It was probably a mistake to leave Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens on the coffee table. Of course Pixel would notice it, and of course she would find in it fuel for her felinist disdain for humankind. I guess I’m a masochist.
It didn’t take her long; as I sat down in my reading chair, she made herself at home on top of my “to read” pile.
“It looks like your species is even more culpable than I thought,” she said. “That story of Cain and Abel is your trademark. You have only to set foot on a new land and 90% of the native species go extinct within a few years.”
I didn’t rise to this. Secretly, I agreed with her.
“If you know this about yourselves (after all, it’s a homo sapiens that wrote that book) and you’re all about your free will, why don’t you stop playing out the same story over and over again?”
“Pixel, I don’t know. I wish I had an answer.”
She looked at me quizzically for a long moment. “There are quite a few species of cat out there,” she said. “We don’t hunt one another to extinction.”
“You hunt birds to extinction,” I said, without real conviction.
“Really? You see those two pigeons on the porch? One of them is within a pounce-length of Grandma Tribble. You think that bird is in any danger?”
I watched as the rock dove walked past Tribble, Alpha Queen and vaunted hunter, with nary a hint of apprehension. With a look of utter disdain, Tribble stretched and yawned. The bird looked at her out of one eye and continued to peck at the leaves. That bird knew the look of a well-fed cat.
“You see?” said Pixel, following my thoughts. “We don’t hunt unless we’re hungry. Sometimes we hunt to teach another to hunt, or to feed someone who can’t hunt.” And, anticipating my objection, she added, “In places where species have gone extinct because of us, it was because humans imported us into an environment that had not evolved to deal with us. We don’t wipe out whole species just because we can.”
For a moment, I was looking up at a corner of the inner perimeter fence of Birkenau. It was very cold and there was no way out. I shook my head, fighting off the despair. “That isn’t all there is to us,” I said.
“Oh? So what am I missing?”
“Hope! That’s what! We don’t stay the same. We’ve learned to see our potential and we know we can change. We can see the world as it might be, and project ourselves into an unknown future. No other animal on earth can do that.”
She cocked her head at me. “Then maybe you can explain something to me if you’re so smart.” She poked at my copy of Sapiens where it lay open on the table. “Harari talks about capitalism and credit. Now, no cat in her right mind would give away tangible resources in exchange for non-tangible dreams that may or may not be realized. And yet read this bit.”
I took the book in hand and read aloud:
Humankind was trapped in this predicament for thousands of years. As a result, economies remained frozen. The way out of the trap was discovered only in the modern era, with the appearance of a new system based on trust in the future. In it, people agreed to represent imaginary goods—goods that do not exist in the present—with a special kind of money they called “credit”. Credit enables us to build the present at the expense of the future. It’s founded on the assumption that our future resources are sure to be far more abundant than our present resources. A host of new and wonderful opportunities open up if we can build things in the present using future income.
“None of this makes sense!” she said. “For example, read the next paragraph.”
If credit is such a wonderful thing, why did nobody think of it earlier? Of course they did. Credit arrangements of one kind or another have existed in all known human cultures, going back at least to ancient Sumer. The problem in previous eras was not that no one had the idea or knew how to use it. It was that people seldom wanted to extend much credit because they didn’t trust that the future would be better than the present. They generally believed that times past had been better than their own times and that the future would be worse, or at best much the same. To put that in economic terms, they believed that the total amount of wealth was limited, if not dwindling. People therefore considered it a bad bet to assume that they personally, or their kingdom, or the entire world, would be producing more wealth ten years down the line. Business looked like a zero-sum game. Of course, the profits of one particular bakery might rise, but only at the expense of the bakery next door. Venice might flourish, but only by impoverishing Genoa. The king of England might enrich himself, but only by robbing the king of France. You could cut the pie in many different ways, but it never got any bigger.
“You see?” she said. “It seems counter-survival to give away something today in exchange for something that may never happen. If you don’t have the resources now, why believe that tomorrow will be any different? Nature isn’t going to do you any favors.”
“But that’s just it!” I said, “We really do believe that our future will be better than our past!”
Pixel’s ears flicked backward as she thought this over. “Why?” she finally asked.
“Uh-huh. Thought so.” She licked a paw. “Look, if I were to pounce on that pigeon out there, I would need to be quick to make off with it before Tribble grabbed it from me. There’s only so much pigeon to go around.”
“That just means that you’re in the same position as the people of ancient Sumer that Harari wrote about; you feel that reality is a zero-sum game….”
