Sharp and Soft.
Two ways people treat each other, and the way people are treated.
Can Sharp and Soft inhere in a single person? Can a person be both?
Should a person be both? Does a person have a choice?
The question arose as I reflected on a very sharp and very soft Jewish sage of the third century: Rabbi Hanina. We turn to him in a moment. For now, there are two ways in which G-d relates to people. I noticed two verses in Leviticus in which G-d comes off as both Sharp and Soft.
The context is the individual stricken with extremely disfiguring skin conditions (Lev. 14), the metzora. Very sharp treatment! Sharp punishment, in fact.
While this may be foreign to us since no one has been declared a metzora for some 2,500 years — after the the destruction of the First Temple the practice fell into disuse — still, a topic in the Torah need not be in force in order to be instructive.
The metzora is punished for uttering unkind or slanderous words. G-d notices a person’s diminishment from bullies and gossips.
Even as the metzora emerges from his seven-day leprous-like isolation, cured of his skin lesions, the Torah subjects him to an indignity. Just as the metzora subjected others to indignities with his malicious speech, he is treated the same way.
As he prepares to immerse in the mikveh, he must be shorn of all bodily hair — down to his eyebrows! (Lev. 14:9). He is stripped of much more than his clothing.
Sharp treatment, indeed.
In the same context, however, Leviticus is Soft.
All others who should immerse in a mikveh are purified of natural conditions under the general rubric of tum’a, a word difficult to translate that implies contact with death.
Contrary to a widespread misconception, tum’a does not banish the Divine presence and immersion for tum’a is not a punishment. Quite the contrary, this immersion is Soft.
One immerses intact. No body is shorn of hair. The waters of the mikveh, a representation of the womb, surround one’s body as it is, without sin.
That is G-d’s way of treating the human being.
What was Rabbi Hanina’s way?
Note: Sharp and Soft in Leviticus need not pertain to the same person. So again we ask: Can Sharp and Soft inhere in the same person? Can one person be both? Dramatically, Rabbi Hanina embodied both Sharp and Soft.
He was the rabbinic leader in Zippori, in northern Israel. The Jerusalem Talmud describes his interactions with his community. He certainly comes off as Sharp.
I quote the Talmud:
“There was a fatal pestilence in Zippori, but it did not infect the neighborhood in which Rabbi Hanina was living. The people of Zippori said:
“How is it possible that the elder lives among you, he and his entire neighborhood in peace, while the rest of the town goes to ruin?”
It is a bitter complaint. As Binyamin Lau explains:
“The people of the city cry out against Rabbi Hanina and his neighbors, accusing them of indifference: How can you sit here calmly when the rest of the city is on the verge of death?” Sharp is Rabbi Hanina’s reply:
“Hanina went up and said before them: There was only a single Zimri in his generation, but on his account, 24,000 people died. And in our time, how many Zimris are there in our generation? And yet you are raising a clamor?”
Again, Lau explains:
“The comparison of the pestilence in Zippori to the biblical plague that broke out among the Israelites in the desert is more than just a hint [to Zimri, whose debauchery triggered the plague]. Rabbi Hanina is accusing the wealthy and cosmopolitan Jews of Zippori of lax moral standards.”
Sharp Rabbi Hanina is not done. The Talmud relates:
“One time they had to declare a fast, but it did not rain. Rabbi Joshua carried out a fast in the south, and it rained. The people of Zippori said: Rabbi Joshua brings down rain for the people in the south, but Rabbi Hanina holds back rain from us in Zippori.”
Rabbi Hanina did not respond. He waited until the next drought, when the people of Zippori imported Rabbi Joshua to fast on their behalf. He did. So did Rabbi Hanina. But it did not rain. Rabbi Hanina explained that rain is not a matter of finding the right holy man. To import the holy man from the south made no difference. The Talmud continues:
“Rabbi Hanina said: It was not Rabbi Joshua who brought down rain for the people of the south, nor was it Rabbi Hanina who held back rain from the people of Zippori. Rather, the hearts of the southerners are open, and when they listed to a teaching of Torah, they submit to it and accept it, whereas the hearts of the people of Zippori are hard, and when they hear a teaching of Torah, they do not accept it.”
“Rabbi Hanina offers ethical counsel to the people of Zippori. He informs them the rain will fall not because of the merit of the city’s leader; rather, it depends on the ethical conduct of the city’s population.”
Sharp, indeed. Rabbi Hanina is telling his people: Look at your own behavior, do not seek excuses outside yourselves.
An entirely different, heart- wrenching side of Rabbi Hanina is recorded in the Babylonian Talmud. Rabbi Hanina’s daughter died. He did not weep. His wife said to him: “How can you not cry? Is it nothing more than a chicken that you have taken out of your house?”
Rabbi Hanina said to her: “Both? Bereavement and blindness?” If I weep, I will weep til I am blind. That is how overcome with grief I am.
Soft and Sharp.
The two traits can inhere in the same person, such as Rabbi Hanina of Zippori.
Binyamin Lau’s exploration of Rabbi Hanina is in his book, The Sages: Character, Context & Creativity (Maggid, vol. 4, 2015).
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