Ethics – Now & Then 43 – Avot 3:15

Avot 3:15

Rabbi Elazar of Modin said, “One who desecrates sacred things, who treats the Festivals with scorn, who humiliates his fellow in public, who nullifies the covenant of our forefather
Abraham, and who interprets the Torah in a manner contradictory to halacha,
though he may have Torah and good deeds he has
 no share in the World to Come.”

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Rabbi Elazar of Modin said…

Rabbi Elazar (or Eliezer) was a young disciple of the renowned Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai. He lived a few miles west of Jerusalem in the Hasmonean town of Modi’in, home of the Maccabees. He was very highly regarded as a Sage, particularly in the area of aggadah – homiletic interpretation, parables, allegories and lessons that convey morals and encouragement. He had a great trust in the faithful provision of God and, no doubt with reference to God’s miraculous provision of manna in the wilderness at the Exodus, he would say: “The One who creates the day creates its sustenance. He who has food for the day and worries over what he may find to eat the next day, is of those who have little faith.” [1] Rather a challenging concept for those of us who enjoy the plenty of Western society!

Rabbi Elazar was an uncle of Bar Kochba, who many hailed as the Messiah who would deliver Israel from Roman oppression and who eventually led a revolt against the Roman army in 132 CE/AD. After many battles, the Romans eventually besieged Bar Kochba in the fortress of Bethar. Rabbi Elazar fasted and prayed that his nephew would prevail but it is said that a “treacherous Cushite” caused Bar Kochba to suspect him of treason and in a fit of rage he killed the Sage. Soon after, Bethar fell. [2]

One who desecrates sacred things…

The Hebrew word translated as ‘sacred things’ is kedoshim, from the root word kadosh – holy. Another related word is kedushah – holiness or sanctity. While the Holy Temple was standing in Jerusalem, the term kedoshim (sacred or holy things) usually referred to the physical things connected with the Temple, such as the buildings and the ground itself, the furniture in the Holy Place and the Ark in the Holy of Holies, and also the items used in the rituals of worship.

The sacrifices and Temple offerings were considered particularly kadosh. Rabbi Bunim points out that they “were regulated by special rigorous laws of sanctity.” For example, when the cohen (priest) offered certain sacrifices, he was allowed to eat an allotted portion, but “for no more than one day and one night, and that only within the confines of the Temple.” [3] How, then, does one desecrate or profane things sacred? Bunim offers, “Man profanes the sacred when he ignores its special character and even considers it something ordinary.”

… [who] treats the Festivals with scorn,

Rabbi Elazar connects the profanation of sacred physical objects with scorning or belittling the Festivals – the appointed times set by God in His Word. The first thing in the Bible that God calls kadosh, holy, is the Sabbath – the seventh day of Creation. Here, in the first chapter of Genesis, ‘holy’ is defined as something specifically set apart unto Him; just as a beloved wife is set apart from other women unto her husband.

The opposite of ‘holy’ is not ‘wicked.’ The six regular days of the week, or all other women in the case of a husband, are not ‘bad’ but are regarded as ‘ordinary’ in contrast to the one that is specifically chosen and set apart for God’s particular pleasure and purposes. The specified biblical Festivals, in like manner, have their times and purposes ordained by God. In addition to their historical context, they are rich in spiritual content and carry blessing upon blessing and depths of meaning, some beyond our understanding. We know that Jesus and his earthly family, as well as Paul and the other disciples, all observed and enjoyed the Festivals that honored and brought pleasure to the Father. It is sad to realize that, even if not blatantly scorned, they are ignored or regarded as irrelevant by many followers of Jesus today.

…[who] humiliates his fellow in public,

This is an interesting segue from scorning the Festivals of God and holy objects to shaming a fellow human being in public. Human beings are created in the image of God, with the potential and power to fulfill His exhortation to “be holy as I am holy.” This can only be done in harmony and relationship with God, and in eager cooperation with His expressed will. He has made His will clear in His Torah, or teachings, through His prophets and through His uniquely begotten and beloved Son, Yeshua, who perfectly lived and demonstrated the will of the Father as it applies to all His children.

Only people can “remember” and “observe” the times and commandments of God and thereby infuse otherwise ordinary things with their spiritual depth of meaning, causing the blessings of God they contain to pour forth. God’s stamp, as it were, of His holiness in the spirit of a human being is what sets him or her apart from the animals. When the sacred things of God are disregarded or scorned this, not surprisingly, can result in the belittling and mocking of other people. This dangerous trait can begin with seemingly innocent “put down” jokes, which then escalate to subtle and often blatant discrimination and bullying.