I thought about it. A zero-sum game… “You know, last week I learned an aggadah in Rav Ilay’s class that deals with exactly this issue.”
Pixel tucked her front feet under her and closed her eyes. “Let’s hear it,” she said.
I pulled out my notes from class. “It’s a story about an ‘advance from Heaven’”
Rabbi Chiya and Rabbi Shimon ben Chalafta were learning Torah together in the great study hall in Tiberias on the afternoon before Passover (according to some, it was the afternoon before Yom Kippur), when they heard a commotion outside.
Pixel interrupted, “What difference would it make if it were the afternoon before Passover or the one before Yom Kippur?”
“Well, think about it: on the eve of Pesach, everyone is busy buying food for the holiday; but the house has already been cleared of hametz, and one isn’t supposed to eat matzah until the Seder. So most of the food they’re buying won’t be eaten until tomorrow. On the other hand, if it’s the eve of Yom Kippur, people are buying food to eat before the fast.”
“So, in a nutshell,” said Pixel, “on the eve of Yom Kippur you are living entirely in the present—carpe diem!—while on the eve of Pesach you’re living in the future. On credit.”
“Exactly. The tension between those two possibilities seems to be a theme in this story.” I continued reading:
Rabbi Shimon asked Rabbi Chiya, “What’s all that commotion out there?”
Rabbi Chiya said, “Those who have [money] are buying groceries, and those who have nothing are going to their employers to demand their pay.”
Rabbi Shimon said, “If that’s what’s going on, I’m going to go to my Employer and He’ll pay me, too.”
“Rabbi Shimon was dirt poor,” I said. “There are lots of stories in the Talmud about how his poverty impacted his relations with other scholars.”
“But wasn’t he also a student of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi?” asked Pixel. “If his teacher was one of the richest men in the country, surely he wouldn’t allow his student to go hungry!”
“Maybe Rebbi Shimon was too embarrassed to ask for help,” I said.
Pixel’s pricked back her ears in disgust. “Humans are inexplicable,” she said. “So then what happened?”
Rabbi Shimon left the city and went to pray in a cave near Tiberias. He saw a hand reach out and offer him a pearl. He brought the pearl to Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, who asked him, “Where did you get this? It looks priceless! Take these three dinars, buy all you need for the holiday, and after the holiday we will spread the word and see what price it fetches.”
“See, Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi does help him!” I commented.
“But only by giving him a loan,” retorted Pixel.
I read on:
Rabbi Shimon took the three dinars, went shopping and went home. His wife saw what he’d bought and asked, “Shimon, have you become a thief? Where did you get this?”
“It’s from God,” he said.
“If you don’t tell me where you got it, I won’t taste even a bite of it,” his wife said.
“I prayed to God, and He gave it to me,” he said.
“In the world to come, all the righteous ones will be sitting under canopies laden with jewels. Are you telling me that you won’t mind if your canopy has a pearl missing?”
“Rav Shimon’s wife is like the people of ancient Sumer,” I said. Or like cats—though I didn’t say it. “She sees life in this world and the next as a zero-sum game. She believes in a Law of Conservation of Good: like the conservation of energy, there is only so much good to go around. So if Rabbi Shimon benefits now, it must be at the expense of his reward in the Next World.”
“What should I do?” he asked.
“Go and return all the things you’ve bought, give the money back to whoever loaned it to you, and return the pearl to its owner.”
When Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi heard that Rabbi Shimon had changed his mind about accepting the pearl, he summoned Rabbi Shimon’s wife and told her, “You’re causing your righteous husband a lot of anguish!”
She asked him, “Do you want his canopy to have a pearl less than yours in the world to come?”
“And if his is lacking, do you think that there’s no righteous person who will be able to give him one?” countered Rav Yehuda.
“Rabbi, I don’t know if we’ll get to see you in the world to come. Doesn’t each righteous person have his own abode there?” she asked.
Rabbi Yehuda admitted that she was right.
“So Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi agrees with her,” I said. “He too feels there’s some sort of conservation law in place: no one can fill the lack of another in the Next World. Each person balances his debit or credit in Olam haBa—a very strict sort of accounting.”
“Like Karma,” said Pixel. “I’ve noticed before that you use Olam haBa as a way of explaining the existence of evil in the world—somehow it all balances out in the Next World. If that’s the case, then I can see why Rabbi Yehuda was forced to agree with Rabbi Shimon’s wife. No one can take on the Karma of another.”
