One Life – נפש אחת – On Tyranny Again

In November 2016, I posted a sermon based on David Daube’s incredible assessment of a text in his book “Collaboration with Tyranny in Rabbinic Law”. My sermon is here. The book was written in 1965 and led him to comment:

This tale, it is to be feared, shows what, under intolerable pressure, when the spirit is broken, might occur despite any high-minded, farsighted, carefully balanced rulings. (p. 51)

The text he is dealing with is a complex one, in fact there is more than one text. A simple statement of the text is here (Tosefta Terumot 7:20):

סיעה של בני אדם שאמרו להם גוים תנו לנו אחד מכם ונהרגהו ואם לאו הרי אנו הורגין את כולכם יהרגו כולן ואל ימסרו להן נפש אחת מישראל אבל אם ייחדוהו להם כגון שייחדו לשבע בן בכרי יתנו להן ואל יהרגו כולן … וכן הוא אומ’ ותבא האשה אל כל העם בחכמתה וגו’ אמרה להן הואיל והוא נהרג ואתם נהרגין תנוהו להם ואל תהרגו כולכם

A group of [Jews] to whom gentiles say, “Give us one of you and we shall kill him, and if not, behold, we will kill all of them”; they should let themselves be killed and not deliver them one soul from Israel. But if they designated [the person] to them – for example, Sheva ben Bichri – they should give him to them and not let themselves be killed…. And so did it state (II Samuel 20:22), ‘And the woman come to all of the people in her wisdom, etc.’ – she said to them, ‘Since he will be killed and you will be killed, give him to them and do not kill all of you.’”

It has got to be one of the most astonishing and challenging texts. The idea of when we would surrender someone (potentially innocent, though the sages question that innocence if they have been identified by name) to tyrannical regimes for our own safety. I wrote about that theme too in a more complex post.

But now I want to dwell on where this text occurs in the midrashim – the rabbinic interpretations that form the commentary in the spaces of our text of the Torah. In Bereshit Rabbah 94:26, the text is found not only in legal materials but here in the narration of Jacob’s family (Genesis 46:26):

“All the souls belonging to Jacob that came into Egypt, that came out of his loins, besides Jacob’s sons’ wives, all the souls were threescore and six.”

The midrash wants to know how the figure of 66 is arrived at, since in the beginning of Exodus we hear that Jacob’s family numbered 70 in coming down to Egypt. The discussion is long and quite technical but one of the things that comes out is the story of Serach bat Asher – an Elijah like figure who appears at pivotal moments during Jewish history to save the day.

In the midrash she is ‘the one’ who makes up the last missing person to the number 70.

The midrash contrasts her role in bringing Joseph’s bones out of Egypt and her role in handing over Sheva ben Bichri (II Samuel 20). The midrash, it seems to me, is layering over and over again the significance of one life, one person, one individual with the power to save. One rebel. One set of bones of a patriarch.

What if we imagined all the world stood at the threshold of being surrendered? And what if we individually were responsible for handing over an un-named soul to tyranny? This is all about risk – the risk we’re prepared to take to save. What cost could we tolerate in order to save ourselves – a thousand people, 500, 10…1? Here’s the midrash:

The woman urged them, “Do you not know David’s record? Which people has [successfully] resisted him, which kingdom has resisted him?”

“What does he demand?” they asked her.

“A thousand men,” she replied, “and is it not better [to sacrifice] a thousand men than that your city be destroyed?”

“Let every one give according to his means,” they proposed.

“Perhaps he can be persuaded to forgo a little,” she told them.

She then pretended to go and appease him, and returned with the number reduced from a thousand to five hundred, then to one hundred, to ten, and finally to one, who was a lodger [stranger] there, and who was he? Sheba the son of Bichri. Forthwith, then they cut off the head of Sheba the son of Bichri.

אמרה להון לית אתון ידעין מילי דדוד, הידא אומה קמת בהון, הידא מלכותא קמת בהון, אמרון לה ומהו בעי, אמרה להון אלף גוברין ולא טב אלף גוברין מלמחרבה מדינתכון, אמרון לה כל חד וחד ליהב לפום מה דאית ליה, אמרה להון דלמא אגב פיוסא שביק ציבחר, עבדא נפשה כמא דאזלא מפייסא והדרא מאלף לחמש מאין למאה, לעשרה, לחד והוא אכסנאי ומנו שבע בן בכרי מיד ויכרתו את ראשו.

What cost could we tolerate in order to save ourselves? Do we recognise the power of ONE life – the life that saves, the life that rebels, the life that is no more. Do we see ourselves as that ONE life?

Would we sacrifice a thousand on the altar of our own salvation. Would then just one person sound like something insignificant? This midrash is playing with us, our morality, our judgement, our consideration of Serach bat Asher’s righteousness. We know the law, but when push comes to shove, how quickly would we collaborate with tyranny? What price are we prepared to pay…? And I don’t know anymore and it terrifies me.

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