All week, I’ve been thinking about this book, “A Driven Leaf,” by Milton Steinberg.
It’s a beautiful book, and if I say nothing else this week, let me recommend you read it. The book is a unique mixture of genres and influences: a historical novel, written by a practicing rabbi with a doctorate in philosophy, which centers around the life of Elisha ben Abuya, the Talmud’s most famous heretic. But instead of roasting him, as we might have expected, Steinberg paints an extremely sympathetic picture of Elisha’s struggle with traditional belief. This ancient story, then, also serves as reflection on modern atheism and the loss of faith.
But here’s what I spent half the week wondering: Why did Steinberg take the name of the book from this week’s parsha? Parshat Bechukotai is famous for its long middle section, called the Tochecha, or: ‘The Rebuke!’ In it, the Torah describes all the terrible things that God will do to the people of Israel if they, “do not obey me and do not observe my commandments…and break my covenant.” (Lev. 26:14-15)
And it’s a nasty list: sickness and starvation, attacks by wild beasts and enemy nations, and – perhaps worst of all : “You shall eat the flesh of your sons and daughters.” (v. 29) Then, finally, exile and constant terror: “I will scatter you among the nations, and I will unsheath the sword against you.” (v. 33)
It’s awful stuff, hard to read – so hard, in fact, that the tradition is to tear through it quickly and quietly during the public synagogue reading.
Towards the end of the Tochecha, there’s one very unusual curse, and it is here that we find the phrase that Steinberg borrowed:
As for those of you who survive, I will cast a faintness into their hearts in the land of their enemies. The sound of a driven leaf will set them to flight. Fleeing as though from a sword, they will fall, though none pursues. (Leviticus 26:36)
וְהַנִּשְׁאָרִים בָּכֶם—וְהֵבֵאתִי מֹרֶךְ בִּלְבָבָם, בְּאַרְצֹת אֹיְבֵיהֶם; וְרָדַף אֹתָם, קוֹל עָלֶה נִדָּף, וְנָסוּ מְנֻסַת–חֶרֶב וְנָפְלוּ, וְאֵין רֹדֵף.
After all the actual destruction, as if to add insult to injury, God sends some kind of panic that keeps us in fear.
And there’s that phrase: “A driven leaf.” Specifically, it is the sound of a driven leaf. So I start thinking, what’s that got to do with Milton Steinberg’s book? What does this leaf tell us about the fate of a heretic?
It is an unusual image, so I turn to the commentators to see how they’ve understood it. Rashi – always my first stop – says the following:
A driven leaf – Because the wind pushes it, and shoves it into another leaf, and they rustle and produce a sound.
עלה נדף – שהרוח דוחפו ומכהו על עלה אחר ומקשקש ומוציא קול
It seems Rashi is first trying to figure out a technical question – how does a leaf, blowing along in the wind, make noise? Answer: it hits other leaves. But the image he describes is one in which the leaf is being pushed around, almost as if it’s being beaten. There seems to be an element of suffering, a feeling of misery, attributed to this little leaf. And maybe Steinberg is drawing on those qualities with his title. The heretic is doomed to be the outcast, tormented by his search for truth, battered about and rejected by everyone around him.
There is another interesting interpretation of the ‘driven leaf’ phrase. This one is from the Sifra, the Halachic Midrash to Leviticus, and it emerges from a chilling rabbinic story:
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Karkha said: once, we were sitting between the trees, and the wind blew, crashing the leaves into one another. We got up and ran, and said, “Woe is us, perhaps the [Roman] cavalry has caught us!” After some time passed, we turned around and looked behind us, and we saw there was not a soul. And we sat right down there and cried, and we said, “Woe is us, for with us the verse has been fulfilled: ‘The sound of a driven leaf will set them to flight.’” (Sifra, Bechukotai 7:4)
אמר ר‘ יהושע בן קרחה פעם אחת היינו יושבים בין האילנות ונשבה הרוח והטיחו העלים זה בזה; עמדנו ורצנו ואמרנו “אוי לנו שמא ידביקונו הפרשים!”. לאחר זמן נפנינו אחרינו, וראינו שאין בריה, וישבנו במקומנו ובכינו, ואמרנו “אוי לנו שעלינו נתקיים הפסוק “ורדף אותם קול עלה נדף“.
After their pathetic moment of panic, the rabbis suddenly realize that the danger isn’t outside of them, but a feeling within. The leaf here isn’t just a metaphor for their own frailty and oppression. It becomes the phantom oppressor itself, the little noise in the night which is mistaken for approaching monsters. But the monsters don’t exist anymore; they’re only in our heads. After years of trauma, we’re jittery and suspicious. Like a dog that’s been beaten too many times, and flinches even when you go to pet her.
