By: Rabbi Daniel Greyber
If you tell a child, "don't move an inch," what do they do? They move, an inch. Why? Because they know you don't literally mean, "an inch" and, most children enjoy proving you wrong! Jewish tradition rarely suffices itself with literal reading. Even those with distaste for more mystical, esoteric readings of the Torah understand that the literal understanding of a verse is rarely its simple, plain (p'shat) meaning. Take a verse from this week's double Torah portion, Acharei Mot - Kedoshim: "Do not curse the deaf; before the blind, do not place a stumbling block; rather, fear your God, I am Adonai" (Leviticus 19:14). A literal reading of verse demands one read the verse as prohibiting two specific actions towards two specific people. Do not curse a deaf person; do not place a stumbling block before a blind person. Read literally, if one rarely comes into contact with the blind or deaf, one could avoid transgressing this verse quite easily. Yet who believes that that is all that is meant by this verse? Reading this way is not only boring, it is inaccurate. We should not be surprised then that even those commentators considered "pashtanim" - seekers of plain textual meaning - explain this verse as prohibiting more than specific actions (cursing, placing stumbling blocks) towards specific classes of people (the deaf and the blind).
Rashi explains that what is prohibited is not only placing a physical stumbling block before someone who is physically blind, but rather placing a metaphorical "stumbling block" before someone who is metaphorically "blind" to something. He writes "before a blind person" [refers to] "someone who is blind about something. Don't give advice that does not make sense for him/her. [For example] do not say, "sell your field and buy a donkey for yourself" and then you go and by-pass him and take it [the field] from him." Human beings have a great capacity to deceive others. Someone asks us for advice and we see an opportunity for exploitation. Someone seeks our strength and we take advantage of their weakness, the blindness they dared reveal to us.
We deceive others, but we also deceive ourselves. Rashi explains that the phrase, "Fear your God," is added at the end of the verse "because this thing is not given to [other] human beings to know if his/her intentions were good or bad." You ask me for advice about a friend but instead of helping, it makes things worse. Maybe I just made a mistake and gave poor advice; or maybe I was jealous of your friendship with another and intentionally soured your relationship. How are you to know? You cannot. But also, how am I to know? Rashi explains, "It is possible to rationalize and say, 'I meant to be good' - therefore it says, 'fear your God,' the One who knows the thoughts of human beings. And thus in regards to everything that is given to the heart of the doer, that other human beings do not know, the Torah says, 'fear God.'" Be honest with yourself. God knows your heart.
Literal reading tempts us because it narrows the scope of what is meant by the law, so much so as to make it irrelevant. "I followed the law," we tell ourselves to soothe our guilt. But our tradition pushes back. Not just the deaf and blind. Why mention them at all? Rabbi Bachya explains, "to teach you to apply logic. If the Torah forbids you to curse the deaf person who does not hear it and therefore does not feel angry or saddened [assuming s/he does not find out what was said!], how much more so must we not curse someone whose faculties are not impaired. All these directives are designed to improve a person's basic character traits and to ensure that he will not become the victim of bad habits." If we avoid cursing the deaf, who may never know what we've said, "one will be doubly careful not to curse those who can hear." All this, our tradition insists, is contained in the plain meaning of scripture. Is it possible to read otherwise? Of course. We can always close our eyes and cling to what is literally on the page. But God hopes for more; ever more ways the Torah can move beyond letters on parchment to words in our heart.