|Pirkei Avot: The Voice of Torah 5:10|
|Written by Rabbi Chaim Goldberger|
Avot [5:10] – Seven kinds of suffering come to the world for seven kinds of transgressions. (This Mishnah lists the first three:)
a) If some people separate maaser (tithes) and some do not, a famine of batzores comes in which some go hungry and some are satisfied.
b) If all the people made a decision not to separate maaser, a famine of mehumah (bewilderment) and batzores comes
c) If the decision was made not to separate challah, a famine of k’layah (complete destruction) comes.
1) It is generally understood that reward and punishment take place in the world to come. What is this Mishnah saying by telling us that certain punishments for certain sins are activated here?
2) Some Rishonim explain the first case as being measure-for-measure punishment. But how can this be fair unless the people who failed to tithe are the same people who are going hungry (a condition seemingly not required by our Mishnah)?
3) Why is the first category of transgression that of not giving maaser? Why not explain what punishment will ensue if half the people are violating Shabbos, or committing theft or adultery? Why maaser?
4) From the fact that the famine in the second category is stronger than the one in the first, it is evident we are to learn the Mishnah as a progression of growing severity. Yet in the first category, people actually failed to take maaser. In the second, all they did was make a decision. How could that be worse than the actual transgression? Doesn’t the Talmud teach us that for a Jew, God does not consider something a transgression until it is actually carried out, not just contemplated? As written, the Mishnah is even hinting that if in the end, despite making the decision, they went ahead and separated the maaser anyway, it would still be worse. How could that possibly be?
5) The next category asserts that deciding not to separate challah is even worse than deciding not to separate maaser. This is very surprising. Challah is only one of many gifts that support the Kohen. Maaser is the only gift supporting the Levi. Withholding a Levi’s maaser will deprive him of his entire livelihood! How can challah be worse?
6) In the first category, the famine was one of batzores, and only half the people suffered. In the second category, we seem to be adding a second degree of famine so as to create a result in which the second half of the population will suffer as well. So, what is left to add in the third category? How much more can there be to a famine than the starvation of the entire population? In more general terms, what real difference does it make whether the famine comes about because of batzores (lack of rain), mehumah (marauding armies preventing the farmers from using the rain there is), or any other reason? Isn’t famine famine?
There is a deep insight here lying right beneath the surface meaning of this Mishnah. Let us think a minute. If a group of people is getting together and making a decision not to separate maaser from their crops, what type of people are they most likely to be?
Men. (Most farmers are men.)
If a group of people is making a decision not to separate challah from their dough, who are they most likely to be?
I believe this entire Mishnah is about relationships and what happens when one party stops keeping the commitments made as part of the relationship.
The Mishnah builds its opening categories around the transgression of maaser because maaser is first introduced in the Torah as a commitment made as part of a relationship.
Jacob took a vow saying, “If God will be with me, guard me on the way I am going, and give me bread to eat and clothes to wear…then this stone that I have set up [I will make into] a House of God, and everything You give me I will tithe. [Bereshit 28:20-22]
What happens – asks this Mishnah – when there are two parties to a relationship, and one of them stops fulfilling the part to which he had committed?
The answer, says the Mishnah, is that the other party suffers. When that party is God, and we are failing to live up to our covenants within the relationship we have with Him, suffering comes into the world. This is not a form of punishment – punishment is for the World to Come – but rather it is a way God uses from within our relationship to communicate to us that He is, as it were, in pain.
This disengagement from covenantal responsibilities can manifest itself in progressive degrees, each more severe than the previous one.
The first level is where some separate maaser and some do not. To what could we compare this in a relationship, say, of a husband and wife? Well, if we see it as the Jewish people having committed to perform the separation of maaser all the time and in fact doing it only some of the time, it would be like a man and woman who are getting married. He commits to her that he will take responsibility within the relationship for earning the family income. She commits that she will take responsibility for seeing that a hot meal is on the table every night when he gets home from work. But soon afterwards, she starts sliding and eventually winds up providing a meal only on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday nights. On Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday, her husband has to fend for himself.
How does he react? By communicating to his partner that he is suffering. For God, it means bringing a famine. In the case of our suffering husband, it would be some more conventional human way of communicating pain. But what is important is that it is a famine of “batzores”. In a previous discussion (see Pinchas III and IV – Avot 5-10), we learned how a plague associated with the word “batzores” is one in which the only purpose of the display of suffering is to goad the other party into inquiring what is wrong (like when a child cries not because the pain is unbearable but because something is bothering him and he wants someone to ask him why he is crying so he can explain what it is).
Then we learn about the second level. At this level, everybody makes a decision not to separate maaser. What does this compare to? Here, in our example, the wife is not saying she will never make him another dinner. She is saying, I am completely pulling out of my commitment to make dinner for you. I might make you dinner every night; I might never make it. But whereas, at the previous level, you could at least count on meals being provided on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, here you can never count on meals – even though you might actually receive them all the time. This leads to an expression of suffering by the affected party as well, but a somewhat different one. At this level, the famine (or other expression) is one of mehumah (bewilderment) and then batzores. When one party completely pulls out of a commitment on which the other party to the relationship had been relying, bewilderment is the first outcome. How am I going to continue to function without this support prop I have been leaning on? That feeling is temporary, and it fades when the person finds alternative ways of providing for himself. He continues to project batzores, though, because he wants the other party to be aware that they are causing him pain.
But our example is not completely accurate, for we have been describing a scenario in which the husband is maintaining his commitments while the wife is pulling out of hers. In fact, this second level is described as having the Jewish people decide not to separate maaser, a decision we said would be taken by a group of men. A truer example, then, would be a case where the wife is keeping her fundamental commitment to the marriage – that of remaining loyal to her husband – but the husband is the one who pulls out of his commitment to secure the family income. He might make the money, he might not – but he is rescinding his commitment. In such a case, says the Mishnah, the aggrieved wife will display her suffering as an amalgam of mehumah and batzores, being bewildered until she finds a way to take care of herself, and then continuing to show her suffering, but only to make sure the husband is aware that his actions have caused her pain.
That brings us to the third and most severe level, denoted in our Mishnah as everybody deciding not to separate challah. In this case, the famine is one of k’layah – complete destruction. This is because a decision not to separate challah is a decision taken by women. This scenario parallels a case in which a man is willing to maintain his commitment to provide his wife’s needs, but she pulls out of her commitment to remain loyal:
-- “Dear, I just took a new part time job, and I’ve noticed how many good-looking men work at the office, so don’t count on me anymore to be faithful. In fact, I may never fool around, but I need to rescind my commitment to fidelity, just in case something great really tempts me.”
The man is never as crucial to the relationship as the woman is. It can survive his dropping his commitments, albeit with great difficulties on the part of his suffering wife, and only if he is willing to understand how much pain he is putting her through by his lapse. But a relationship cannot abide the loss of commitment by the woman. This is the third level of our Mishnah. At this level, the affected husband can only respond with a “famine of destruction”, through which he makes it clear how the relationship has suffered a mortal blow.