Haftarah Parshat Korach (1 Samuel 11:14-12:22)
June 21, 2014 / 23 Sivan 5774
In his parting words to the people after having inaugurated Saul as king, Samuel expressed his grave concern for the people’s loyalty to God. He presents the people with a choice: “If you will revere the Lord, worship Him and obey Him, and will not flout the Lord’s command, if both you and the king who rules over you will follow the Lord your God, [well and good]. But if you do not obey the Lord and you flout the Lord’s command, the hand of the Lord will strike you and your fathers (uv’avotecha)” (12:15)
Samuel’s message seems clear. If one is loyal, there will be reward, while disloyalty warrants punishment. However, how are we to understand the end of the second verse which seemingly implies that the dead will suffer for the sins of the living? Targum Yonathan, the Jewish Aramaic translation, resolved this problem by reinterpreting it to mean “as it did your fathers”, namely that you will be punished for your sins just as your ancestors were for theirs, even though this understanding does not correspond to the Hebrew. Rabbi David Kimche (12th century Provence), on the other hand, interpreted “fathers” to mean “monarchs” since the “king is like a parent to his subjects”. The verse then, according to Kimche, asserts that when the people sin, its leaders will also bear the consequences.
In the following Talmudic anecdote, Rabbi Yohanan takes an entirely different approach, reading the verse super-literally: “When Rabbi Yohanan was informed that the Persians had come to Babylonia, he reeled and fell [on account of their reputation for persecution]… They(the Persians) issued three decrees as a punishment for three [transgressions]: They decreed against kosher meat, [which Rabbi Yochahan explained] as a punishment for neglecting priestly gifts. They decreed against the use of baths, [which Rabbi Yohanan explained as punishment for] neglecting the use of the mikvah. They exhumed the dead, [which Rabbi Yohanan explained as punishment for] rejoicing on the festive days [of their neighbors which for their Jewish identities symbolized death]; as it is said: “Then shall the hand of the Lord be against you, and against your fathers”, and Rabbah b. Samuel said that that referred to the exhumation of the dead, for the Master said, ‘For the sins of the living the dead are exhumed’.” (adapted from Yevamot 63:b)
Rabbi Yohanan implies that the world operates according to the rules of poetic justice. The Persian persecution was brought about by the people’s sins. In his last example, the punishment of the people’s dead ancestors by being exhumed was on account of the children’s participation in acts which would lead to their spiritual death through idolatry and assimilation, namely, the sinful behavior of the people brought punishment upon both themselves and their ancestors.
The sages often use the idea of poetic justice as a didactic tool to teach people to weigh the consequences of their actions before they act. This was the point of Rabbi Yohanan’s third example and his message is as poignant today as it was back then.