The Straight and Just Path
We get the sense that the song/poem is not said in resignation, rather it is an ecstatic expression of Moses's sublime spiritual psyche.
Many commentaries have tried to decipher the message contained in this song/poem.
Many commentaries have occupied themselves with attempts to decipher the religious message contained in the song/poem. One fairly recent commentator who lived in the 19th century, Rav Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, known by his acronym Netziv, offered a unique approach to this section.
The Netziv felt that the section hints at the destruction of the two Temples, the subsequent exile and the eventual rebuilding. Some of the verses refer to the First Temple period while others refer to the Second Temple. For example, a verse at the outset declares:
He is the Rock, his work is perfect; for all his ways are justice; a God of truth and without iniquity, just and straight is He. (Deut. 32:4)
The verse refers to God, and seems unexceptional in terms of pointing at future events. However, the next verse contrasts God's attributes with the attributes of a twisted generation which would exist in the future:
Not His [is] the corruption, but his children are blemished; they are a perverse and crooked generation.( Deut. 32:5)
The just and straight nature of God are directly contrasted with the perversity and crookedness of the people. This, according to the Netziv, describes the generation that caused, and lived through, the destruction of the Second Temple.
These comments are said in passing in the Netziv's local commentary in Deuteronomy. However, in his introduction to the Book of Genesis, the Netziv explains the concept in greater depth.
THE BOOK OF THE STRAIGHT
The Book of Genesis is also known as the "Book of the Straight" (Sefer HaYashar). What is the exact meaning of this word "straight" (yashar)?
The Netziv explains that the people who lived during the waning years of the Second Temple were tzadikim -- fastidious in their performance of commandments. Nonetheless, there was something twisted about them. They were not yashar.
They were righteous and pious and diligent in Torah ? but they were not straight in their dealings in the ways of the world. Because of the hatred in their hearts they suspected anyone, who was not identical to themselves in service of God, of being a Sadducee or a heretic. This led to the spilling of blood and further division and all calamities in the world, until the Temple was destroyed...
God is yashar and does not tolerate such tzadikim, only those that travel a straight path also in worldly matters, and not in crookedness even if it is for the "sake of heaven", for this [trait] causes destruction...(Introduction of Netziv to Book of Genesis)
In this extraordinary analysis the Netziv forcefully attacks false piety. The ends do not justify the means. Real tzaddikim have a completely different type of relationship with people around them. The Netziv explains that the most important teaching of the Book of Genesis is the upstanding behavior of the forefathers, hence the name Sefer HaYashar.
Abraham was spiritually tortured and morally repulsed by the behavior of Sodom and Gomorrah, yet when God tells him of the impending destruction, he does not celebrate. He prays that the inhabitants be spared. The Netziv intimates that other tzaddikim would bask in the Divine vengeance, their own ways vindicated, the hated sinners obliterated and punished. Abraham was yashar. Arguably, even before Abraham was a tzaddik he was yashar.
The Talmud tells the tale of a simple laborer who was similarly straight:
Our Rabbis taught: "He who judges his neighbor in the scale of merit is himself judged favorably. Thus a story is told of a certain man who descended from Upper Galilee and worked for an individual in the South for three years. On the eve of the Day of Atonement he requested of him, 'Give me my wages that I may go and support my wife and children.' 'I have no money,' answered he. 'Give me produce,' he demanded; 'I have none,' he replied. 'Give me land.' ? 'I have none.' 'Give me cattle.' ? 'I have none. 'Give me pillows and bedding.' ? 'I have none.' [So] he slung his things behind him and went home with a sorrowful heart.
"After the Festival his employer took his wages in his hand together with three laden asses, one bearing food, another drink, and the third various sweetmeats, and went to his house. After they had eaten and drunk, he gave him his wages. Said he to him, 'When you asked me, "Give me my wages," and I answered you, "I have no money," of what did you suspect me?' 'I thought, Perhaps you came across cheap merchandise and had purchased it therewith.' 'And when you requested me, "Give me cattle," and I answered, "I have no cattle," of what did you suspect me?' 'I thought, they may be hired to others.' 'When you asked me, "Give me land,' and I told you, "I have no land," of what did you suspect me?' 'I thought, perhaps it is leased to others.' 'And when I told you, "I have no produce," of what did you suspect me?' 'I thought, Perhaps they are not tithed.' 'And when I told you, "I have no pillows or bedding," of what did you suspect me?' 'I thought, perhaps he has sanctified all his property to Heaven.' 'By the [Temple] service!' exclaimed he, 'it was even so; I vowed away all my property because of my son Hyrcanus, who would not occupy himself with the Torah, but when I went to my companions in the South they absolved me of all my vows. And as for you, just as you judged me favorably, so may the Omnipresent judge you favorably.'"(Talmud Shabbat 127b)
A simple worker with a good heart, he left with sadness but without anger. Instead of an altercation or bloodshed he left for home empty-handed after three hard years of labor yet nothing to show for the sweat of his brow. This man displayed incredible greatness of spirit in justifying his employer, and bore no anger in his heart. Despite seeing produce and knowing that there were tracts of land ? which he himself had worked for three years - he accepted his employer's answers at face value and returned to his home.
