Wednesday, April 29, 2009

It is Very Quiet Here

I have been off the bloggadah for many many weeks and resolved to jump back on this week. I succeeded in making it my daily practice to study the assigned reading every day and did so with my ears open for the slightest whisper of the still small voice of inspiration, which I am only beginning to hear. I am pondering R. Ze'era, who stayed obscure to remain alive (avoiding ordination!).

R. Ze'era used to say, "We are not required to give heed to the traditions of R. Sheshet, since he is blind." R. Sheshet who taught both Rava and Abaye is to be disregarded and for such a reason! Sheshet, who called Ze'era a great man (gabra rabba"; 'Er. 66a) is to be disregarded! Is it perhaps because he called Ze'era. who strived to be obscure, a great man. Is it Ze'era's fear of recognition that leads him to insist that one who recognizes him must be blind? I hope so.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Sefer Ha-Bloggadah: week 35

This week we complete the amoraim of the land of Israel (somehow appropriate for the week of Yom Ha'atzma'ut / Israeli Independence Day), and (with Rav) begin the Babylonian amoraim!

  • Monday - 2:1:477-483 (R. Abbahu)
  • Tuesday - 2:1:483-491 (R. Abbahu)
  • Wednesday - 2:1:492-503 (R. Zera)
  • Thursday - 2:1:504-515 (R. Zera)
  • Friday - 2:1:516-529 (Rav)
  • Saturday/Sunday - 2:1:530-539 (Rav)

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The good, the bad, and the beautiful

I find the write ups on the Rabbis fascinating. They range over a wide range of human emotions. From total devotion to G!d and various forms of caring for humanity to pettiness and super competitiveness that becomes physically destructive.

One day the sages in the house of study were divided on the following question: At what stage [in their manufacture] are a sword, a knife, a dagger, a spear, a handsaw, and a scythe deemed to be [finished] utensils and susceptible to uncleanness? The answer first suggested was: when their manufacture is finished. But when is their manufacture finished? R. Yohanan stated, "After they have been tempered in a furnace." Resh Lakish maintained, "Only after they have been quenched in water." R. Yohanan: "A robber is an expert in his trade." Resh Lakish [resentful]: "What special benefit have you bestowed upon me? There [as a robber] I was called master, and here I am called master." R. Yohanan: "I bestowed upon you the benefit of bringing you under the wings of the Presence." Nevertheless, R. Yohanan was mortified [by the sharpness of the exchange], while Resh Lakish [was so overcome by remorse that he] fell ill. Thereupon his wife came and wept before R. Yohanan, plead ing: "Forgive him for the sake of my sons." He replied: "Scripture says, 'Leave thy fatherless children with Me. I will rear them' " (Jer. 49:11). "For the sake of my widowhood then!" He replied: "Scripture says, 'And let thy widows rely on Me' " (ibid.). [Soon afer that], Resh Lakish died.

R. Yohanan grieved so much for Resh Lakish that he no longer came down to the scholars' assembly. And so the sages deliberated: "Who is to go and ease his mind? Let R. Eleazar ben Pedat go, since his knowledge of Halakhot is acute." R. Eleazar went and sat down before him; and whatever R. Yohanan said, R. Eleazar observed, "There is a Baraita that supports you." R. Yohanan finally exclaimed, "Do you think you are at all like Ben Lakish? When I would state a matter, Ben Lakish used to raise twenty-four objections, which I responded to with twenty-four rebuttals, forming a debate that led to a fuller comprehension of the tradition. But all you say is, 'There is a Baraita that supports you,' as though I do not know on my own that what I said was right." Then R. Yohanan stood up, rent his garments, and, bursting into tears, cried out, "Where are you, Ben Lakish? Where are you, Ben Lakish?" He kept crying in anguish until he went out of his mind. Then the sages besought mercy in his behalf, and he died.

