Several years ago I had the pleasure of taking a trip to the land of Israel traveling with my wife, Elana, and with a dear friend and rabbinic colleague. At some point Elana had some family business in Tel Aviv, so I and my friend took a bus ride to the North, to the mystical city of Tzvat. On the bus we were approached by someone wearing a black hat, very strictly observant, who started a religious argument in which I declined to participate, but which my colleague and friend seemed to enjoy. The tone of this other Jew was one of smug superiority, one of having all the answers, one of knowing everything. Nothing my friend said shook him from that tone, until finally in exasperation, my friend blurted out, in fluent Hebrew, that he was a Naval birshut Ha-Torah. Furious, angry, uncontrollable, the gentlemen immediately became apoplectic. "Me!? You're calling me a Naval Birshut Ha-Torah!?!"
I want to hasten to insist that this is not an attack on Orthodoxy. Every group within Jewish life, in fact within human life, boasts individuals who are saintly, refined, and decent, who use their ideological and spiritual systems to become better people, Orthodoxy no less than any other. And alas, no group lacks its fools or its charlatans, and that is true for Conservative Judaism as it is for every other group as well. I single out this individual, not because of the punctiliousness of his observance, but because of the smugness of his certainty, because he was shocked when my friend called him a Naval birshut Ha-Torah - Naval, with the permission of Torah.
Who was Naval?
In the first book of Samuel we meet Naval as a wealthy farmer and a shepherd. David is not yet King of Israel. He is fighting a war of resistance against King Saul, and simultaneously against Israel's enemies. His men are starving, living out in caves. David instructs one of his soldiers to approach Naval for assistance to supply his men with food. One of the responsibilities David's men have been maintaining during this era is to provide protection for the farmers and the shepherds of the region. Naval is still wealthy, precisely because of the intervention of David's men and David's leadership in protecting his property and his flocks.
David has a right to expect reciprocity. He expects Naval to be grateful and to respond by feeding his men. Yet Naval declines! He denies David's request, and David becomes so angry that he mobilizes to kill Naval. Only with the intervention of Naval's brilliant wife, Abigail, is David appeased. She calms him down not so much by appealing to his passions, but by addressing his reason. She explains to him that Naval is indeed within the letter of the Law; she reminds David that he would be taking on a sin to kill Naval in this way, and David relents in the light of her persuasiveness. Having turned down the gift of food to David's men, Naval then eats and drinks himself into a stupor from which he never recovers. The Bible goes on to tell us that 10 days later, Naval dies of illnesses contracted in that celebratory feast.
What then might we see as the sins of this gentleman-farmer, Naval? The first, tradition tells us, is Pride. He held his ancestry to be more noble then that of David, and therefore David's request was unworthy because of his ancestry. The second is the sin of Gluttony: imbibing wine and food and sex without any moderation whatsoever led him to endanger his own health, and ultimately, to hasten the end of his own life. He is guilty of the sin of Refusal to Help the Poor: the Midrash asserts that Naval owned two separate properties - one in Carmel and one at Ma'on, and that in each place a pauper would come and ask for assistance, and Naval would tell him, "You can get assistance, but not at this site, it's at the other site" so there was no help available for the poor. And then finally, he is guilty of the sin of Lacking Gratitude - it was, after all, David that made it possible for Naval to be a wealthy man, and he should have responded with deeper gratitude. All of these sins are the natural outcome of egocentrism, of certitude that is false, of a cocky arrogance to which too many of us can easily succumb.
But interestingly, these sins are not why he is remembered as a watchword. They are not where the phrase "Naval birshut Ha-Torah" comes from.
"Naval birshut Ha-Torah" comes from the medieval period; from the mystical sage and Torah commentator, the Ramban, known as Nachmanides. Ramban insists that a Jew should be held to a higher standard than the mere requirements of the law. He affirms that one should conduct oneself according to the highest standards, even beyond what is required. And so in his commentary to the Torah portion K’doshim Tihiyu, you shall be holy, in the Book of Leviticus, Rambam develops this phrase that I have found nowhere before him in Jewish tradition, of a "Naval birshut Ha-Torah." Naval did not do anything that the law didn't allow. He had no obligation to feed David; he had no obligation to turn over his own property to someone else, however worthy that someone else might be.