The Talmud does not share with us the identity of this worker or the employer; they remain anonymous characters serving as a vehicle for a powerful message. Yet from the text we may surmise that the Temple still stood at the time of this incident. All that we know is that the employer had a son named Hyrcanus who did not wish to dedicate himself to Torah.
The story is also recorded in the Sheiltot of Rav Achai Gaon (Parshat Sh'mot section 40), one of the most ancient post-Talmudic texts extant. Here, the names of the owner and the worker are revealed. The owner was Rabbi Eliezer the son of Hyrcanus, who named his son after his own father. He is known as "Rebbi Eliezer HaGadol," the great Rebbi Eliezer, and was one of the most important and impressive figures of the Talmudic age.
The worker was one Akiva the son of Yosef ? the illustrious Rabbi Akiva.
The Netziv, who also wrote a commentary on the Sheiltot,3 comments that this story is a rare documentation of the period in Rabbi Akiva's life prior to his metamorphosis to learned sage; he was still an ignorant worker. Yet although he may have been ignorant, he was of superior spirit. He possessed greatness of heart. He was yashar. Apparently, the Talmud protects the identity of the characters to protect the innocent. Yet the fact that Rabbi Akiva had superior moral qualities prior to his education is clear from other Talmudic sources:
Rabbi Akiva was a shepherd of Ben Kalba Savua. The latter's daughter, seeing how modest and noble [the shepherd] was, said to him, "Were I to be betrothed to you would you go away to [study at] an academy?" "Yes," he replied. (Ketuvot 62b)
Rabbi Akiva was ignorant, yet he was modest and noble. Rabbi Akiva's personal change transpired in the same time-frame as the destruction of the Second Temple. As we saw above, the tzaddikim of that time were not necessarily on the same moral level as this ignorant shepherd. This observation allows us to understand an incredible statement made by Rabbi Akiva himself about his days as a simple man.
It was taught, R. Akiva said: "When I was an am ha-arez, I said: 'If I had a scholar [before me], and I would maul him like a donkey.'" Said his disciples to him, "Rabbi, say like a dog!" He answered them: "The former bites and breaks the bones, while the latter bites but does not break the bones."(Pesachim 49b)
While we may understand tensions between different socio-economic classes, hatred seems much more difficult to explain. Why did Rabbi Akiva not tolerate the scholars, the intellectual and religious elite? We must recall that the scholars of that age were the ones described by the Netziv as careful in their relationship with God but twisted in their interpersonal relationships. The ignorant Akiva ? the am ha'aretz - was of morally superior character. He was yashar. He could not tolerate the tzaddik who was not yashar.
His wife convinced him that the cause of the hypocrisy he saw around him was not the study of Torah. Knowledge of Torah makes the morally-challenged more responsible for their actions, and may lead to punishment and destruction. When a morally superior person like Akiva learns Torah, he will flourish.4 Rabbi Akiva eventually becomes both yashar and a tzaddik.
Hundreds of years ago a book on the commandants was written, and it was called "Or Zarua." The author, who was associated with the school of Tosafists, was named Rav Yitzchak from Vienna. In his introduction he explains why he chose the name "Or Zarua" for his work:
I called the work as I did due to great love for the verse and that intimated in the verse: 'Or Zarua Latzaddik uliyishrai lev simcha'- Light is sown for the just, and gladness for the straight in heart. (Psalm 97:11) The end of each word spells R'Akiva ? clearly. (Introduction to Or Zarua)
While finding a reference to Rabbi Akiva was surely interesting, what was it that so excited Rav Yitzchak? Surely it was the content of the verse. Light is sown for the just, and gladness for the straight in heart. The verse refers to the tzaddik and the yashar; what better description could there be of Rabbi Akiva?
Rabbi Akiva, perhaps more than any other person, represented the eternal optimist. His spirit could not be dampened. He always retained the pure heart ? a heart of gold.
A HEART OF GOLD
Rabbi Huna said in the name of Rav, citing Rabbi Meir, and so it was taught in the name of Rabbi Akiva:
"A man should always accustom himself to say 'Whatever the All-Merciful does is for good', [as exemplified in] the following incident. Rabbi Akiva was once going along the road and he came to a certain town and looked for lodgings but was everywhere refused. He said 'Whatever the All-Merciful does is for good', and he went and spent the night in the open field. He had with him a rooster, a donkey and a lamp. A gust of wind came and blew out the lamp, a weasel came and ate the rooster, a lion came and ate the donkey. He said: 'Whatever the All-Merciful does is for good'. The same night some brigands came and carried off the inhabitants of the town. He said to them: Did I not say to you, 'Whatever the All-Merciful does is all for good?'" (Berachot 60b)
When others see destruction, Rabbi Akiva sees salvation:
Long ago, as Rabban Gamaliel, Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah, Rabbi Joshua and Rabbi Akiva were walking on the road, they heard the noise of the crowds at Rome [on travelling] from Puteoli, a hundred and twenty miles away. They all fell a-weeping, but Rabbi Akiva seemed merry. Said they to him: "Wherefore are you merry?" Said he to them: "Wherefore are you weeping?" Said they: "These heathens who bow down to images and burn incense to idols live in safety and ease, whereas our Temple, the footstool of our God, is burnt down by fire, and should we then not weep?" He replied: "Therefore, am I merry. If they that offend Him fare thus, how much better shall fare they that do obey Him!"
