Fear, Power and Taxes

Rabbi Justin Goldstein
March 28, 2013
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American culture, from day one, has been based on fear of power and distaste of taxes – these attributes were very much the motivation of the revolution which shook off the British from the colonies, and over two hundred years later, these attributes encourage much of the debate and discord in our political dialogue.

There is a fascinating, if not disturbing, tale in the Talmud which illuminates the dangers of this combination fears.  Below is a free and abbreviated ‘translation’ of Bava Kamma 117a-b:

There was a certain man who had planned on informing the Persian authorities of another man’s income so he could be taxed on it.  Rav said to him, “Don’t show them! Don’t show them!”  The man responded, “I will show it! I will show it!”  Rav Kahana, who was sitting with Rav, tore out the man’s windpipe.  Rav, based on prophetic verses, determined it better for the potential informer to be killed than to have a Jewish person fully taxed by idolaters.  Rav said to his colleague, “Kahana, when the Greeks ruled us, they did not care about bloodshed, so you would have been safe under their rule, but the Persians are sensitive to bloodshed and they will surely find you guilty of murder; you must flee Babylon and make aliyah to the Land of Israel, but stay out of the way of Rabbi Yohanan for at least seven years.  Rav Kahana listened to his teacher and made aliyah, where he found Reish Lakish, Rabbi Yohanan’s best friend and study partner, reviewing the days studies with some students.  Being familiar with Reish Lakish’s command of debate, he was surprised that none of the contradictions and difficulties in the lessons were being pointed out.  Reish Lakish informed Rabbi Yohanan, “a lion has come up from Babylon.  Make sure to properly prepare for tomorrow’s lecture.”  The next day, Rav Kahana was seated in the front row with the best of students, but whenever Rabbi Yohanan would make a point, Rav Kahana made no challenges.  Day after day he was moved further back, eventually to the last row with the weakest of students.  Rabbi Yohanan laughed with Reish Lakish, “your lion turned out to be nothing but a fox!” Rav Kahana prayed to God and asked Rabbi Yohanan to start the lecture from the beginning, and he proceeded to point out difficulties with all of Rabbi Yohanan’s arguments.  Rabbi Yohanan was very old and his eyelids sagged so he could not see.  He wanted to see the man who so easily disproved his argumentation, so his students lifted his eyelids with silver tweezers.  Rav Kahana’s expression looked to Rabbi Yohanan like a smirk, Rabbi Yohanan’s anger was so intense that Rav Kahana died.  Rabbi Yohanan said to his colleagues, “Did you see how that Babylonian was mocking us?!”  They informed him that he was not smirking, but that was his typical expression.  Rabbi Yohanan visited Rav Kahana’s burial cave and found it blocked by a snake.  Rabbi Yohanan said to the snake, “Open your mouth and let the master visit his disciple,” but the snake did not open its mouth.  So he said, “Open your mouth so I may visit my equal,” but the snake did not open its mouth.  So he said, “Let the disciple see visit his master,” and the snake opened its mouth.  Rabbi Yohanan prayed for mercy and resurrected Rav Kahana.  Rabbi Yohanan apologized and explained he had misinterpreted the expression on Rav Kahana’s face.  Rabbi Yohanan invited Rav Kahana back to the academy but Rav Kahana was worried and said, “I am only prepared to go with you if you assure me that you will never let your anger be directed at me again; I will not go if you this might happen again.”  Rabbi Yohanan fully revived him and henceforth consulted him on any doubtful arguments.

There is more depth and layers to this story than I am presenting, yet it does provide an interesting comment on some of the matters which plague our current political process – fear, power, taxes, lack of trust, lack of respect and lack of bipartisanship.  What is fascinating to me is that Rav is not opposed to Rav Kahana’s act of murder, because it would appear that his mistrust of authority and dislike of taxes superseded any concern of ethics in this scenario.

However, after Rav Kahana flees from the tyranny of taxation, he finds tyranny of a wholly unexpected variety – the tyranny of the abuse of power. It is not just Rav Kahana’s life which is disrupted by these incidents, but the entire academy of Rabbi Yohanan was disrupted.  Ultimately, the primary concern of the story is not with the murder of the tax informant, or even Rav’s decision to aid his student’s evasion of justice.  Rather, the Talmud is primarily concern with the effect abust of power can have on interpersonal relationships and self perception.

Rabbi Yohanan, despite his aged experience and infinite wisdom, was less concerned with the discourse and respectful debate and more concerned with his own authority.  He only sees his errors after it is too late (well, would have been too late had he not been a rabbi endowed with the knowledge of commanding resurrection…)  In our tale, all ends well, except for the tax informant that is, but that is only because Rabbi Yohanan learns from his mistakes.

Right now, as we look ahead into the unknown political climate created by the most recent inability of our Congress to find common ground and as we continue to kick the can down the road without clear knowledge of the full effect of inaction, may this story serve to remind us of three things.

1) fear of tyranny often results in tyranny – Rav Kahana’s actions were seemingly a protest of Persian authority, but his own actions were clearly problematic, at best, immoral, at worst, and challenging, in any event.

2) when power is abused to silence others’ opinions the effect can be dramatic and defeating and makes understanding, cooperation and reconciliation only more difficult.

3) even after people have abused and been abused, reconciliation is possible, but only through seeing the truths of the perspectives which we once feared.

*bonus lesson: the Talmud has some fascinating tales!

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Rabbi Justin Goldstein Ordained in 2011 by the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, CA, Justin serves as rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel in Asheville, NC. Rabbi Goldstein was selected as a 2012-2013 Fellow with Rabbis Without Borders. His writings can be found in various books, at the Jew and the Carrot - Hazon's blog at the Forward and at On1Foot.com . Find Justin at rabbijustingoldstein.com, on Twitter @RabbiJDG and at facebook.com/rabbiJDG

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