She had a point. I resumed reading.
When Rabbi Shimon heard the outcome of the conversation, he returned the pearl. When he’d taken the pearl, Rabbi Shimon’s palm had faced up; when he reached out to return it, his palm was down, the angel’s hand was under it, as if he were giving a loan to God.
The rabbis said, “The second miracle was greater than the first, since it’s the way of the heavens to give but not to take.”
I said, “Here, the implication is that the one who gives is always in a position of strength, while the one who takes is the weaker party.”
“Another human oddity that never ceases to baffle me,” said Pixel. “Surely to be willing to take is also a gift to the one who wants—or needs—to give.”
I thought of Ovadya’s story about charity in the camps: that to give food to another was a way of saving one’s own humanity. Pixel had a point, as usual. “Actually, Rav Ilay agrees with you. He pointed out that nowhere in Bible does the verb ‘l’trom’ , the modern Hebrew word for ‘to donate’, appear. In Biblical language the verb form is not ‘l’trom’ but ‘l’harim’ (‘to raise up’ ).”
Pixel cocked her head to one side, “You do seem to have something of a double standard regarding charity—on the one hand you feel that giving charity is a fine and noble act, but on the other hand you also feel that receiving charity is unworthy and indecent. You are proud to make a donation but embarrassed to accept it.”
I nodded. “But when we understand a ‘donation’ in its original Hebrew meaning, as a giving upwards, we see charity in a different light. Instead of top-down, it becomes just part of the natural cycle of things. We all need help at times; there’s no dishonor in it. Weakness is not a flaw. As Rav Ilay put it, ‘Even the Mishkan is in need of trumot (even the Tabernacle is in need of donations)”
“It seems to me that the Torah is teaching you an antidote to human pride,” Pixel said.
“I think you’re right. There are people who refuse to accept even so much as a compliment; they don’t want to be beholden to anyone even for a moment. Everything has to balance out! But such strict justice is the opposite of kindness.”
Pixel shivered, then gave her tail a lick to smooth down the fur.
“But to come back to your question about credit… what if there really is no conservation law?” I said. “What if the good is unlimited, and we can draw on the future for the sake of the present, pay the “interest”, and still make a profit? ”
Pixel’s ears expressed surprise. “What makes you think it would work out that way?” she said. “Surely you’d have an equal chance of losing your investment and ending up deep in debt?”
“That is faith,” I said.“Faith that God is on the side of life. We can’t know; we can only trust. But that is why we dare to hope.” I remembered Rav Ish-Shalom once telling me that the Hebrew world for hope, “tikva”, is related to the word for “pool”: “That’s what hope is,” he had said, “the gathering together of your resources.”
I thought it over. “What if we’re living on the Eve of Yom Kippur, with all the implications of forgiveness of the past, rather than on the Eve of Pessah, when everything has to balance out? What if this is an insight into the underlying reality, something that assures us that the future will be better than the past? What if our hope is based on something real?”
“But why should it be?” asked Pixel. “Why make that assumption when the world remains the same from day to day?”
“But does it remain the same? The evolution of sentient life is proof that things change, at least in the realm of living things. Maybe God has a stake in the evolution of intelligence. Surely our prophets acted as if God had an interest in human society becoming better in ways that don’t seem to be of mere evolutionary advantage. A society where weights and measures are honest and where the defenseless are protected—why should evolution care? And yet, we were given to understand that only such a society is guaranteed survival…as if God privileged moral societies over immoral ones.”
Pixel looked dubious, but I pressed on, “See? If God really is on the side of the evolution of intelligent life, that means He’s on the side of functional societies—societies that care for the sick or disadvantaged; societies that foster justice based on right rather than might…. These are exactly the societies that privilege intelligence over other capacities.”
I thought about something that A. J. Heschel wrote: “Over and above all frustrations, there is a certainty that we are never alone in doing the good. We love with Him who loves the world. ”
We have imbibed optimism in our very genes, which remember that human beings were both formed, and created. We believe in our own future because, in some inexplicable way, we can sense it, floating just ahead of us, out of reach but nonetheless real. We know that we are not limited to the here and now.
“We believe in the future because we are outside of time,” I whispered.
Pixel reached out a paw and gently touched my cheek. “I am here, now,” she said. “Pet the cat.”
And I did.
