What visible scars do you carry with you? What are the ways in which you are hurt that are impossible to hide? We seem to collect more of these as we go through life. First surprised to find them, and then if not resigned, certainly more than aware we will endure them. While you can think of those physical, tangible, wounds you may carry, that is not what I primarily mean.
The holidays are about repenting, teshuvah, but the corollary is forgiveness, mechilah and selichah, without which teshuvah is impossible.
Yet there are many wrongs done to us for which teshuvah on the part of the wrongdoer never comes. Never offers the healing necessary. And in those cases, we may bear wounds because of it. And even when teshuvah has been done, there is still the issue of what happens with the scars, though healed, that we, the wronged, carry with us.
There is a story I feel an urgency to share with you on this topic. A story about the power that comes with the ability to forgive, or at least to free oneself, at least to start to heal oneself, to exert one’s own God-given agency over one’s life, and learn to live even with the hurt emotional, mental, spiritual, hurts we all come to carry.
The Talmud is not organized the way you might want it to be. This great compendium of Jewish law, theology, customs, and stories, does not read like a dictionary, organized A to Z. It is not the Bill of Rights covering one topic and moving to the next. It is stream of conscious, it leaves ideas and question unresolved, it doesn’t always make clear who is saying what. It reads like a Faulkner novel, like a student’s bad classroom notes. At least on the surface anyway.
Yet there we can find a subtler organization if we search for it. We can see the editors put the stories together with thought, just not the thought process you or I might employ. Nevertheless, in struggle to bring order to confusion, well earned lessons about life reveal themselves.
Around a month and a half ago in the cycle of the Daf Yomi, the practice of reading a folio page of Talmud a day, we encounter a teaching by a sage whose name is Rabbi Jacob the son of the daughter of Rabbi Jacob. It’s a unique mouthful of a name.
He presents a teaching on the topic under discussion, which is whether the priests in the Temple should cast lots over which of them received the offerings by the Jews that were given to the priests for their sustenance. His contribution to the discussion seems to teach that anything that can keep the priests from arguing (in this case, casting lots) over the sacred gifts is worth doing so as not to make a good thing bad and a cause for fighting.
As is often the case, when one teaching of a rabbi is stated, the Talmud will give us more by the same sage. Doing so gives us a little picture of the teacher – we see perhaps a little of their thought process, get a little story going about them that deepens what they have to say through our knowing them better.
Now we already know something about Rabbi Jacob. We know something through his name. Unlike the typical, so-and-so, the son of his father, which we normally get and still do, his father’s name is omitted for a very clunky son of the daughter of the grandfather.
It’s a name that labels him very clearly as, if not a bastard, then at least, as the Masoret ha-Shas commentary explains, ‘brei’ u’mishum sh’aviv lo hayah hagun, lifichach lo hizkiru, “’son of the daughter’ on account of his father not be respectable, therefore, he is not mentioned.” A person with a wicked father.
Imagine what he must have brought into every interaction introducing himself that way or being known as such. Is it like the way one might think of the divorced person, the person who has served time in jail or prison, the person who was abused? The person towards whom we probably should feel some sympathy and understanding, or towards whom we should not ascribe any particular feelings, and yet, who, even if we can’t help it, we might look at with just a little suspicion, derision, or condescension.
With that in mind, what is his second teaching presented after the first one?
וְאָמַר רַבִּי יַעֲקֹב בְּרֵיהּ דְּבַת יַעֲקֹב: כָּל שֶׁחֲבֵירוֹ נֶעֱנָשׁ עַל יָדוֹ — אֵין מַכְנִיסִין אוֹתוֹ בִּמְחִיצָתוֹ שֶׁל הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא
“And Rabbi Jacob, son of the daughter of Jacob, said: Anyone who causes another to be punished on his account, they do not bring him within the court of the Holy Bless One, even if he is right in doing so.”
An example of how this works is given regarding King Ahab. The beginning of the king’s demise came about when his supporters began to question him. This came about because the spirit of Naboth, who Ahab had had murdered so as to steal his property, went out and made people believe lies and debasing and wicked things about the king. Though King Ahab clearly deserved it, nevertheless, we are told, that for doing this, Naboth’s spirit was punished by being separated from God.
What’s the overall principle here? We are told, גַּם עֲנוֹשׁ לַצַּדִּיק לֹא טוֹב״” - “Punishment is also not good for the righteous” (Proverbs 17:26), meaning that it is not good for a righteous person to issue punishment.
What do we learn from these two teaching by Rabbi Jacob the son of a son of a…bad man? That he brings to his teachings a concern for forgiveness and togetherness. Whether it’s keeping the priests from fighting over what should be their holy privilege, or reminding us that even to punish evil-doers can be a risk to the spiritual welfare of the good person, encouraging unity and fellow-feeling in the most difficult of times is the mission of this man.
Rabbi Jacob, who grew up being scarred by a father who utterly failed to understand this. Rabbi Jacob, who endured the scorn and looks of those who judged him for the family in which he was born.
Rather than be imprisoned by his hurts by his sufferings, he overcame them. He used them as impetus for good and healing.
Let all of us consider embracing this lesson with regards to our own injuries. While I cannot compel you to do so, you may choose to. You may choose to rise about those who’ve hurt you and also be a force for healing and good in the world. And what an example, what a world we could create! L’shanah Tovah and Shabbat Shalom!