Despite the deep love between R. Yohanan and Resh Lakish, their exceedingly thin skins allow them to almost literally kill one another. This is a short story which describes how humans are often unable to deal with one another and explains why so many marriages go bad, for example. The Rabbi's are not depicted as saints but as humans a much better teaching lesson for the rest of us.

It is also interesting that the relationship between R. Yohanan and Resh Lakish's wife (they were sister and brother is never explicitly stated in this story or the ones which deal with R. Yohanan and Resh Lakish's son.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Sefer Ha-Bloggadah: week 34

We continue with the amoraim of the land of Israel.

  • Monday - 2:1:421-430 (R. Yochanan ben ha-Nappah and R. Simeon ben Lakish [Resh Lakish])
  • Tuesday - 2:1:431-440 (R. Yochanan ben ha-Nappah and R. Simeon ben Lakish [Resh Lakish])
  • Wednesday - 2:1:441-445 (R. Judah [II] the Patriarch)
  • Thursday - 2:1:446-450 (R. Judah [II] the Patriarch)
  • Friday - 2:1:451-464 (R. Eleazar ben Pedat)
  • Saturday/Sunday - 2:1:465-476 (R. Abbahu)

Monday, April 13, 2009

My Grandson is an Honor Student at Yeshivah of Lydda

I was charmed and intrigued by the aggadah about Rabbi Joshua ben Levi and his custom of listening to his grandson chant a portion of scripture every Friday afternoon. One Friday he forgets and goes straight to the bath house. On his way in, he remembers and runs back out of the bath (although the rabbis disagree about whether he is clothed or naked at this point, it is amusing to imagine him running down the street in a towel or robe) to listen to his grandchild. When his student questions his decision to halt in the midst of his washing (something he had expressly forbidden in the past), Rabbi Joshua explains that hearing one's grandchild recite Torah is like "listening to it at Mount Sinai." He quotes Devarim 4:9-10, punctuating the verses differently from the verse divisions we have, to prove his opinion.
At first, I expected Rabbi Joshua to cite the educational benefits to his grandson as the reason he takes this tradition so seriously; it was a surprise to me to discover that Rabbi Joshua sees this mostly as a benefit to himself. Then, it made me feel guilty about all of those shabbatot I have grumbled through the stumbling leyning of b'nei mitzvah boys and girls. Clearly, there is some important element here about continuity, about how satisfying it feels to pass on one's heritage, knowledge, and values to the next generation. That isn't really what Rabbi Joshua is saying, either, though. To him, listening to his grandson read is like actually experiencing the establishment of the covenant at Mount Sinai. What could that mean?
This aggadah reminded me of Pesach and one of the unique aspects of the Exodus story as related in Shemot. Even while God is giving the Israelites instructions about how to ready themselves for leaving Egypt, the text also discusses the events as a holiday in the future. The laws and rules about how the story should be retold and commemorated in the future are given simultaneously with the more immediately applicable instructions about the Exodus. It is almost as if the telling and retelling of the story, the act of passing the story on to the next generation, overshadows the actual events even as they are taking place. The actual liberation is less important than the fact that it becomes a road map, metaphor, and blueprint for future liberations.
The text of the Haggadah emphasizes the act of transmitting this story to the next generations so that they actually re-experience the Exodus themselves. "B'chol dor vador..." we say-- "In every generation, a person should look upon him/herself as if he/she went out from Egypt." And although Rabbi Joshua quotes Devarim chapter 4, this story made me think of 5:3 -- "It was not with our fathers that the Lord made this covenant, but with the living, every one of us who is here today." In essence, the covenant is not only transmitted through teaching, but it actually re-established with each successive generation through the act of the retelling.
In his book "Exodus and Liberation," Michael Walzer discusses the covenant made at Sinai as a kind of proto social contract, in which a cycle of "public committment, instruction, prophetic complaint, and public recommitment" (p.95) results in a covenant that is truly renewed in each generation. It is this renewal that Rabbi Joshua hears in his grandson's recitation each Friday afternoon.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Sefer Ha-Bloggadah: week 33

