Sunday, August 12, 2012

Berachot 10a: יִתַּמּוּ חַטָּאִים מִן-הָאָרֶץ

A beautiful story on Berachot 10a:
הנהו בריוני דהוו בשבבותיה דר"מ והוו קא מצערו ליה טובא הוה קא בעי ר' מאיר רחמי עלויהו כי היכי דלימותו אמרה לי' ברוריא דביתהו מאי דעתך משום דכתיב (תהלים קד, לה) יתמו חטאים מי כתיב חוטאים חטאים כתיב ועוד שפיל לסיפיה דקרא ורשעים עוד אינם כיון דיתמו חטאים ורשעים עוד אינם אלא בעי רחמי עלויהו דלהדרו בתשובה ורשעים עוד אינם בעא רחמי עלויהו והדרו בתשובה:
There were once some highwaymen3  in the neighbourhood of R. Meir who caused him a great deal of trouble. R. Meir accordingly prayed that they should die. His wife Beruria4  said to him: How do you make out [that such a prayer should be permitted]? Because it is written Let hatta'im cease? Is it written hot'im?5  It is written hatta'im!6  Further, look at the end of the verse: and let the wicked men be no more. Since the sins will cease, there will be no more wicked men! Rather pray for them that they should repent, and there will be no more wicked. He did pray for them, and they repented.
We can consider this on the level of the prooftexts as well as on the level of message. The pasuk is in Tehillim 104:35:

לה  יִתַּמּוּ חַטָּאִים מִן-הָאָרֶץ,    וּרְשָׁעִים עוֹד אֵינָם--
בָּרְכִי נַפְשִׁי,    אֶת-ה;
35 Let sinners cease out of the earth, and let the wicked be no more. {N}
Bless the LORD, O my soul. {N}

The simple meaning of this pasuk has the first part and second part in poetic repetition. Chataim parallels Reshaim and Yitamu min ha'aretz parallels Od Einam. Indeed, the peshat message here, in context is quite dark, as described by Ibn Ezra:
יתמו -תפלת הנביא בעבור שלא יודו השם ולא יבינו פעולותיו, או הזכיר זה בעבור שאמר: אנכי אשמח בה' ולא כן החטאים, כי יתמו ויאבדו. 

עוד אינם -הטעם כפול. 

ברכי נפשי את ה' -על אבוד הרשעים וחתם לאמר למשכילים: הללויה.
"Let cease: This is a prayer of the prophet because they [the sinners] do not praise Hashem not understand his works. Or he mentions this because he said [in the immediately preceding verse] 'I will rejoice in the Lord, and not so the Chataim [sinners], for they will cease and be destroyed.

Be no more: The meaning is [poetic] duplication."

So too the Meiri explains:

החטאים כשיתמו עוד אינם כי תלך נפשם לאבדון ולכן אמ' על עצמו
ברכי נפשי את ה ' הללויה

"The Chataim [sinners] when they cease will be no more, for their souls will go towards utter destruction. And therefore he says about himself, my soul will bless the Lord, Halleluyah."

Even Rashi, who you might have expected to follow the midrash, here explicitly defines Chataim as Chot'im, sinners, in order to take a stand against the midrash on the level of peshat. (Metzudat David fells compelled to explain in accordance with our gemara.)

This is because there appears to be a difference between חַטָּאִים, 'sinners', and חֲטָאִים, sins. Note the slight difference in nikkud. Consider the following pasuk from Kohelet 10 as an example of the latter:

ד  אִם-רוּחַ הַמּוֹשֵׁל תַּעֲלֶה עָלֶיךָ, מְקוֹמְךָ אַל-תַּנַּח:  כִּי מַרְפֵּא, יַנִּיחַ חֲטָאִים גְּדוֹלִים.4 If the spirit of the ruler rise up against thee, leave not thy place; for gentleness allayeth great offences.

So pashut peshat is indeed that it is talking about destruction of sinners. But Beruria crafts a wonderful homiletic reinterpretation of this pasuk.

יִתַּמּוּ חַטָּאִים מִן-הָאָרֶץ -- first, distinguish between chataim and chot'im. Chataim are sins while chot'im are sinners. Thus, we can (or should) read this as a request that sins, rather than sinners, cease.

וּרְשָׁעִים עוֹד אֵינָם -- take this chataim a moment in its simple sense, of sinners. But וּרְשָׁעִים עוֹד אֵינָם means they will no longer be sinners (rather than 'sinners will be no more'). This does not work out, for those will still be sinners, just obliterated sinners. Therefore, take it as 'may sin cease from the land, and then, they will no longer be sinners [but rather, righteous people]'.

This is quite an optimistic shift in focus. Instead of condemning the sinners to oblivion, believe that they can be reformed. And this even as they are oppressing you. In turn, this changes your very relationship with those people. You don't view them so much as an enemy who must be destroyed, but as a person who unfortunately is sinning. But that person can be redeemed, and indeed become a good person. Maybe, even, such a shift in attitude could influence them to repent of their evil ways, bein adam lachaveiro.

I am not such an optimist, due to my own unfortunate dealings with baryonim. Some people will never do teshuva, because they are stubborn idiots and have convinced themselves that their wickedness bein adam lachaveiro is in fact righteousness. In which case, perhaps Rabbi Meir's approach is the right one.

Later on, we see this pasuk used again, at one of the four stages that David Hamelech reached. Thus:
ראה במפלתן של רשעים ואמר שירה שנאמר (תהלים קד, לה) יתמו חטאים מן הארץ ורשעים עוד אינם ברכי נפשי את ה' הללויה
He saw the downfall of the wicked and broke into song, as it says, Let sinners cease out of the earth and let the wicked be no more. Bless the Lord, O my soul, Hallelujah.22
According to a footnote in Artscroll, the Gra, Pnei Yehoshua, Rav Tzadok haKohen, etc., all interpret this as the death of the yetzer hara, as the person matures and his chaya, a certain aspect of his soul, begins to develop. This corresponds well with the five-stages aspect of this gemara; but what prompts it certainly also seems to be that we cannot take 'downfall of the wicked' in this gemara in a straightforward manner, since Beruriah has already interpreted it otherwise, as referring to sins rather than sinners. But as noted above, Beruriah was offering a homiletic interpretation of the pasuk, and so there is nothing standing in the way of interpreting the pasuk, and gemara, literally here. Certainly the personage of David Hamelech, within his lifetime, witnessed the literal downfall of the wicked.

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