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.


BZ said...

R. Yohanan stated, "After they have been tempered in a furnace." Resh Lakish maintained, "Only after they have been quenched in water."Is Resh Lakish making a reference to his own "mikvah" story, when he jumped in the river and turned his life around? Is Rabbi Yochanan making a reference to his own fiery personality?

General Anna said...

Along the lines of BZ's comment, I see the initial halachic question as a veiled reference to Resh Lakish himself-- at what point does a person become formed? Once a highwayman, always a highwayman? Or can a person turn his life and personality around? Even if the other rabbis involved in the discussion did not mean to implicate Resh Lakish, he must have felt himself implicated...