Living for Illusions
Chapter 3, Law 13
"Those who place fear on the community not for the sake of heaven:
This [refers to] one who subjugates / oppresses ('rodeh') the community
strongly, and they are fearful and terrified of him. Also, his intentions
are for his own aggrandizement and all his own needs, not for the sake of
heaven, as do the kings of the nations."
For the past several weeks, the Rambam has been listing categories of
sinners so despicable as to merit no share in the World to Come -- the very
few exceptions to an almost universal rule. The earlier categories consisted
of various types of nonbelievers. The later ones covered people whose evil
is not theological but whose behavior is wholly antithetical to Jewish
ideals and values. We are now up to one of the final categories of the
Rambam's list (3:6) and the final one he elaborates on.
This final category -- the ruler who lords over his subjects, I found a bit
surprising. His sin is certainly serious -- putting down other Jews to
inflate his own ego, but we would not tend to think his evil is so depraved
as to exclude him utterly from the World to Come. Is he really worse than
the idolater, adulterer or any of the many sinners who certainly spend time
in Purgatory but afterwards receive their due in the hereafter? It doesn't
sound as if this ruler is torturing and murdering his subjects at whim. He
is merely lording over them, placing fear in their hearts. How is his
behavior so antithetical to spirituality?
I believe the answer in a word is that such a person is playing god.
Practically the most basic premise of Judaism is that G-d is the King and
center of the universe. We are no more than His subjects. We exist at His
pleasure and through His mercy. We owe our very existence to G-d, and we
must live with the awareness that we were and are continually granted life
only in order that we serve Him. True, ultimately G-d created us as an act
of kindness -- enabling us to earn reward and forge a relationship with Him
-- the ultimate human pleasure. Yet, G-d calls the shots. We exist at His
mercy and for the purpose He has in mind.
The tyrannical ruler, however, has set himself as god. He is the center of
his universe; everyone must jump at his beck and call. And such is
antithetical to having a relationship with G-d. The Talmud (Sotah 5a) quotes
G-d's reaction to such a person (based on Psalms 101:5): "He and I cannot
dwell together in the world." It is either G-d's universe or yours; you
cannot have it both ways. If you're serving yourself, you are no servant of
G-d -- and consequently deserve no part in the reward He grants His faithful.
The Talmud elsewhere (Rosh Hashanah 17a) makes a curious statement regarding
such a person. It states, "Any director / provider ("parnais") who places
undue fear on the community not for the sake of heaven will never be granted
a son who is a Torah scholar, as it is stated, 'Therefore men will fear him;
he will not see the wise of heart' (Job 37:24)."
What is the connection between placing fear on others and not being granted
a wise son? Of course, as we know, such a person is terribly sinful. At its
most extreme, he will be granted no share in the hereafter. But why in
particular will he be granted no worthy progeny? As we've all observed --
today and throughout history -- sometimes the most wonderful, self-motivated
children hail from the most rotten and dysfunctional homes, while the most
stable, religious homes oftentimes produce the most awful and listless
children, utterly devoid of spiritual yearnings. All of this tends to
confirm yet another axiom we are all familiar with -- that G-d most
certainly has a sense of humor. Yet why is the despotic ruler the exception
to this? Why in his case is unlearned progeny guaranteed?
I believe the answer is as follows. Someone who places undue fear on others
is fooling himself. He yells at others and they jump to attention.
Outwardly, he is a big shot; he has made it. People revere him; when he
yells they come running. But it is all an illusion. They really can't stand
him. His power, wealth or temper causes them to obey his word. But in truth,
he does not hold their regard in the slightest. There is no one lower in
their eyes than their spoiled, loudmouthed leader (or boss or father). No
doubt deep down he realizes this himself, yet he allows himself to be taken
in by the illusion. He lives for outer appearances. He settles for the
illusion of importance, knowing in his heart that in truth it is all a facade.
Such a person will never be granted worthy children. There are two related
reasons for this. Firstly, he has no real substance. He lives for illusions.
Spiritually, children stem from the achievements of a person. They extend
his reality; they receive his qualities and abilities and develop them one
step further. The ruler described above, by contrast, has no essence. He is
wholly empty, latching on to false mirages, and so provides no true basis
for worthy descendants.
A somewhat different angle to this is that children are built upon the
parents' long-term investment. A full generation of raising and nurturing is
required till one's children come into their own. The fruits of the parents'
efforts are not visible until after years of unrequited investment.
The person who bosses and yells has no sense for long-term results. He wants
immediate results -- illusory as they may be. He settles for the empty and
instantaneous, with no regard whatsoever for the long-term effects of his
behavior: Do his outbursts really achieve what he intends? Are his
underlings more productive on account of it? Or do they resentfully and
spitefully slack off as soon as his back is turned? And what of the
emotional effects on his employees and the overall organization? The tyrant
cares only about what occurs before his eyes, in the here and now. And he
will never be granted the long-term benefit and pleasure of worthy children.
The Talmud elsewhere (Sotah 10b) makes a related statement. "Any
daughter-in-law who is modest in her father-in-law's house will merit to
have kings and prophets descend from her." (The basis is Tamar,
daughter-in-law and then wife of Judah (see Genesis 38). She was later able
to play the harlot with him because he literally did not recognize her.) (A
similar statement is found in Talmud Yoma 47a regarding a modest woman who
had High Priests descend from her.)
The context is different but the message is strikingly similar. A more
feminine version of the boss who rants and raves is the woman who dresses
immodestly. She feels noticed and important. When she passes, men turn their
heads to look. She is the center of attention. But here too she is fooling
herself. The men whose gaze she attracts do not value or care for her in the
slightest. They care for themselves. She gains the empty illusion of
importance -- and settles for that. She does not earn true recognition --
for whom she actually is within (one reason Judaism places such emphasis on
modesty for women). She reveals her flesh -- her outer, physical self --
allowing her to be caught up in the fantasy that she becomes someone as a
By contrast, teaches the Talmud, the woman who is modest will be granted
great children. She did not sell herself for emptiness. She built true
self-esteem. She appreciated and developed her true value, building healthy
and lasting relationships. And as a result, she will be granted beautiful
children, built upon the substance she possessed and the long-term
investments she nurtured.
We are thus left with two great messages this week. The first is the
Rambam's -- that the tyrannical ruler who terrorizes his subjects will be
granted no share in the World to Come. If he plays god himself he leaves no
room for the true G-d. The second is that the person who lives for empty
illusions will ultimately have no substance himself. He settled for the
appearance of importance and recognition. And tragically, not only will he
ultimately remain empty himself, but there will be precious little left for
his descendants to inherit.
Text Copyright © 2011 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org