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Friday, December 4, 2009

Measure for Measure? (Sotah 8b - 9b)

In Measure for Measure, Shakespeare asserts, “Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall” (Act II, Scene 1). In an ideal world goodness is rewarded, but sin is not.

In contrast, the Mishnah on Sotah 8b claims that not only is sin severely punished by God, but punishment is meted out precisely measure for measure; that is, according to each aspect of one’s sin, one is punished:
According to the measure with which one measures [out one’s actions], it is measured out to him. She [the sotah] adorned herself with sin; the Holy One blessed be God made her repulsive. She exposed herself to sin; the Holy One blessed be God held her up for exposure. She began the sin with the thigh and afterward with the belly; therefore she is punished first in the thigh and afterward in the belly – and the rest of the body does not escape.
The Gemara on 9b supplies an example of measure-for-measure punishment in a remarkable midrash on the story of the serpent in the Garden of Eden:
We thus find with the primeval serpent [in the Garden of Eden] that set its eyes on that which was not proper for it: what it sought was not granted to it and what it possessed was taken from it. The Holy One, blessed be God, said: “I declared: Let it be king over every animal and beast; but now, Cursed are you beyond all cattle and beyond every beast of the field (Genesis 3:14). I declared, let it walk erect; but now it shall crawl on its belly. I declared: Let its food be the same as that of humans; but now it shall eat dust. It said: I will kill Adam and marry Eve; but now, I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed (Genesis 3:15).” (Sotah 9b)
We already know from the Torah’s telling that the serpent was cursed for enticing Eve to eat the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. The Rabbis here suggest that its punishment is not in the least arbitrary: it is a one-for-one reflection of his overstepping proper boundaries. In each manner that the serpent seeks and takes too much, he correspondingly loses something.

My chevruta, Rabbi Rieser, pointed out that this midrash supplies motivation for the serpent to entice Eve that is absent from Torah’s account: the serpent desires Eve as his sexual partner. Rabbi Rieser’s point is well made, but I would add that as Torah tells the tale, the serpent’s motivation is his desire to manipulate and control, an attribute we all possess to one degree or another and which can lead us down dangerous paths. (We might compare the serpent to Anansi the Spider of West African and Caribbean folklore: he is a trickster endowed with a certain degree of wisdom and the power of speech; similarly, Coyote in Native American tales.) The power to influence the behavior of others is real power that inflates the ego; this is sufficient motivation.

Returning to the Gemara’s claim about divine punishment, I find three aspects troubling.

1. The first is the claim itself, which stands in stark contrast to the reality we experience. Yet we find it so ingrained in rabbinic thinking that we even find a passage in Ta’anit 21a in which Nachum Ish Gamzu explains to this students that the horrors and sufferings that have befallen him were not only deserved, but he actually requested them and God confirmed them as just (Nachum could hardly have brought these punishments on himself; God must have approved and acted in accord with his wish):
It is related of Nachum of Gamzu that he was blind in both his eyes, his two hands and legs were amputated, and his whole body was covered with boils… his disciples said to him, “Master, since you are wholly righteous, why has all this befallen you?” And he replied, “I have brought it all upon myself. Once I was journeying on the road and was making for the house of my father-in-law and I had with me three donkeys, one laden with food, one with drink, and one with all kinds of dainties, when a poor man met me and stopped me on the road and said to me, ‘Master, give me something to eat.’ I replied to him, ‘Wait until I have unloaded something from the donkey.’ I had hardly managed to unload something from the donkey when the man died [from hunger]. I then went and laid myself on him and exclaimed, ‘May my eyes which had no pity upon your eyes and become blind, may my hands which had no pity upon my hands be cut off, may my legs which had no pity upon your legs be amputated,’ and my mind was not at rest until I added, ‘May my whole body be covered with boils.‘” Thereupon his pupils exclaimed, “Alas! That we see you in such a sore plight.” To this he replied, “Woe would it be to me did you not see me in such a sore plight.” (Ta’anit 21a)
2. The second troubling aspect is that throughout Sotah we find the pervading presumption that the suspected adulteress is guilty. We know that the bitter waters can exonerate her, but the humiliation she is subjected to (daf 8 spells it out in graphic and disturbing detail) seems to presume that she is guilty until proven innocent to a far greater degree than Numbers chapter 5 suggests.

3. Should we truly aspire to seeing the guilty punished severely? I can understand the desire that those who grotesquely overstep boundaries lose accordingly – the Kenneth Lays and Bernie Madoffs, not to mention the Hitlers, Pol Pots, and Stalins – because it is a human response. In a truly ideal world, we would follow the teaching of Beruriah, the daughter of R. Tarfon and the wife of R. Meir:
There were once some robbers in the neighborhood of R. Meir who caused him a great deal of trouble. R. Meir accordingly prayed that they should die. His wife Beruriah said to him: How do you justify [that such a prayer should be permitted]? Is it because it is written (Psalm 104:35) Let chatta'im cease? Is it written “sinners”? It is written chot'imchatta'im “sins”! Further, look at the end of the verse: and let the wicked be no more. Since the sins will cease, there will be no more wicked people! Rather pray for them that they should repent, and there will be no more wicked. He did pray for them, and they repented. (Berakhot 10a)
While many who perpetrate evil are not open to repentance and rehabilitation, others are. Hopefully, we can aim higher than human revenge and divine retribution.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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