering angels retorted, “Did You not write in the Torah the section concerning the rebellious son?”

He replied to them, “The rebellious son incurs the penalty of stoning.”

What is the connection between the Mitzva to erect a safety fence so that no one falls off the roof with G-d giving the Torah to Israel? And how do these two themes connect with the commandment not to take G-d’s name in vain and the rebellious son?

THE NEW HOUSE: A NEW CHALLENGE

“Building a new house” can be understood on many levels. In addition to its literal meaning, it can be understood as a reference to the time a person is born, that is to say when the soul descends from on high and takes up residence in a new home, i.e., the body. For the soul, the entire experience of coexisting with a physical body is uncharted territory. When the soul is in Paradise, it knows no temptations and has none of the challenges that confront a soul when it is enclosed within a body.

The new house can also be understood to refer to the entire world, which G-d created so that, through our efforts, it will eventually become His home. The world that G-d created and is a home to all of His creatures is to be transformed into a new home, one that fully expresses its G-dly identity. Indeed, this is what the Messianic Age is all about. It is the time when we shall see the fruit of our labors, performed over the long history of our observance of the Torah and its Mitzvos: when the old world is finally, and for all time, transformed into a G-dly world, a totally new world.

However, there are many pitfalls along the way in the soul’s journey—as well as the collective journey of all humanity—to build this new home. The Torah therefore commands us to erect a fence to prevent falling off the path. When a soul is disembodied, it faces no pitfalls; there is no threat of falling, in the moral and spiritual sense of the word. However, as soon as our souls enter the material world to start their new venture, they find so many hurdles, obstacles, traps and challenges that without special protective measures we will likely fall. If we fall that means that the journey of the soul into this world was in vain, and G-d’s home—both the macro and the micro—will remain incomplete.

THE ANGELS’ ARGUMENT

When G-d decided to give the Torah to Moses on behalf of the Jewish people, the angels protested. Why, they asked, would G-d give Divine wisdom to mortals? Moses responded that humans need the Torah precisely because it was designed for us mortals to use to refine ourselves and enable us to transform the world into a new house.

However, whenever the Jewish people seem to falter and frustrate G-d’s plan to make this world a G-dly edifice through our observance of the commandments, the angels return with a formidable challenge to G-d, “If building a new home is so fraught with danger that without a fence, i.e., extra measures of security, humans are likely to fall, then the house will never be completed. Why then send any soul into this hostile world armed only with a Torah, where the likelihood is that it will not be observed properly.”

Some days, it seems that the angels had a valid argument.

IT’S NOT IN VAIN

G-d’s response was “Did I not write in the Torah ’You shall not take G-d’s name in vain’?”

How does that respond to their challenge?

These words literally mean do not swear falsely or needlessly thereby unnecessarily invoking G-d’s name. They can also convey the message that anything to which G-d attaches His name, His imprimatur, cannot possibly be in vain. Every soul contains Divine energies that are represented by G-d’s name.

The most essential of Divine names is known as the Tetragrammaton. It is comprised of the letters Yud, Hei, Vav, and Hei. The Yud, which is a dot, represents the faculty of chochma, the intuitive flash of insight that is the very first and most abstract expression of the soul. It is the faculty that is most receptive to apprehending G-d. The Hei, an expansive letter, is representative of the soul’s intellectual ability to analyze and draw inferences and make G-d’s presence grasped by the human mind. The letter Vav—which is a straight vertical line—is representative of the soul’s emotions, which, like the vertical line itself, enable the person to relate to and connect with others and so is the part of our soul that generates feelings of love and reverence for G-d. The final letter, Hei, represents the power of speech and action through which the soul can have an impact on the physical world. Our soul is thus G-d’s instrument in making this world a G-dly world.

We were given the Torah to help the soul release its G-dly energy. Torah, the Zohar states, is G-d’s name. However, unlike the soul, the Torah cannot be clouded by the physical world, although it deals with physical concepts and situations. The overt G-dly light, contained in and transmitted through Torah, empowers us to reveal the Divine imprimatur of our soul.

G-d’s response to the angels thus was that ultimately the “house” will be built. G-d’s name, i.e., the combined power of the soul and Torah, cannot possibly fail. G-d’s name cannot be in vain.

THE REBELLIOUS SON

The angels were still not convinced.

Their next “challenge” to G-d was: “Did You not write in the Torah the section concerning the rebellious son?”

They were referring of course to the commandment in this week’s parsha, which deals with a hypothetical case in which an adolescent who stole meat and wine was initially chastised with corporal punishment. If he persists, the ultimate punishment is death. The Talmud states that this case was purely hypothetical. The legal technicalities needed for conviction were deliberately made so onerous that it is impossible for the rebellious child to get the death penalty.

Why then does the Torah speak of a crime for which there is no chance of punishment?

It is to teach us the danger of neglecting our responsibility for the moral education of our youth. That neglect can lead to the most heinous crimes and the total breakdown of society. We must, therefore, adopt the strongest measures to nip the problem in the bud.

The angels thus argued, aren’t humans very much like the errant child who cannot be rehabilitated? If so, what are the chances that the Torah will have a salutary effect on the people? When a human is young, he or she is prone to rebellion, leading to utter destruction of the “house.” The Jewish people started their sojourn in the desert with constant rebellion. How can they be trusted with the Torah to build a new house when they are simultaneously contributing to its demolition?

THREE DIMENSIONS OF STONING

G-d’s final response to them was: “The rebellious son incurs the penalty of stoning.”

Commentators explain that the severity of the punishment was meant as a deterrent to the rebellious son. Knowing the harshness of the penalty serves as shock treatment for the recalcitrant child.

On a simple level, G-d’s response to the angels is that knowing the consequences of undermining the fulfillment of G-d’s plan to create a new house will motivate us to return to G-d and commit to the Torah with that much more vigor. The very stark realization that we can destroy everything we have built will be enough to jolt us into compliance.

On a deeper level, one can also say that “stoning” is intended as a metaphor.

According to the Talmud, when G-d offered the Torah to the Jewish people they responded enthusiastically with the words “Naaseh v’nishma-We will do and we will listen.” Yet, the Talmud also states that G-d uprooted Mount Sinai and placed it over their heads and threatened to crush them (“stone” them) with the mountain unless they accepted the Torah!

How can we reconcile these two diametrically opposite characterizations of the Jewish people’s acceptance of the Torah? Did they accept it willingly or did G-d have to threaten them with stoning?

One of the answers, found in Chassidic literature, is that the mountain G-d placed over them was a mountain of love. The mountain was like the chuppa-wedding canopy that expresses the overwhelming love and protection afforded to us by G-d. This manifestation of love was so powerful that they could not possibly refuse G-d.

Perhaps the meaning of stoning here, at least with respect to the rebellious son, is that he will ultimately return to G-d, Who, we believe will not allow any Jew to be left behind as we move into the Messianic Age. G-d’s unlimited love and compassion for us will envelop us. We will be “stoned” with love.

On a deeper level yet, according to the ancient Kabbala text Seifer Yetzira, a stone is a metaphor for letters. Two stones-letters can create two houses, i.e., two words, etc.

G-d’s response to the angels meant that the letters of the Torah contain so much positive energy and light that even the wayward child, or the spirit of rebelliousness within us, will not undermine the “New House.” On the contrary, the letters of Torah that we read and learn will actually facilitate the completion of the house in which G-d will ultimately take up residence.

Article originally appeared on Beis Moshiach Magazine (http://beismoshiachmagazine.org/).
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