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Balancing the need of one versus the needs of all

I want to tell you a strange story about oaths and a king eating a live rabbit. 

Nebuchadnezzar was the king of Babylonia from about 605-562 BCE. He controlled the land of Israel and installed Zedekiah as king of Judah. One day, according to a Talmudic story, Zedekiah sees Nebuchadnezzar eating a live rabbit. 

Nebuchadnezzar is embarrassed and has Zedekiah take an oath that Zedekiah would not tell anyone what he saw. Later, it is physically painful to Zedekiah that he can’t tell people what he saw. He goes to the Sanhedrin, the religious court, and asks them to annul his oath. After they annul his oath, Nebuchadnezzar hears he’s being ridiculed and sends for the Sanhedrin and Zedekiah. 

“Can you annul an oath even if the person to whom the oath was made is not there?” Zedekiah asks the Sanhedrin.

“The person to whom the oath was made must be there,” they say. 

“So why didn’t you tell Zedekiah that?” he asks. 

Immediately, the members of the Sanhedrin fulfilled the verse: “They sit upon the ground, and keep silence, the elders of the daughter of Zion” (Lamentations 2:10). 

The version of the story in the Talmud (Nedarim 65a) ends there, but the version in the midrash on Lamentations (2:10) tells that Nebuchadnezzar’s officers tie the hair of the Sanhedrin members to the tails of horses and force them to run after the horses from Jerusalem to Lod, leading to an agonizing, gruesome death. Nebuchadnezzar goes on, in 586 BCE, to destroy the First Temple. 

This story is timely in our calendar as it deals with a question of vows, whose laws appear in this week’s Torah portion, in Numbers 30. Also, it’s related to the Temple’s destruction, and we are in the midst of the Three Weeks, the period commemorating the time between the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple. 

It’s a strange story on many levels, from the eating of a live rabbit to the humbling of the Sanhedrin by a cruel foreign king. So what are we to make of all this? 

Broadly, the story warns about the dangers of leaders deciding Jewish law incorrectly. The Sanhedrin made a terrible mistake, and they paid the price. Their mistake was not merely one of law, but one that affected an actual human being, embarrassing him. And laws related to embarrassment and oaths seem to apply both to people who aren’t Jewish as well as to public figures (i.e. kings). 

The values in conflict that motivate the story seem to be, on the one hand, the serious physical pain that Zedekiah experiences (which prevents him from fulfilling mitzvot, according to many explanations, and thus can be an excuse to annul a vow even without the other party there, many say), and, on the other hand, the embarrassment caused by the spread of the report of the live rabbit-eating, as well as the danger of angering a powerful king. 

Balancing the needs of the individual and the needs of the community, and balancing physical versus emotional distress are timeless struggles that every society and culture must wrestle with. Thus, the details of the story are decidedly odd, but the deeper questions are quite familiar to us. 

I’ll leave you with two questions. First, if you could ask any character in the story a question, what would you ask? Second, what dynamics from the story do you see at play in our world today?

Rabbi Noah Arnow serves Kol Rinah and is president of the St. Louis Rabbinical and Cantorial Association, which coordinates the weekly d’var Torah for the Jewish Light.