These negative attitudes can infiltrate a society and culture and we have seen the tragic consequences in the horrors and abuses of slavery and Nazi Germany; also of war in general and the trafficking and subjugation of women and children to this day. Any such action is harmful enough when done privately, but the public humiliation of a human being is very grievous to the heart of God; enough, so the Sages of Israel say, that doing so without repentance causes the perpetrator to have “no share in the World to Come.”

…who nullifies the covenant of our forefather Abraham,

Abraham was called by God as the first Hebrew, Ivri – from the root word meaning ‘to cross over.’ He crossed over from the pagan kingdoms of the world into the Kingdom of God. In so doing, he entered into covenant relationship with God and became the father, together with Isaac and Jacob, of the family of Israel and, in turn, of those children of God in all the earth who would heed the call of Heaven in His Son and Messiah, the Light of the world, and choose to cross over and be adopted as sons and daughters into His household of faith.

The physical sign of this Kingdom covenant with Abraham was the circumcision of male offspring. In Jewish tradition, this is a sacred ritual performed on the eight day after birth, which has been medically proven to be the most appropriate day. The biological event of the birth of a child, whether boy or girl, is a wonder in itself but, robbed of its spiritual context, it can be reduced to an ordinary animal-level event. In recognizing a child as one born into the family of God with the heritage of our forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and as one who bears the image of God, one can dedicate him or her into the hands of the living God and make the commitment to teach the child of His truth and ways.

…and who interprets the Torah in a manner contradictory to halacha,

The Torah is not simply a history book or a philosophical tome. We need to approach it with deepest respect and value it as the Word of God. It is His revelation of Himself and His gift to mankind. By treating it lightly and and trying to twist its meaning for one’s own ends and thereby distorting or perverting it, is seen as profaning its holiness. Therefore this injunction is included in this list of sins that are, in effect, rebellion against God Himself.

Interestingly enough, Yeshua speaks into this subject when he says to his disciples:

“Do not think that I have come to do away with the Torah or the words of the Prophets;
I have only come to fulfil it, and truly I say to you, until heaven and earth are destroyed, not one ‘yud’ or one ‘tag’ will be lost from the Torah until all is done.
And whoever should relax one of the lightest commandments or teach this to others will not be called to the kingdom of Heaven; but whoever does them or teaches this to others will be called to the kingdom of Heaven.”  (Matthew 5:17-19)

In the verse above, “contradictory to halacha” means in contradiction or opposition to normative means of interpretation as recognized in Jewish law. A framework of interpretation was set by the sages; the most well-known being the thirteen principles set forth in the Baraita of Rabbi Ishmael (found here on Wikipedia). These principles ranged from standard rules of logic (e.g., an argument that denotes an inference from smaller to bigger and vice versa, קל וחומר —  Kal v’Chomer) to more expansive ones, such as Gezerah Shavah, the rule that a passage could be interpreted by reference to another passage in which the same word appears. Hermeneutical flexibility was given as long as it did not pervert the simple, basic meaning of the text or deny its validity in any way.

In traditional Jewish thinking, and in reaction to heretical groups such as the Gnostics and Marcians and Karaites, three peoples who could be classified as ‘One Who Denies Torah’ are:4

  • One who denies that even one verse or one word of the Torah is from God. Including those who say: “Moses made these statements independently”
  • One who denies Torah’s interpretation, the oral law or disputes the authority of its spokesmen, as did Tzadok and Beitus
  • One who says that though the Torah came from God, the Creator has replaced one mitzvah, or commandment, with another one and nullified the original Torah. In later centuries this included antinomian Christianity and Islam.

…though he may have Torah and good deeds, he has no share in the world to come.

A person may have studied much of the Bible and may do many things that are good and in accord with the will of God, such as giving generously to those in need or leading a good family life; however, if he transgresses any of the issues listed here, he proves that the holiness of God and His Word are not part of his true being. It is this true being, the spirit of a person, that endures and exists in the glory of His Presence in the World to Come, when the Kingdom of God is established on earth for all eternity.

The Sages are quick to differentiate between those who deliberately rebel against God and those who err and sin due to weakness of the flesh. Only God Himself knows the true and deepest heart of each person and He is the ultimate Judge. The great gift given to all is that of teshuvah – repentance. As soon as a person’s eyes are opened to any sin of rebellion or error of understanding, the door of repentance and forgiveness is opened and one can fully and joyfully ‘cross over’ from darkness to light and be enfolded in the welcoming embrace of the Father.

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Footnotes:

1. Irving M. Bunim, Ethics from Sinai; 357
2. Ibid; 357
3. Ibid; 290
4. Wikipedia

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