Crime and Punishment
Crime and Punishment. In a corporeal world, the correlation of a jail
sentence to a crime does not symbolize a cogent philosophical message. Of
course, it may tell us that crime does not pay. Unfortunately, that
comprehensive message does not differentiate between one who steals to
sustain his family, and the greedy scam-artist who bilks widows out of
their life's savings. The two felons may sit only a few cells apart from
each other, with an arsonist or barroom brawler separating them, but the
crimes that sent them to their dismal abodes are so very different in intent.
Divine justice does better. Every aveirah generates a punishment
specifically designed to send a distinct Heavenly message to the afflicted.
Of course, it may take an otherwise perspicacious mind to correlate what
life is handing to him and how it relates to his mortal misdeeds. We do not
always relate events that occur to the acts we have perpetrated. Sometimes
it is too much for us to bear, and sometimes our ideas may lead us to
wrongful conclusions, harming both our psyche and morale.
But when the Torah teaches us about crime and punishment we are more
fortunate. The lessons of our past are now devoid of the guilt-ridden,
depressive response we may have currently; rather they are moral
springboard from which to bound to greater heights. And thus, when the
Torah tells us of a clear crime and an immediate response, we have to
transpose the relationship between the two to attain another moral lesson.
The people spoke against G-d and Moshe - "Why did you bring us up from
Egypt to die in this wilderness, for there is no food and no water, and our
soul is disgusted with the insubstantial food [Manna]?" G-d sent the fiery
serpents against the people and they bit the people. A large multitude of
Israel died. The people came to Moshe and said, "We have sinned, for we
have spoken against Hashem and against you! Pray to Hashem that He remove
from us the serpent" (Numbers,21:5-7). The people complained about their
fare, and were punished with snakes. If Divine retribution is corollary to
the crime, how do snakes correspond to kvetching?
Rashi quotes the Midrash Tanchuma. "Hashem said as it were - let the
serpent which was punished for slanderous statements come and exact
punishment from those who utter slander; Let the serpent to which all kinds
of food have one taste [that of earth; cf (Gen:3:14) and (Yoma: 75a)] come
and exact punishment from these ingrates to whom one thing (the manna) had
the taste of many different dainties.
What was the slander of the snake? Didn't he just convince Chava to take a
bite of the fruit? What connection is there with the Manna?
The old Jewish yarn has a Bubby (grandmother) taking her grandchild, little
Irving, to the beach toward the end of spring. There is hardly anyone
around as the child, dressed in a spring suit, plays innocently on the
shore. Suddenly a wave breaks and sweeps him into the vast ocean. The
grandmother, who cannot swim, yells toward the deserted beach, "Someone!
Please save my Irving! Please! Anybody!"
Out of nowhere, a man charges forward, dives into the ocean and swims
valiantly toward the helpless child. Moments later he is holding the
gasping child aloft, while his weeping grandmother dashes toward them. She
whisks the child from the man, and looks over the child making sure he is
still in one piece.
Then she turns to the man, nods her head slightly and parts her otherwise
pursed lips. "He was wearing a hat."
In Gan Eden, the Garden of Eden, life was blissful. Adam and Chava had all
they could have wanted, except for one type of fruit -- The Eitz Hada'as,
The Fruit of Knowledge. It was the snake that taught his human cohort, the
concept of total self-indulgence, rendering them powerless to say, "No!"
The desert dwellers did not fare much differently. Their celestial fare
adapted to almost any flavor in the world. Water flowed freely from the
rock. But they were not content. They wanted more. The unfulfilled flavors
that the Manna refused to replicate were on their minds. They felt that
Manna was only a mere simulacrum of the luscious cuisine that they
desired. Their craving for everything, manifested itself in punishment
through the animal that has his most favored fare, anytime anywhere -- the
snake. To a snake, all dust is desirous!
When the Jewish nation were both led and fed, through a hostile
environment, yet complained that their miraculous bread is insubstantial,
then the only correlation, powerful enough to make them mend their
thoughtless ways was the bite of the very being who gains no enjoyment from
what he bites, while having all he desires.
Our goal in life is to revel in the blessing, rejoice in all the good that
we have, despite the shortcomings of a limited world, and the trivial
amenities we may lack. One must learn to appreciate his head, even if he is
missing his hat.
Dedicated in memory of Joseph Heller by Beth and Ben Heller and Family
L'iluy Nishmas Reb Yoel Nosson ben Reb Chaim HaLevi Heller -- 9 Tamuz
Copyright © 1997 by Rabbi M. Kamenetzky and Project Genesis, Inc.
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The author is the Associate Dean of the
Yeshiva of South Shore.
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