Shmuel stumbled into the Yeshiva, his arms full with bolts of cloth and bags of herbs. He had been with Miriam, outside the city gates, and the road to Trapani where they often met in an old olive grove. Time seemed to stop when he was with her. It always began with a conversation, most often about the the Kabbalah or some aspect of the batin interpretation the Quran to which her family adhered. And it always ended with them gazing deep into each other’s eyes, touching, ever so close to joining … But realizing the time they had parted and Shmuel rushed to the Yeshiva. He did not want to miss this session. They were in the third part of Tractate Bata Metzia, around 49B, which one of the other students was reading when Shmuel, trying to set his wares down delicately on one of the tables, dumped them unceremoniously at the feet of their teacher, a gentle old man with a beard so vast it must have contained entire worlds. The teacher looked startled, but ignored the disturbance.
A certain man gave money for sesame seeds. Later, sesame seeds went up in price. The sellers retracted and said to him “We have no sesame seeds, take your money. He did not take his money. It was stolen.
They came before Raza. He said to them “Since they said to you “Take your money,” and you did not take it there is no need to state that he is not a paid bailee, but he is not even an unpaid bailee.
The Rabbis said to Raza: But surely he must accept “He who punished” upon himself..
He said to them indeed so.
How would you, were you Raza, have handled this case? asked their teacher.
—It is clear, said one of the older students, the son of a wealthy merchant. Since he offered to return the money the original agreement is cancelled and he is in the clear.
—But what of the curse? asked another.
The curse in question was this:
He Who exacted payment from the people of the generation of the flood, and from the generation of the dispersion, will in the future exact payment from whoever does not stand by his statement … Be aware that this is the punishment of one who does not stand by his statement …
—Still, said the first, he is in the clear for now. There is no crime. The sense of the curse is clear. It is a way of saying that the dispute is between the seller and God, and explicitly not for human courts.
At this point, their teacher, who had taken noted Yoshua’s late arrival, decided to put him on the spot.
—What do you have to say about this, latecomer? He expected that Shmuel would be flustered and hopefully embarrassed into being more punctual.
—I don’t think we have adequate information to resolve the case, he said.
—And how is that? asked the teacher, assuming that he was prevaricating.
—Before I will render judgment, Shmuel said, speaking as if he was already a qualified member of a bet din, I need to know who is wealthier.
—And what difference does that make? asked the first student.
—If the seller is very poor and this is his first opportunity to earn enough money to support his family, then he is right to cancel the original contract and sell the sesame seeds at the highest price he can get. But if the seller is wealthy and the buyer poor, then the seller is obliged to sell at the original price and let the buyer have an opportunity to profit.
Everyone looked at Shmuel, stunned. The rabbi was as flustered as he had hoped Shmuel would be, not knowing even what question to pose next. But Shmuel was not finished.
—Of course, said Shmuel, there are further considerations. Both might be equally poor, in which case I would argue that the secondary but less important principle that contracts should be respected in order to facilitate commerce becomes relevant. And it matters how large the transaction is relative to the market in which they are operating. If it is large enough to affect the movement of the price, then we must look not to the effect of the transaction on an individual poor man, be he seller or buyer, but on the poor in general, lest they be without oil.
He said all this while carefully gathering up the mass of cloth and herbs he had dumped on the floor as he entered.
—And how would we ever know any this? asked another of the students.
—Here in Asiyah-Gashmi it is impossible, at least for now. And so there can be no justice until we have made Tikkun Olam, and mend the torn fabric of the universe. But even then … Authentic justice is quite impossible apart from omnipotence and omniscience. We need to become God.
Asiyah-Gashmi was the physical universe, the final emanation created by the overflowing of the creative power of God, which had shattered as it became a finite and contingent creation.
—First, the teacher said, this not your friend Ruben’s kabbalistic study circle, but rather a school of the law, which forms us for ethical conduct, precisely in Asiyah-Gahsmi as you call it. And second, I know of no master of the Kabbalah who teaches that we can or must become God.
—Can? No. There is no way to cross the boundary between contingent being and Necessary Being. And yet we must, said Shmuel, or else live in in misery.
The room erupted into whispers and then in to chaotic debate. The rabbi, who still did not know how to handle the situation, said:
—I think that it is time for a break. Shmuel, please see me in my office.
Shmuel headed back to the office, unsure what to expect.
—I thought that you were making teshuvah? That is the only reason I was willing to risk your father’s wrath and allow you to study with me. And then you bring this Christian crap!
—Christian? But are not all agreed that this section of the Talmud is an attempt to ask what is meant by Leviticus 25, “thou shall not drive a hard bargain with your neighbor” in a time when trade has become more important than agriculture …?
—You are arguing in effect, that it is quite impossible for us to fulfill the law … Sound familiar?
Shmuel, who had never thought of this, was mildly chastened.
—But inability does not lessen the obligation, nor does it mean that we can be redeemed by the merits of another, as the Christians teach.
—And so we are simply condemned, with no recourse whatsoever? What kind of God would do that to His creatures?
—A God who has no choice, because it is logically impossible for there to be more than one necessary Being, one that is omnipotent. Nor can God refrain from drawing into existence beings who desire this, because Her incredible beauty draws all things to Itself.
—And what are we to do??
—Struggle for justice as best we can, knowing we will fail, and seek the knowledge and power to become more effective, knowing that our efforts are ultimately in vain.
The rabbi was impressed. The boy might not be mad after all. Indeed, there might be more here than a thoughtless, adolescent display of brilliance. He had always been impressed with Shmuel, who had been a strange child, always curious, always exploring, and always more serious in the moral sense than any of his elders, but also quite awkward socially, with very few friends. Indeed, the rabbi found it difficult to believe that he was … close to … the brilliant and beautiful daughter of one of the wealthiest Muslim spice merchants in Palermo.
Still, he did not know what to say to the boy. These were dangerous times for those who cleaved too closely to the truth and Shmuel was exactly the sort to end up as the main act of an auto da fe. Best to balance his strengths, thought the rabbi, rather than fight him.
—Please be careful. These are dangerous times. Your reasoning could well be that of a great mystic and I it is my hope that you will have the room to explore these questions. But you need to consider your audience. And do try to be on time.
He got up and gave Shmuel a hug.
—Now be gone with you! And don’t forget that there is beauty even in this broken world!