 This story was the focus of a class at Matan Raanana, taught by Rav Ilay Oferan. Here is the story as it appears in Ruth Rabbah 3:4. It also appears in Exodus Rabbah 52:3:
מעשה ברבי חייא הגדול ורבי שמעון בן חלפתא, שהיו יושבים ועוסקים בתורה בבית המדרש הגדול בטבריה בערב פסח (ויש אומרים ביום הכיפורים). שמעו את קולם של בני אדם הומים, אמר ר’ שמעון לר’ חייא: “הבריות הללו מה עסקיהם”? אמר לו: “מי שיש לו (כסף) קונה מצרכים לחג, ומי שאין לו הולך לבעל מלאכתו ונותן לו”. אמר לו: “אם כן הוא, אף אני אלך לבעל מלאכתי והוא נותן לי”.
יצא (ר’ שמעון) מחוץ לעיר להתפלל במערה זו של טבריה, וראה יד מושיטה לו מרגלית אחת והביאה אצל רבנו.
אמר לו: “זו מנין לך? דבר יקר הוא! אלא הילך שלושה דינרים ועשה כבוד היום. ואחר יום טוב נכריז עלי’ה (במכירה פומבית) ותיטול דמיה”.
נטל שלושה הדינרים והלך ולקח מקחות (מצרכים) ובא לביתו.
אמרה לו אישתו: “שמעון, התחלת גונב? כל נכסיך אינם אלא מאה מעין (סכום קטן), ואילו המקחות, מאין לך”?
אמר לה: “ממה שפירנס הקב”ה”.
אמרה לו: “אם אין אתה אומר לי מהיכן, אין אני טועמת כלום”.
מיד סיפר לה ואמר: “כך התפללתי לפני הקב”ה ונתן לי מן השמים”.
אמרה לו: “רוצה אתה שתהא חופתך בעולם הבא חסרה משל חברך במרגלית אחת?”
אמר לה: “מה אעשה?”
אמרה לו: “לך החזר המקחות לבעליהם והדינרים לבעליהם והמרגליות לבעליה.”
כששמע רבינו [שר’ שמעון] מצטער, שלח והביא את אשתו. אמר לה: ״כל הצער הזה את מצערת אותו צדיק!״
אמרה לו: ״מה אתה רוצה, שתהא חופתו חסרה משלכם מרגלית אחת לעולם הבא?״
אמר לה: ״ואם תהא חסרה, אין בנּו מי שימלאנה?״
אמרה לו: ״רבי, כלום נזכה לראות פניך לעולם הבא, וכי לא כל צדיק וצדיק יש לו מדור בפני עצמו?״
כיוָן ששמע [ר’ שמעון] כן, הלך והחזיר. כיוָן שפשט ידו להחזירה, מיד ירד מלאך ונְטָלה. כשנטל אותה [ר’ שמעון] היתה ידו למטה; וכשהושיטה להחזיר היתה ידו למעלה, כאדם שמַלווה לחברו.
אמרו רבותינו: הנס האחרון קשה מן הראשון, שדרכם של העליונים ליתן ואין דרכם ליטול.
 Rav Ilay later posted the following on social media:
פרשת השבוע נקראת אמנם “תרומה” אבל בתנ”ך כולו לא תמצאו אפילו פעם אחת את הפועל “תרם”. בשפה המקראית לא “תורמים תרומה” אלא “מרימים תרומה”. הפעולה איננה “לתרום” אלא “להרים” (מהשורש ר.ו.מ.
התורה מלמדת אותנו שתרומה היא נתינה כלפי מעלה, בדיוק הפוך מהאופן שבו אנו רגילים בד”כ לתרום – מלמעלה למטה, מהעשיר לעני, מרם המעלה אל הבזוי והשפל, מהשומן של האליטה אל דלת העם.
בעולם הצדקה שלנו יש מידה לא מבוטלת של מוסר כפול – מצד אחד אנחנו מחנכים את ילדינו לכך שנתינת צדקה היא מעשה נאה ונעלה, אך מאידך אנו מחנכים לכך שלקבל צדקה זו מידה שאינה ראויה ואינה הגונה. אנו גאים לתת תרומה אך מתביישים לקבל אותה.
ההבנה כי תרומה היא נתינה כלפי מעלה,יוצרת צדקה מסוג אחר. לא עוד מלמעלה למטה, לא עוד התנשאות וגאווה. כולנו נזקקים לפעמים, אין בזה פחיתות כבוד. חולשה איננה חיסרון.
אפילו המשכן, זקוק לתרומה…
(Facebook 12 Feb 2016)
 “Depth Theology”, In The Insecurity of Freedom, p. 125.