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Kedoshim -Do more than you have to!

Do more than you have to!

Naval birshut ha-Torah” is an expression used by Nachmanides, known as the Ramban, to describe “a degenerate with the permission of the Torah” –  a person who observes the letter of the law, the technical requirements and practices, while acceding to self-indulgence, gluttony and debauchery. The Torah affirms that one should conduct oneself according to the highest standards, even beyond that required:  a Jew should sanctify himself in every area of life’s endeavor, as Ramban maintains in his commentary to the Torah portion K’doshim Tihiyu (you shall be holy, in the Book of Leviticus).  Naval (a degenerate person) was in fact a person described in the Tanach (The Bible) and his behavior earned the infamous description of a degenerate (termed Naval).

Who was the original Naval?   He is described in the first book of Samuel as a wealthy farmer and a shepherd. David was not yet King of Israel. He was fighting a war on two fronts: a war against King Saul, and simultaneously a war of resistance against Israel’s enemies. David’s men were starving, living out in caves. David learns that Naval had ample supplies and can even provide necessary victuals for his forces so instructed one of his soldiers to approach Naval for assistance to supply his men with food. It was a time of lawlessness and constant forays by Israel’s enemies into Israel’s territories, plundering and destroying everything in the marauders’ sight. David’s men had been providing protection for the farmers and the shepherds of the region. Naval was still wealthy, precisely because of David’s leadership and the involvement of his men in protecting his property and his flocks. David expects Naval to be grateful and to show his appreciation by feeding his men. Yet Naval declines! He denies David’s request, and David becomes so angry that he sets out to kill Naval. Naval’s wife, Abigail, persuades David otherwise.. She explains to him that Naval was indeed within the letter of the Law; she reminded David that he would be taking on a sin to kill Naval  and David relented in the light of her persuasiveness. Having refused to provide food to David’s men, and gotten away with it, Naval saw this as a cause of celebration and ate and drank himself into a state of unconsciousness from which he never recovered. The Bible goes on to tell us that 10 days later, Naval died of illnesses contracted in that feast.

What was  the motive of this 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 engaging in excesses without any moderation whatsoever which  led him to cause danger to his own health, and ultimately, to hasten the end of his own life. Thirdly,  Stinginess which causes him to be guilty of the sin of refusal to help the poor: the Midrash asserts that Naval owned two separate properties – one in the Carmel region 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 finally, he  was a person who shows no gratitude – it was, after all, David that made it possible for Naval to be a wealthy man, and he should have responded to David’s request with  a demonstration  of thankfulness and appreciation and with gratitude for his help. Naval did not do anything against the law. 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 the law required. Naval’s behavior has caused his name to be a remembered as a byword for a degenerate person in the  phrase coined by the Ramban “Naval birshut ha-Torah” ..Ramban insists that a Jew must obey the all embracing  commandment “K’doshim Tihiyu”  (you shall be holy), to live at a higher standard than the mere requirements of the law. Someone who adheres to the letter of the law and ignores its context, disdains its spirit, is held up by Rambam, as a fool; as worse than a fool – a sinner – a Naval birshut ha-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. One can punctiliously observe the details of the Law while missing its larger goal entirely. We should maximize our obligations rather than avoid responsibilities, we should do more than we have to!


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