Happy Pesach! We're still on an abbreviated schedule this week due to the holiday. We continue with the early amoraim of the land of Israel.
  • Monday - 2:1:385-392 (R. Joshua ben Levi)
  • Tuesday/Wednesday - 2:1:393-397 (R. Joshua ben Levi)
  • Thursday/Friday - 2:1:398-410 (R. Yochanan ben ha-Nappah and R. Simeon ben Lakish [Resh Lakish])
  • Saturday/Sunday - 2:1:411-420 (R. Yochanan ben ha-Nappah and R. Simeon ben Lakish [Resh Lakish])

Monday, April 6, 2009

This World versus the World to Come

Once, on the eve of Passover (some say on the eve of Yom Kippur), while R. Hiyya the Elder and R. Simeon ben Halafta were seated studying Torah in the great house of study in Tiberias, they heard the sound of people running about in excitement. When R. Simeon asked R. Hiyya, "What are these people doing?" R. Hiyya answered, "He who has money is purchasing [what he needs for the festival], and he who has no money is running to his employer, who gives it to him." R. Simeon said, "If so, I too will run to my Master and He will give it to me." He went out and prayed in a cave in Tiberias, and beheld a hand holding out a pearl to him. So R. Simeon took it to our Rabbi, who asked him, "Where did you get this? It is priceless. Take these three denars--go and prepare food in honor of the day, and after the festival we shall advertise it, and you will take whatever money it brings in." R. Simeon took the three denars, went to make his purchases, and then came home. His wife said to him, "Simeon, have you turned thief? All your possessions amount to no more than a hundred meah. How were you able to make all these purchases?" He replied, "They were made out of what the Holy One provided." At that, she said, "If you won't tell me where you got the money, I will taste nothing at all." He told her, "This is what I prayed to Heaven for and what was given me from Heaven." She said, "Do you wish that your canopy in heaven should have one pearl less than that of your colleagues?" When he asked, "What shall I do?" she replied, "Go and return your purchases to their owners, the denars to their owner, and the pearl to its Owner." When our Rabbi heard that R. Simeon was grieved, he sent for his wife and said to her, "You have caused much anguish to this righteous man!" She replied sharply, "What do you want--that his canopy should have one pearl less than yours in the world-to-come?" He said to her, "And even if it should, will not one among us make it up to you?" She answered him, "Rabbi, how do we know that we will be privileged to see your face in the world-to-come? Will not each and every righteous man have his own chamber?" Rabbi admitted that she was right. As soon as R. Simeon heard what Rabbi had said, he went and returned the pearl.
Here is another bothersome story. There are two issues:
First, The idea that any good things that we use on earth, will not be available to us in heaven. Therefore being poor is good. In a very poor society such a theory can provide hope and justification for those who are very poor. We in a currently rich society take having things for granted and tend not to think that being very poor is good. However Rabbi is included in the story and he was exceedingly rich yet he would also have his own chamber in the world to come.
Second, the gift of the pearl would not mean that R. Simeon ben Halafta would be poor or miserable in Olam Ha-ba but that his canopy would have one less pearl. It sounds more like a status thing than a real loss. Since he seemed to be one of the poorest of the scholars shouldn't he have had much more to start with?

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Sefer Ha-Bloggadah: week 32

With the passing of Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi, the period of the Mishnah has come to an end, and we move on to the amoraim (the rabbis of the Gemara). As far as I can tell, we now depart from strict chronological order; we'll first do the amoraim of the land of Israel chronologically, and then the Babylonian amoraim chronologically.

Due to Pesach, we'll be on a lighter schedule this week. For those who have some time off, the holiday will be a great time to catch up!

  • Monday - 2:1:340-347 (Bar Kappara)
  • Tuesday - 2:1:348-359 (R. Simeon ben Halafta)
  • Wednesday/Thursday - 2:1:360-373 (R. Hanina bar Hama)
  • Friday/Saturday/Sunday - 2:1:374-384 (R. Oshaia the Elder ben R. Hama)