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Pirke Avot Chapter Five, verses eleven and twelve

We’ve had quite a long break, which I did not actually intend. I did not expect to have much of a chance to write notes on Christmas Day in the morning, nor yet on New Year’s Day, but I did have a vague sort of plan to write out a note in advance so that it would post itself on the Saturday. But I did not. Mostly because I am lazy, but partly because of the troublesome text (here in Judah Goldin’s translation):

Seven kinds of calamity come upon the world for seven classes of transgression: if some tithe and some do not, famine as a result of drought comes—some go hungry and [only] some have enough to eat; if [all] determine not to tithe, a famine as a result of tumult and of drought comes; and if [they resolved] not to set aside the dough-offering, an all-consuming famine comes.

Pestilence comes upon the world for crimes punishable by death according to the Torah which have not been turned over to the court, and for neglect of the law regarding the earth’s fruits in the sabbatical year. The sword comes upon the world for the delay of justice, for the perversion of justice, and because of those that teach the Torah not in accordance with the halakha. Evil beasts come upon the world for the taking of false oaths and for profaning the name. Exile comes upon the world for idolatrous worship, for unchastity, for bloodshed, and for neglect of the year of release of the land.

As I missed two weeks, and as the verses seem to go together, I will add the next verse here as well:

At four periods pestilence is on the increase: in the fourth year, in the seventh, at the departure of the seventh, and annually at the departure of the feast—

“In the fourth,” for neglecting the poor man’s tithe in the third; “in the seventh,” for neglecting the poor man’s tithe in the sixth year; “at the departure of the seventh year,” for neglecting the commandment to release the fruits of the earth during the seventh year; “annually at the departure of the feast,” for robbing the poor of their gifts.

Actually, this is the pivot between the sevens (verses ten and eleven) and the fours (verses twelve through eighteen), but the idea of crime and punishment draws the two verses together. And this is problematic for me, because of course I do not believe that the Divine causes famine or pestilence or drought because of misbehavior of the Jews. One can make the claim that natural disasters occur in some general sense due to people’s inadequate stewardship and preparation; Amartya Sen has persuasively argued that famine (by which we mean mass starvation) has political roots in inequality, rather than being a purely natural disaster. It’s possible that epidemics, also, spread because of poor governance rather than being entirely separate from human behavior. And of course the climate change we are beginning to experience is influenced by human activity, and whether our experience of it is truly calamitous will be largely decided by human activity. Given that, it is possible to describe these things as punishments for misbehavior. A better word would be consequences, but negative consequences are sometimes called punishments, even without someone doing the punishing. In cases like this, though, I don’t think it’s helpful to talk about the negative consequences as punishments, simply because I don’t think it helps people either avoid or ameliorate the consequences in question.

Still, even if I were to accept the word punishment for the negative consequences that follow on community misbehavior, it is in point of fact insane to believe that famine comes because people don’t burn a lump of dough whenever they bake bread. That’s superstition, not ethics, and falls in with the use of the mezuzah as an amulet against evil spirits (which the Sages also believed was the case) and spitting between your fingers to ward off the Evil Eye (which probably originates later). And we shouldn’t kid ourselves that the people who wrote this text were Like Us; they believed in magic and omens and specific acts of Divine retribution and reward for specific sins and good deeds. And while I suppose some Gentle Readers may believe in that stuff, I don’t. So what’s in the verse for me?

Particularly since I also don’t believe, as Menachem ben Solomon ha-Meiri did in the thirteenth century, that there is value in responding to a calamity by humbly examining your own behavior, seeking to interpret it as a punishment so as to goad yourself to a better life in the future. That is, as I interpret his commentary, that whether or not the calamity really is a specific punishment for a specific sin, it is salutary to believe that it is. I understand this idea—certainly it is better to look for one’s own sin in such a case than the far more common course of blaming somebody else’s sin—but I don’t accept it.

Look, if there is a crop failure, or a drought, or an epidemic, or flood or a hurricane or a tsumani, if there is a war or a revolution or nuclear fallout, the thing to do is to figure out what actually caused it, the actual sequence of events, because we can learn from that and change our behavior in ways that are actually useful. If letting the land lie farrow one year out of seven, then we should in fact be doing it, not because of the Levitical prohibition but because of the science. The correct response is not to cast blame on ourselves or on other people, but to get to work. Much as I hate to reject any of the verses—I do it, but I don’t like it—we won’t avert disaster with sackcloth and ashes like the people of Nineveh. We’ll do it with action, in the lab and in the governments and (one hopes) on the streets, because that way works, and the other way does not.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.