Parashat Shelach / A High-handed Sinner

Yakov Z. Meyer
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“Jacob Blessing Ephraim and Manasseh” by Rembrandt van Rijn (1656).
Yakov Z. Meyer

A person who has accidentally sinned must bring a sacrificial offering as atonement. However, in this week’s Parashat Shelach (Numbers 13:1 – 15:41), the Torah states categorically: “But the soul that doeth aught with a high hand, whether he be home-born or a stranger, the same blasphemeth the Lord; and that soul shall be cut off from among his people. Because he hath despised the word of the Lord, and hath broken his commandment; that soul shall utterly be cut off, his iniquity shall be upon him” (Numbers 15:30-31).

Those who sin deliberately and are thus guilty of blasphemy are punished by heaven, with the penalty being that they are cut off from their people. Although the Torah does not explicitly mention the nature of such a deliberate sin, the sages, in a midrash in Sifre, provide an explanation: They call one of Israel’s evil kings, Manasseh, a blasphemer because he spoke against God. His blasphemy was expressed by means of a homily, a midrash. Why, Manasseh asks in it, does God mention in the Torah the sins associated with Jacob’s son Reuben, and with Lotan’s sister, Timna. The sages do not say what was his answer was, if he had one, nor what his homily was.

The sages explain that Manasseh “is referred to specifically in the verse, ‘Thou sittest and speakest against thy brother[; thou slanderest thine own mother’s son]. These things hast thou done, and should I have kept silence? [Thou hadst thought that I was altogether such a one as thyself]’ (Psalms 50:21). You [Manasseh] thought that God acts like human beings. [You will, however, see:] ‘but I will reprove thee, and set the cause before thine eyes’ (Psalms 50:21)” (Sifre, Numbers: 112).

According to the sages, the classic example of the high-handed, deliberate sinner is Manasseh, who, despite being an idolater, was also a Torah scholar. However, his interpretations of the Bible constituted acts of slander against God.

Reuben’s sin is mentioned several verses after Rachel’s death is described: “And it came to pass, while Israel dwelt in that land, that Reuben went and lay with Bilhah his father’s concubine; and Israel heard of it” (Genesis 35:22).

In his malicious homily, Manasseh was referring to that verse, which touches on a sensitive issue. The Mishnah tells us how, “In the synagogue the story concerning Reuben [that is, Gen. 35:22] is recited but not translated out loud [into Aramaic]” (Tractate Megillah, Mishnah 4:10). Rashi’s comment: “The reason is the fear that Reuben would be seen in a negative light.”

Unlike the Mishnah, Manasseh does not “prohibit” the verse’s translation; in other words, he does not seek to control the way this information about Reuben is understood and disseminated. He brazenly asks if this is what God thought fit to include in the Torah text.

Similarly, the second verse interpreted by Manasseh, the one refering to Eliphaz, is related to the genealogical chain contained in “These are the sons of Seir the Horite, the inhabitants of the land: Lotan and Shobal and Zibeon and Anah” (Gen. 36:20). The reference to Lotan’s sister, Timna, would have been of little significance were it not for the fact that she is referred to a few verses earlier in the genealogy of Esau’s family.

Esau had three wives: Adah, Basemath and Oholibamah. The latter was the daughter of Anah, Lotan’s brother; thus, Timna was the sister of one of Esau’s wives. However, Timna was also Eliphaz’s concubine: “And Timna was concubine to Eliphaz, Esau’s son” (Gen. 36:12). Just as Reuben had sexual relations with Bilhah, his father’s concubine, Eliphaz slept with Timna, the aunt of his father’s wife. In both cases, there is a crossing of accepted family boundaries, and the sexual act might even be considered a way to implicitly challenge the father’s authority.

According to the sages, Psalms 50, where God enumerates man’s sins against him, contains an explicit reference to Manasseh: “But unto the wicked God saith: ‘What hast thou to do to declare My statutes, and that thou hast taken My covenant in thy mouth? Seeing thou hatest instruction, and castest My words behind thee. When thou sawest a thief, thou hadst company with him, and with adulterers was thy portion. Thou hast let loose thy mouth for evil, and thy tongue frameth deceit. Thou sittest and speakest against thy brother; thou slanderest thine own mother’s son. These things hast thou done, and should I have kept silence? Thou hadst thought that I was altogether such a one as thyself; but I will reprove thee, and set the cause before thine eyes” (Ps. 50:16-21). A person thus has no right to refer to God’s laws and verses if that person is a thief, an adulterer and a liar who speaks slanderously about God, for God will mete out to this sinner an appropriate penalty.

In the sages’ opinion, the words, “Thou hadst thought that I was altogether such a one as thyself,” refer to Manasseh’s theological conclusions, while the words, “but I will reprove thee, and set the cause before thine eyes” refer to God’s punishment of this sinner. The words, “Thou sittest and speakest against thy brother; thou slanderest thine own mother’s son,” refer to Reuben and Eliphaz, two figures who are both Manasseh’s “brothers” as biblical heroes, and the subject of his homily.

What Manasseh does is simply to read the negative verses about Reuben and Eliphaz, in a literal manner. Through that reading, he expresses his theological surprise that God includes these negative verses in the Torah. Since Manasseh asks his rhetorical question, and God remains silent without answering – Manasseh answers the question himself, claiming that God should not have written only “And Reuben went” and “Lotan’s sister was Timna” (Gen. 36:22). In Manasseh’s blasphemous eyes, it is God, not Manasseh, who presents Reuben and Eliphaz in a negative light.

The sages depict Manasseh’s “literal” reading of these two verses as a high-handed, malicious form of reading the Torah’s text – a reading that does not display the proper intentions one should have when reading God’s Torah. The punishment for such blasphemy is to be cut off from one’s nation. The midrash in Sifre goes on to argue that Manasseh’s reading of the text and his belief that God casts aspersions on his own heroes (in this case, Reuben and Eliphaz) lead Manasseh to commit even more serious sins: namely, idolatry.

The sages prohibit both this kind of literal reading of the Torah and the attempt to claim that the text’s heroes are presented in a negative light. Furthermore, the sages imply that, through his reading, Manasseh is doing the same thing as Reuben and Eliphaz did to the wife of their father (or to their aunt): Manasseh is seeking to challenge the authority of his heavenly father, God, by reading his Torah.

If the sages prohibit such a malicious, literal reading of the Torah text, how is one to interpret the actions of Reuben and Timna in a proper fashion without drawing comparisons between God’s actions (his writing these verses) and our actions (our reading of these verses)? The midrash does not answer this question; it seems to be concerned only with a prohibited reading of the Torah text and does not seem to show any interest in the question of how the text should be correctly processed.

The Mishnah states that the verse about Reuben should be recited without translation or interpretation. The Torah’s text may not be interpreted in a high-handed, malicious manner – i.e., according to its simple meaning. Moreover, in order to follow its laws and convey its rules, one must not attribute any intention to the Torah’s author, God. The proper way to read the text is not to try to put yourself in the author’s shoes and not to question whether this or that verse is necessary, because, in doing so, you run the risk of claiming that your own shortcomings can also be seen by the Torah’s author.

Thus, a proper reading of the Torah text must be fluid and dynamic; it must know when to cling to the literal language that is used, when to distance oneself from it, when to interpret it and when to recite it in synagogue without translating it.