Naval only did what was legally his to do. Yet someone who adheres to the letter of the law and ignores its context, disdains its spirit, is held up by Rambam, himself a punctilious observant Jew, as a fool; as worse than a fool - a sinner. A later commentary tells us, "It was to make this point understood that Ramban preceded his words to the portion, "you shall be holy", so that one should not be a "Naval with the permission of Torah." Rather, each of us should behave according to the embracing principles of Torah, such as, "You shall be holy."
On this sacred celebration of Torah, as we consider the magical ability of our sacred tradition to extend itself from one generation of seekers to another, there are important lessons to remember as we are about to receive Torah; as we are about to empower teachers of Torah to go out into the world and to spread the love and the justice and the compassion and the holiness that resonate through the words of Torah.
We need to remind ourselves that law offers a minimal standard, not a maximal one, that living lives of Torah and mitzvot is the least we can do. The Law provides the minimum to link us to the Divine, to our heritage, to our people and all creation. Law, by itself, provides the bare bones of what it takes to maintain a civilized society in which people do not continuously assault each other. Without the Law, we are told by the British philosopher, Hobbes, "life would be nasty, brutish and short." But such an appeal to Law does not muster our highest and our noblest endeavors; it covers our most base attributes. Law is not anything more than the minimal base of decency, and it is not, by itself, enough. One can punctiliously observe the details of the Laws while missing their larger goals entirely.
Now here, once again, I want to stress that I am not saying the laws don't matter. We believe that these commandments, these mitzvot, these connections, link us to the Divine in a way that nothing else can. We affirm that the task of Jews in the world, among other things, is to cultivate a yearning and a hunger for a life of observance, so that every moment offers an opportunity for service, connection, and response. The mitzvot make life beautiful and meaningful for an observant Jew. But one can become so distracted by the details of the mitzvot that they spiral down to mere rules. They can become simply laws to check off a list: Did I follow that rule? Yes. Done. Check. And in separating the laws from their roots, the deeper inclusive values that the Torah was meant to embody and further in the world, we pervert those very laws. We make of them sources of arrogance and smugness and judgementalism which is the very opposite of the true purpose of Torah. The laws of the Torah, rooted in the living earth of compassion, of justice, of hesed, and tzedek, those mitzvot bear beautiful fruit. But when they become an end in themselves, when they are severed from the soil from which they emerge, then they border on the blasphemous and the idolatrous. Then one becomes a Naval birshut Ha-Torah.
So I wish to enjoin upon you these practices:
I invite you to the blessing of lifelong learning; learning for the sake of doing and of doing better. Make of Torah in the broadest possible sense an expanse of experience, of growth, of depth, and of encounter with other lives and other minds that only the life of the mind makes possible. Stripped of books and learning we are reduced to our own limited experience. But gifted with the ability to read, and to see, and to learn, lives we have never met in the flesh become our own, and experience we have never seen with our own eyes becomes part of our memory. Without books, without Torah, we are finite. But armed with the ability to learn Torah, we come limitless.
I bless you with a commitment to lifelong doing for the sake of justice and compassion.
I bless you with the resolve to a lifelong spiritual practice for the sake of listening, becoming, celebrating.
I invite you to a lifelong loving for the sake of building families, communities, nations, and a planet of wholeness and peace.
To follow the rules and ignore the learning, the doing, the discipline and the loving, is to be a latter day Naval birshut Ha-Torah: technically fulfilling all the rules while, the entire time, blaspheming against the loving Maker out of whom those laws emerge. Turns out that the opposite of "Naval birshut Ha-Torah" is lifnim mishurat ha-din - of simply doing more than is expected of us; of going beyond the letter of the Law, of being more forgiving than we have to be, more connecting and relating than our obligations demand, more teaching, more giving, more inspiring. My teacher, Rabbi David Lieber z'l, used to say that all it takes to be a good person is to do more than we have to. On this moment, as we prepare to receive Torah, I bless you with the strength and the vision to do more than we must - to reach out, to love, to care with a discipline and a resolve that can never be an obligation, and without which life is cold and empty.
Shabbat Shalom and Hag Sameach!