Once again they were coming up to Jerusalem together, and just as they came to Mount Scopus they saw a fox emerging from the Holy of Holies. They fell a-weeping and Rabbi Akiva seemed merry. They said they to him, "Why are you merry?" Said he: "Wherefore are you weeping?" Said they to him: "A place of which it was once said, And the common man that draweth nigh shall be put to death, is now become the haunt of foxes, and should we not weep?" Said he to them: "Therefore am I merry; for it is written, And I will take to Me faithful witnesses to record, Uriah the priest and Zechariah the Son of Yevarechiah. Now what connection has this Uriah the priest with Zechariah? Uriah lived during the times of the First Temple, while [the other,] Zechariah lived [and prophesied] during the Second Temple; but Holy-Writ linked the [later] prophecy of Zechariah with the [earlier] prophecy of Uriah, In the [earlier] prophecy [in the days] of Uriah it is written, Therefore shall Zion for your sake be ploughed as a field etc. In Zechariah it is written, Thus saith the Lord of Hosts, There shall yet old men and old women sit in the broad places of Jerusalem. So long as Uriah's prophecy had not had its fulfillment, I had misgivings lest Zechariah's prophecy might not be fulfilled; now that Uriah's prophecy has been [literally] fulfilled, it is quite certain that Zechariah's prophecy also is to find its literal fulfillment." Said they to him: "Akiva, you have comforted us! Akiva, you have comforted us!" (Makkoth 24b)
Even with his life ebbing away Rabbi Akiva retained dignity and his smile:
When Rabbi Akiva was taken out for execution, it was the hour for the recital of the Shema, and while they combed his flesh with iron combs, he was accepting upon himself the Kingship of Heaven. His disciples said to him: "Our teacher, even to this point?" He said to them: "All my days I have been troubled by this verse, with all your soul, [which I interpret,] even if He takes your soul. I said: 'When shall I have the opportunity of fulfilling this?' Now that I have the opportunity shall I not fulfill it?" He prolonged the word ehad until he expired while saying it.
A voice went forth and proclaimed: "Happy art you, Akiva, that your soul has departed with the word ehad!" The ministering angels said before the Holy One, blessed be He: "Such Torah, and such a reward? [He should have been] from them that die by Your hand, O Lord." He replied to them: "Their portion is in life." A voice went forth and proclaimed, "Happy art you, Rabbi Akiva, that you art destined for the life of the world to come."
SOURCE OF JOY
Now we understand why Rav Yitzchak of Vienna thought that this verse was so appropriate for Rabbi Akiva Or Zarua Latzaddik uliyishrai lev simcha - "Light is sown for the just, and gladness for the straight in heart." Who more than Rabbi Akiva exemplified these qualities while retaining gladness?
Rabbi Akiva, in his early years, was yashar but not a tzaddik. It was only when the two traits became combined that the joy with which Rabbi Akiva is so closely identified, became manifest. Even when he heroically turned his back and went home, he did so with a heavy heart, "he slung his things behind him and went home with a sorrowful heart."
The Rabbi Akiva with whom we later become acquainted never loses his smile. Or Zarua Latzaddik uliyishrai lev simcha - "Light is sown for the just, and gladness for the straight in heart."
On Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, we begin the prayers with a statement of incredible hope. We must understand, especially in these Ten Days of Teshuva, that to be a tzaddik is within our reach. We also must remember that the only way to become a true tzaddik is by having first created the proper moral and spiritual infrastructure. First we must be yashar ? straight: not conniving, not dishonest, not deceitful, not calculating, not disingenuous. We must be yashar like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sara, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. And even like a simple laborer-shepherd, Akiva.
Or Zarua Latzaddik uliyishrai lev simcha ? "Light is sown for the just, and gladness for the straight in heart."
- See Avoda Zara 18a. (return to text)
- This aspect of the verse is borne out by the Midrash Rabbah - Deut. 11:10. (return to text)
- "Haemek Shaayla" Mosed Harav Kook edition. (return to text)
- I heard this explanation from Rav Mordechai Elon. He was speaking in the context of the death of Rabbi Akiva's students who failed morally as well, despite the insistence of Rabbi Akiva that "Loving one's neighbor" is the most important of commandments. (return to text)