There’s a discussion today of the verse in Ecclesiastes (4:17):
Guard your foot when you go to the house of the Lord and prepare to listen; for that is better than when fools offer sacrifices, as they know not to do evil.
The Talmud is a bit perplexed by the idea of fools who know not to do evil. What sort of fool is so fortunate as to always unwittingly do the right thing? Besides, it seems they must have done some evil, why else are they bringing a sacrifice?
We are given the following interpretation:
Regarding those fools, the Holy One Blessed Be He said: “They cannot distinguish between good and evil, yet they have the audacity to offer me a sacrifice??”
Sacrifice is not enough, the prophets make this clear. But whereas they usually suggest that a person must behave with mercy and compassion, with justice and righteousness, here we seem to go a bit further. We are now demanding that a person learn to distinguish between good and evil, to refine and develop their moral sensibility. There is now the demand upon every individual that they strengthen their capacity to sit with difficult issues and work their way towards an ethical resolution.
Religion is not about sacrifice, it is not about our masochism, about providing an outlet for our ascetic tendencies. Nietzsche argues convincingly that such behaviour is the last refuge of the thwarted and downtrodden ego, it is not the display of pure hearted piety that it may at first resemble (Essay III, Genealogy of Morality).
That said, we don’t follow Nietzsche in looking to move ‘Beyond Good and Evil’. We are, however, happy to accept his assistance in deepening our understanding of the concepts. Thinking at that level of depth can only make us better able to recognise and live by our moral lights.
I see a link here to another halakha on the daf, that one shouldn’t hold a Sefer Torah whilst praying. On one level, the person may be worried about dropping it, which would distract him from his prayer. But thinking further than that, we may worry that a person holding a Sefer Torah could start praying to the Sefer Torah, that they may invest it with an inappropriate level of Godliness, with magical otherworldly properties.
This, it seems, would be another case of the fool, who is too caught up in ritual and sacrifice, and whose heart is distracted from the authentic and intangible matters at hand.
The antidote for Ecclesiastes’ fool is to ‘come close to hear the words of the wise’. We must have the humility to listen, and the desire to imbibe the refined personality one encounters in the wise. This is the Divine path, this is what keeps our foolishness in check.