A dilemma

Vayigash - Dilemma

Art by Maggidah Shoshannah Brombacher, Ph.D.
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Contact her at shoshbm@gmail.com – originals from this series are available.

"All the souls of the house of Jacob that came into Egypt were threescore and ten." (Gen. 46:27)

The problem which triggers this midrash is the number of people who went down into Egypt: while the text says it was seventy, there are only sixty-nine mentioned. What happened to the seventieth person? Perhaps, the midrash considers, a terrible choice had to be made. Listen:

It was taught: If a company of people are threatened by heathens, ‘Surrender one of you and we will kill him, and if not we will kill all of you,’ they should all be killed and not surrender one soul of Israel. But if they specified a particular person, as in the case of a criminal, they should surrender him and should not all be killed. R. Judah said: If the victim is secure within the city and the group is not, then they should endeavor to save him; if everyone is within the city, then they should surrender one person to them and not be all slain. For example:

‘Ulla the Conspirator – a notorious criminal – was wanted by the government. He arose and fled to R. Joshua b. Levi at Lydda, whereupon officers were dispatched after him. R. Joshua argued with him and urged him to surrender, saying, ‘Better that you should be executed rather than that the whole community should be punished on account of you.’ He allowed himself to be persuaded and surrendered to them.

Now Elijah used to speak with the rabbi, but when he acted thus Elijah ceased to visit him. The rabbi fasted thirty days, after which Elijah came to him, and he asked him, ‘Why did you absent yourself?’

‘Am I then the companion of informers?’ Elijah retorted.

‘But is this not a law in Talmud: "If a company of people," etc.?’

‘And is that a teaching for the pious?’ he retorted. ‘This should have been done through others and not through you!’

Midrash Rabbah – Genesis XCIV:9

G!d forbid that we should be faced with such a dilemma! Nonetheless, what can be learned from this example?

Perhaps it is as simple – and challenging – as living according to the spirit of the law, not the letter.

"For the pious" is the phrase typically used to describe a practice which only those particularly concerned with the spirit of the law need follow. Yet, should we not all strive to be observant of the Spirit? And is it really acceptable to let someone else do the "dirty work?"

I leave you with more questions this week than answers. Wrestle with them – and share your thoughts with me!

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