June 22, 2021

Yoma 72

Some years ago I delivered a shiur on ‘How the Torah is often used as a defense for things that the Torah finds indefensible’, in which I highlighted a number of modern examples where Torah is misrepresented by Jews and religious leaders across the religious spectrum in the name of Torah, and reflecting on what inspired me to prepare and deliver that shiur, I drew inspiration from two sources.
Firstly, I drew inspiration from Rabbi Sacks’ magnificent book ‘Not in God’s Name’ which begins by stating how, ‘too often in the history of religion, people have killed in the name of the God of life, waged war in the name of the God of peace, hated in the name of the God of love and practised cruelty in the name of the God of compassion. When this happens, God speaks, sometimes in a still, small voice almost inaudible beneath the clamour of those claiming to speak on his behalf. What he says at such times is: Not in My Name.’ (Not in God’s Name p. 3).
And secondly, I drew inspiration from today’s daf (Yoma 72b) where Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Levi explains – based on his creative reading of Devarim 4:44 – that Torah is comparable to a סם (drug), whereby just as the Torah can be a סם חיים – a drug of life, it can also be used as a סם מיתה – a drug of death.
For those who write, teach and preach Torah laws and values, this is undoubtedly a frightening thought, because what it means is that it is possible to teach and preach Torah and actually cause damage and do real harm. Given this, what can be done to avoid the possibility of Torah being used as a סם מיתה?
I believe that the answer to this question is mentioned on a number of occasions – explicitly and implicitly – on our daf, which is that Torah must be coupled with a fear of God and the commitment not to worship or idolize anything other than God.
For example, we are taught in Yoma 72a – while quoting Shemot 28:28 that the Choshen (breastplate) must not be loose from the Ephod (apron). As Rav Zalman Sorotzkin explains (Oznayim LaTorah on Shemot 28:28): ‘the Choshen atoned for judges, while the Ephod atoned for idolatry. Thus… the fact that the Choshen should ‘not be loosened from above the Ephod’ suggests that Jewish justice, represented by the Choshen, can only be administered by judged who bear no taint of idolatry.’
Furthermore, we are also taught in Yoma 72b that the enemies of Torah are not those who reject Torah, but rather, those שעוסקים בתורה ואין בהן יראת שמים – who involve themselves with Torah, but lack a fear of Heaven.
Moreover, in explaining Rav Yannai’s pronouncement in Yoma 72b of ‘woe unto one who does not own a courtyard but makes a gate for his courtyard’, Rashi explains that this refers to someone who studies Torah but lacks fear of heaven.
However, what does it mean to have a fear of Heaven? I believe that it means to be concerned with God’s concerns as expressed in the Torah, rather than what others (often impudently) claim to be God’s concerns which they metaphorically put in God’s mouth and speak in His Name.
Sadly, just like counterfeit pills are often peddled as ‘the real thing’ which, once ingested, can do real harm and can occasionally kill, counterfeit Torah is also often peddled as ‘the real thing’ which, once ingested, can also do real harm and can even occasionally kill – and, for the sake of God, for the sake of Torah, for the sake of ourselves and for the sake of others, we should be very clear and very careful to steer ourselves and others away from such dangers.
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