In other words, the final curse is: paranoia. After all our suffering and exile, the ultimate tragedy is that we will never fully recover. We will always live in fear, looking over our shoulders, convinced that at any moment, they’re coming for us again.
This also fits the biblical language well: “I will cause faintness in their hearts… though none pursues.”
But…what does any of this have to do with Elisha ben Abuya?
Well, maybe Steinberg is saying that once Elisha ceased to believe, he was cursed to live in constant anxiety, to wander restlessly through a harsh world without hope of redemption. Or maybe he’s simply suggesting that the greatest battles are the ones that take place in our minds. Maybe?
Except that I’ve been totally wrong the whole time.
I go back and open the book… and immediately realize that Steinberg is referencing a different verse altogether. A different driven leaf. There, on the otherwise blank first page, is the epigraph:
Wherefore hidest Thou Thy face…
Wilt Thou harass a driven leaf? –Job 13: 24-25
לָמָּה פָנֶיךָ תַסְתִּיר
הֶעָלֶה נִדָּף תַּעֲרוֹץ
Ah, of course – Job! Of course Steinberg is referencing Job! Job is the ultimate tortured soul in the Bible, and the one who has the most reason to doubt God. In fact, that’s the whole point of that very dark book: Satan is given permission – by God – to bring unparalleled sufferings upon Job, in order to see if he will renounce his faith. Which Job, somehow, does not.
So Steinberg is comparing Elisha ben Abuya to Job. But unlike with Job, this time, in the battle between faith and doubt, faith finally loses.
Well, that makes much more sense. And the context of the quote is more fitting as well. It speaks of God “hiding His face” – seeming to be absent in the world. And here the leaf is not the sound that sends you needlessly running. It’s you, running from the idea of God, even as it continues to eat away at you, to “harass” you.
Ok, that’s much better. And here I was trying to tease out some loose association to a verse in our parsha. After all that, I just got the quote wrong! My mistake.
But wait. Not so fast. Is there really no connection here to the ‘driven leaf’ in Leviticus, the one that sends us running scared?
For the book of Job itself, at least, is almost certainly referencing the earlier ‘driven leaf,’ from The Rebuke. The clue is that in same chapter, fifteen lines above, Job says:
He will surely rebuke you…
His threat will terrify you and His fear will seize you. Job 13: 10-11
הוֹכֵחַ יוֹכִיחַ אֶתְכֶם
הֲלֹא שְׂאֵתוֹ, תְּבַעֵת אֶתְכֶם וּפַחְדּוֹ, יִפֹּל עֲלֵיכֶם
Job is indeed a man of faith – but not of simple faith. The God Job acknowledges is the terrifying and brutal one we meet here in our parsha. Yet somehow, Job still remains faithful. He begins verse 15 by offering a paradoxical pledge of continued belief, even in the face of total annihilation:
Though he may slay me, yet I will trust in Him…
הֵן יִקְטְלֵנִי, לוֹ אֲיַחֵל…
However – and this is a big however – the verse continues:
…yet I will bring my rebuke before Him.
אַךְ–דְּרָכַי, אֶל–פָּנָיו אוֹכִיחַ.
Faithful he may be, but Job does not simply submit. He does not simply accept the God who allows such suffering. In fact, he brings his case against God in the same language that God brought a case against Israel, the language of rebuke. And here is that language yet again, at the beginning of the chapter :
Indeed, I will speak to the Almighty; I insist on rebuking God. Job 13:3
אוּלָם—אֲנִי, אֶ–ל–שַׁדַּי אֲדַבֵּר; וְהוֹכֵחַ אֶל–אֵל אֶחְפָּץ.
Then Job proceeds to ask God the questions from Steinberg’s quote: 1. ) “Why do you hide your face?” – Where are You, God? And, 2.) “Will you harass a driven leaf?” – Why do You cause such suffering, God? Why are You so cruel?
This is a direct reference to the curse of the driven leaf from Leviticus, and the implication is that, in whole of ‘The Rebuke’ from Leviticus, this is the one that’s really beyond the pale. It is bad enough that God should inflict physical suffering. But psychological torture?! That’s too much. Job continues to believe in God, yes, but he can no longer justify God’s actions.
Steinberg’s Elisha ben Abuya simply takes the case one step further: A God like that isn’t just cruel, but altogether absent.
Steinberg is quoting Job, yes. But Job is quoting Parshat Bechukotai. And through these three layers of text, Job, Elisha ben Abuya and Milton Steinberg are joining together to put God on trial.
Wilt Thou harass a driven leaf??