On a recent Sunday morning, after morning services and teaching the daily Daf Yomi, the page-of-Talmud-a-day, I was looking forward to an invigorating Pacific Northwest bike ride. A quick weather check confirmed the ominous clouds predicted by weather reports. Not to be satisfied with such elementary evidence, I consulted several websites, which assured me that there was zero percent chance of precipitation until evening. I confidently mounted my bicycle and headed down the hill for a ride along our beautiful Lake Washington. About five minutes later I felt raindrops. Could this be real? Zero percent chance of precipitation! I had checked websites! Apparently, even scientists objectively interpreting scientific models are prone to error.
How much more so is this search for certainty and truth a challenge when confronting ethical issues. We human beings are so often swayed by subjectivity, pre-conceived notions, biases and emotions.
Our sages teach us in Bereshit Rabbah that indeed, “Love and hate disrupt the natural order.”
The horrific bombing at the Boston Marathon shocked the world. Three people were killed and over 200 wounded, many of them grievously. The alleged bombers had been welcomed to this country and had enjoyed freedom as well as the opportunity for education. As the suspects were being identified, friends of one alleged bomber spoke of how nice and kind of a person he seemed to be. Others described how in the days following the bombing the suspect resumed normal activities as if nothing had happened, working out at the university gym and appearing perfectly calm as others spoke of the terrible attack and its human toll. All of this, even as he and his brother were allegedly preparing to bomb a city and to wreak carnage and human suffering. So often hate of an individual, a group, an institution, a religion, a race or a country can lead one to engage in cruel and even self-destructive behavior. “Hate disrupts the natural order.”
In the weeks leading to the Shavuot festival it is traditional to study Pirkei Avot. The first statement of this tractate documents the chain of transmission of the oral law: “Moshe received the Torah at Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua, Joshua to the elders, and the elders to the prophets, and the prophets to the men of the Great Assembly.” The question arises as to why this chain of transmission is placed here before Pirkei Avot, which is in the middle of the Mishna. It would seem more appropriate for this to appear at the very beginning of the entire Mishnah, before the first tractate, Berachot.
Rabbi Obadiah of Bertinoro, a 17th-century Italian commentator on the Mishna, explains that previous tractates discuss ritual laws, including prayer, Shabbat and the festivals. People may more readily recognize that these are given by God. Pirke Avot discusses ethics. Every civilized society has a code of ethics and values. One may think that our ethics and morals are constructed by ethicists. This preamble teaches us that our ethics are based on what was divinely revealed at Sinai and transmitted through the generations: The eternal, immutable word of God.
As an Orthodox rabbi I fully believe that the Torah was given by God to Moshe and that all ethical challenges can be resolved by exploring the depths of Tanach, the Talmud, responsa literature and the codes of Jewish law. This is how a believing Jew finds answers to moral and ethical dilemmas. At the same time, I recognize that human beings, no matter how learned, are subjective creatures who are often swayed by predispositions and preconceived notions, especially in areas that are gray, which real-life situations often tend to be.
Many of you know that Jewish medical ethics is an area that I have spent much time studying. I have had the experience of serving on hospital and hospice ethics and critical care committees and have lectured at a number of conferences on these issues. I have done my best to assist families and other rabbis who have consulted me in difficult situations. Yet, when critical decisions needed to be made concerning the care of my own dear mother who has been ill, I felt incapable of evaluating the situation. I was too close. I was too emotionally involved. I called an esteemed senior colleague who is a leading expert in these areas, presented the issues and then asked a physician to describe the medical circumstances in detail. I told the rabbi, “I am too close to this to be objective. You rule as to what must be done.”
Rabbi Chaim Palagi, 19th-century Turkish Halachist and Kabbalist writes that there are certain areas into which the family of a patient should not venture as they are too emotionally involved to be objective. “Love disrupts the natural order.”
As we approach Shavuot, let us resolve to take the time to explore more Torah together. It is the eternal wisdom of the Torah that illuminates what sometimes appears to be the very opaque and murky spots of our life. I deeply believe and know it to be true that by doing this, we will be able to lead more meaningful, constructive and fulfilling Jewish lives and strive toward the goal God outlined when He gave us the Torah: “You shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”