What Must A Community Know?

By Rabbi Yitzchak Adlerstein

Posted on 08/25/20 | From Cross-Currents

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Every now and then, I am bowled over by some piece of Torah that I read. Even if I wrote the words myself. Such was the case after I finished writing my weekly parshah shiur last week.

For a long time, I have taken a single sefer each year, and adapted one piece for each weekly parshah on Torah.org. This year’s choice has been Meshivas Nafesh, by Rav Yochanan Luria, who lived in Alsace in the second half of the 15th century. Among other reasons, his thoughts are particularly interesting because you can still see the style of the Rishonim in his words at times, very committed to issues of basic pshat. At other times, however, you see him breaking new ground, in forays that anticipate later drush works.

When I finished writing the paragraphs below, it struck me that he was reaching out across the centuries to address our community today:

Alternatively, we can detect a second approach to our parshah by noting its juxtaposition to what precedes it: “When you besiege a city for many days to wage war against it…do not destroy its trees.”[1] The city might be an allusion to the individual, in the same manner as the “small city, and few people in it, and a great king comes against it.”[2] This is interpreted as an allusion to the constant besieging of a person by the yetzer hora. Similarly, here in our section of Devarim, the city may represent an individual taking strong measures against his own impulses. Wishing to rid himself of his weakness for comfort and pleasure, he besieges his own being. He attempts for long periods of time to deaden parts of himself through constant fasts, privation, and self-denial.

To such a person the Torah speaks, “Do not destroy its trees.”[3] Don’t damage the body. “Only a tree that know is not a food tree, it you may destroy.”[4] Only those things that are completely non-essential – things that are luxuries – you may rid yourself of.

You might counter that the gemara relates several stories about individuals who, as part of their repentance, practiced self-denial to the point of death. We should not learn from them; this is not the best way to go. Possibly, those individuals knew enough about themselves that there was no way back from their sin other than in extreme measures against the body. They do not serve as a general model.

This is the other message of our section. “If a corpse will be found…[and] it was not known who smote him.”[5] No one knows why he died. No one killed him! He died through his own ill-advised practice of abusing himself. Tragically, he was not aware of better ways to live. The townspeople had not broadcast proper conduct and behavior to the masses. They must all gather and perform the mitzvah of the decapitated heifer. They all need atonement – the living, and the one who died through his own actions. The living declare that their hands did not shed his blood – at least not directly.

That, however, does not acquit them. “Our eyes did not see.”[6] They must say that they were unaware of the way he was treating himself. Had they known, they would have intervened and reasoned with him. Furthermore, they were not aware of such conduct in general. If they had been, they would have taken steps to properly educate the community to stay away from practices of mortifying the flesh.

Even it that declaration is true, they still require atonement. People are obligated to learn – and to anticipate crucial needs of the community, even when they have no personal experience with them!

In his day, the self-destructive behavior that R. Luria noticed was tied to ideas about teshuva through punishing or suppressing the body and its desires. This would not be at the top of our list of social ills today. If, however, you take his comments to refer to all sorts of similar behavior, he could have written the piece about alcohol abuse, or drug abuse, or anorexia, or gambling, or molestation, or [fill in the blank.] His point would remain the same. If the community leaders know about the problem, they are dutybound to get involved. If they don’t, they are negligent in not knowing about about social ills that plague it.

It’s almost as if R. Luria had come back almost six centuries later to write a plug for Amudim.

  1. Devarim 20:19

  2. Koheles 9:14

  3. Devarim 20:19

  4. Devarim 20:20

  5. Devarim 21:1

  6. Devarim 21:7