Thursday, May 05, 2005

Berachos 63-64. The End of the Tractate

In these last pages, the responsibilities of the scholar and his students are the central issues. It emerges from the discussion of nullification (63a), wherein Bar Kappara is quoted as teaching, "In a place where there is no man fit to issue Torah rulings, be yourself such a man, and issue the rulings for that place."

The friction between teachers and students is directly acknowledged in a teaching by the academy of R'Yannai that "any student who remains silent when the teacher becomes angry at him a first time will merit to learn to distinguish between blood that is tamei and blood that is tahor . . . [and] any student who remains silent when the teacher becomes angry at him a first and even a second time will merit to learn to distinguish between monetary laws . . . and capital laws . . ." Rewards are promised for providing sustenance for scholars. (One host is rewarded by having his wife, his mother-in-law, and her eight daughters all giving birth to sextuplets! 63b.)

But the story that holds the most interest for me is the one that illustrates R'Avin the Levi's teaching that "Whoever forces the moment, the moment forces him. But whoever yields before the moment, the moment yields before him." (64a). This story concerns the choice of a new head of the Academy in Babylonia. The leading candidates are Rav Yosef, who was reknown for his knowledge, and Rabbah, who had a reputation for being analytical and sharp. The members of the Academy preferred Rav Yosef, but he refused the position because "astrologers" had told him that he would only rule for two years and then would die. He ultimately accepted the position 22 years later upon Rabbah's death "and ruled for two-and-a-half years; he thus lost nothing by waiting!"

I could not help but be reminded of a similar story in Yoma 85b that unfolds quite differently. In that story, Rab is teaching Torah to rabbis in Israel when Bar Kappara enters (he who taught "be yourself such a man") and Rab began his lesson again. When R. Simeon then entered, he again began his lesson. But when R. Hanina b. Hama entered he scowled and did not repeat his beginning, offending R. Hanina. For the next 13 years, Rab went to R. Hanina on Erev Yom Kippur to beg for his forgiveness. The Gemara asks, "how could R. Hanina act so unforgivingly?" And the answer to that question is what ties these two stories together: R. Hanina had seen in a dream that Rab became head of the Academy (and since R. Hanina was head of the Academy, this dream essentially foretold his own demise!). Eventually, Rab departed for Babylonia where he became head of the Academy in Sura. In this version, refusing to "yield before the moment" produces a happier outcome than yielding.

The only lesson to learn from these contradictory teachings is that no teaching stands independent of its context. When a story undermines the lesson it ostensibly teaches, all one can do is study harder!

Monday, May 02, 2005

Berachos 57-63

All I Have to Do Is Dream

I love the poetry of the Talmud, especially when it makes promises like "One who cohabits with his mother in a dream can anticipate attaining understanding" (57a) or when it observes that "a sigh breaks even a person's entire body" (58b); "that man was formed last in creation and first in misfortune" (61a).

One doesn't need to go to Plato to find the legend that the first man was "one male and one female, joined back to back" (61a).

There is also the sly humor of the one who teaches that "If, in his dream, one relieved himself, it is a favorable sign for him . . . but this applies only where in the dream he did not wipe himself."

This text is alive with all the dimensions of living. Its greatness is its breadth as much as its depth. There is quite a bit of etiquette for the privy in these pages, but there are also grim reminders of brutal persecution.

With All Your Soul

The themes that seem to dominate these pages are the boundaries within which we can learn and the boundaries to which we must hold fast. Regarding the former, the text seems to suggest that there are no questions that are off limits, whether one's teacher is being flayed alive, making love to his wife, or wiping himself after a bowel movement. Regarding the latter, I was too hasty in dismissing Reed Chopper's suggestion that nullification can go beyond appearance, since here (63a) Rava interprets Bar Kappara's teaching to signify that "at times God's honor demands that one perform a transgression for its sake."

This text compresses a lot of material in only a few pages. The passages that seem to be repetititions of earlier sections go deeper. And the earthy examples create unforgettable mnemonics to ensure that they will not be forgotten.