Free will is both a blessing and sometimes a curse. We cherish our ability to exercise our freedoms to act out how we choose to live and behave in the world. The world sees how people use free will to save lives and perform acts of heroism as well as those of cruelty. It is a gift that God gave us from the beginning of the garden of Eden and we saw how Adam and Eve made their choices to reject God’s warning to not eat from the tree of knowledge and the results we all know from the rest of human history. Expulsion from the Garden of Eden and humankind was on its own to shape its destiny. We as a species have always contended with the great gifts we have had to innovate and control our environment. Our use of power has demonstrated the complexity of human civilization Was it for the best after all?
One rabbinic sags Moses Schriber otherwise known in rabbinic parlance as the Hatam sofer who lived in the middle of the 18th through the mid nineteenth century in Hungary discussed this issue. He became a rabbi in Bratislava which is the capital of Slovakia. He was Orthodox and he was an opponent of Reform but he had some big ideas about human nature.
He commented on this week’s Torah portion which is called Tazria Metzora otherwise known as the Torah portion about leprosy or skin afflictions. In chapter 12 verse 2 The Torah talks about a woman who has conceived and born a child. The Torah says she is ritually unclean for seven days just like during the time of her menstrual cycle. He is going to focus on the theme of ritual impurity after a woman gives birth as a jumping off point to discuss the bigger issue of how we as a species utilize our great powers for blessing or transgression. The ritual impurity is connected to the moral impurity.
The Hatam Sofer begins his comment on this verse by quoting from the famous commentator Rashi from the 10th century. “Rabbi Simlai said, Just as man was created (on the fifth day of creation) after the cattle, beasts and fowl, so the laws governing human beings follow after the laws governing these animals.” The idea here is that animals came before humans and that their priority was greater than human beings.The Hatam Sofer asks, is it true that creation of human beings is the apex of creation referring to Pslam six which says, “You made human beings little lower than God, so shouldn’t human beings think of themselves as above all other creatures and equal to God?
The Hatam sofer goes on to say that the Torah listed the laws of treating animals before humans to teach us that the select righteous saintly people are even superior to angels in heaven and that human beings in general can attain the greatest heights. Yet those who have been afflicted with this so-called ailment or skin affliction which we call in the Torah as t’zraat are indeed less than cattle in the divine hierarchy. He adds that we should remember that no animal can make a human ritually impure, but, a human being can make another human being be ritually impure. So he concluded that just as a person can reach the greatest heights of human achievement by mean of his free will so can he use that power to descend into the lowest depths.
The difficult aspect of this portion is the idea that having a disease like the skin ailment referred to in the Torah portion was consistently viewed by the sages as a result of a moral transgression such as gossip or slandering another human being. We have come along way in our thinking about disease. Yet, even today we saw those same attitudes attributing a moral transgression AIDS infected people who contracted AIDS particularly back in the 1980s and nineties. We have evolved in our understanding about contagious diseases today even if there are still prejudices and fears about potential pandemic diseases that frighten us probably just as biblical skin ailments did in ancient Israelite society.
Granted that the Hatam Sofer is a product of that old styled thinking about disease and morality. Yet his idea of how human beings use their god-given powers in a godly way versus using them in a destructive manner to measure our value as a species is valid today. Too many examples of human society today demonstrate that we still abuse our powers as much as we use them for great achievements to better our world. That is what the Hatam Sofer was referring to in his commentary. So his observations resonate today as they did over two hundred years ago in another time and place.
Whether we are discussing nuclear weapons in North Korea, Iran, or chemical warfare in Syria today, we see that human achievement in science is still a mixed blessing. When it comes to literature and the power of the written word spreading hatred, anti-Semitic tractates against the Jews, for example, we see that human power swings both ways as compared to the great works of Shakespeare, Whitman, the bible and the great works of music over the centuries.
Free will is a fragile gift that God bequeathed us at the dawn of creation and that humility in humankind is not to be taken lightly. It must balance our technological prowess with an overarching commitment to preserve human life not destroy entire peoples let alone individuals. Aren’t we suppose to use our powers to raise the quality of life and not threaten it? Yet that is exactly what happens today as it has for the entirety of human history.
Defining human skin ailments as ritually impure and associating them with moral transgressions is not how we should think about disease today. I suppose that in ancient times this is how they understood such diseases but today we can do better. Today we are still mandated to remember that our value and worth as human beings is not how high we build a sky scraper or how big a bomb we build but how we heal the suffering of the oppressed and the sick. It is about how we strive to be little less than God in how we treat ourselves, animal life and the planet.