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Thursday, February 14, 2019

God’s Frugality — BT Menachot 86b — #128

One might think that clear oil of beaten olives is unfit for meal offerings since the verse states, A tenth of fine flour, thoroughly mixed with beaten oil (Exodus 29:40). If so, what does the verse mean by, for lighting (Exodus 27:20)? Rather, [clear, beaten oil is required only for the menorah] in order to save money. Why save money? R. Elazar says, “Torah conserved the money of the Jewish people.”
 Command the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives [for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly] (Leviticus 24:2). R. Shmuel bar Nachmani says, “’To you’—and not for My benefit [because] I do not need its light.” [Concerning] the Table of Showbread in the north and the Menorah in the south [of the Sanctuary], R. Zerika says R. Elazar says, “[God said:] ‘I do not require [the Table] for eating, nor do I require [the menorah] for its light.’” [Concerning the Temple:] He made for the House windows narrow and broad (1 Kings 6:4). It was taught [in a baraita]: [God said:] “Narrow within and broad without [because] I do not require their illumination.’

The Mishkan (wilderness Tabernacle), and the Mikdash (Jerusalem Temple) after it, were conceived as the nexus between heaven and earth, the place where God and Israel’s relationship was renewed daily and amplified through the sacrifices offered on the altar. The altar was not the only striking feature of the Mishkan (and Mikdash). Another was the Menorah. The first and longest-standing symbol of the Jewish people, the seven-branched candelabra that stood in the Mishkan is a graphic, symbolic depiction of creation itself: six days of creation held together by the central trunk, Shabbat. God tells Moses to instruct the Israelites to bring “clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly” (Exodus 27:20). The kohanim (priests) were assigned the daily duties of cleaning the Menorah, replacing its wicks, and refilling its cups with oil so that it would burn eternally, symbolizing the eternal nature of God’s covenant with Israel. The Table of Showbread (Exodus chapter 25) displayed twelve loaves of bread on its golden shelves, representing God’s commitment to ensuring Israel’s physical sustenance, their most basic need. Each shabbat, the kohanim replaced the loaves with twelve fresh ones.

Mishnah Menachot 8:3, and the Gemara that follows (starting on 85b), engages in a detailed description concerning the production of olive oil via a succession of pressings (beatings). Each subsequent pressing produces a lesser quality oil. Only the finest oil from the first press—“clear oil of beaten olives”—is suitable for lighting the Menorah (Exodus 27:20). Two chapters later, the Torah says that meal offerings are made with one-tenth measure of choice flour and a quarter hin of merely “beaten oil.” Why is the finest quality oil used to light the Menorah not also required for the meal offering? After all, God uses the Menorah only for illumination, but “consumes” the meal offering. While God’s “seeing” and “eating” are metaphorical, it makes sense that the oil we  consume should be as pure, or purer than, the oil used to illuminate the dark.

The Gemara explains that God does not require the most expensive oil for the meal offering. The nation, which pays for the costs of the Mishkan through tithing, thus saves money. God wants the nation to use its funds properly and frugally and toward that end, does not require the most expensive olive oil for the meal offering.

Why, then, is the finest type of oil required for the Menorah? As R. Shmuel bar Nachmani explains, Torah says “to (or: for) you” to convey that God does not require the illumination provided by the Menorah—it is symbol for Israel, so the people will remember that God is always with them. R. Zerika points out that much the same can be said of the Table of Showbread, as evidenced by its placement at the opposite end of the Mishkan. Normally, one would place a lamp next to the table to provide light for eating. However, God, Who does not require this configuration, commanded they be placed far apart so Israel would understand that these symbols exist solely for their sake.

The Gemara provides one more example. The windows in Solomon’s Temple are described as “narrow and broad,” presumably meaning that they had a narrow opening to the outside but a wider opening on the inside (familiar to us from medieval castles and walls) because the narrow opening is easier to protect, and the broader opening inside permits more light to diffuse within.  The Gemara reads “narrow and broad,” however, as “narrow within and broad without”—the opposite of standard construction—allowing God to make the statement that God doesn’t require the light.

  1. If God doesn’t need the Menorah for illumination or the meal offering and bread of the Table for sustenance, why build the Mishkan and carry out these rituals? What does Israel gain by following rituals portray a God Who eats and sees like human beings—if that does not correspond to reality? 
  2. In explaining anthropomorphic references to God, our Sages said that Torah speaks in the language of human beings. Do you find it helpful and engaging, or distracting and confusing, to talk about God in human terms (“seeing,” “eating,” “angry,” etc.
  3. In explaining why God accepted Abel’s sacrifice while rejecting Cain’s (Genesis 4:3-4), it has often been pointed out that Abel brought “the choicest of the firstlings of his flock” while Cain simply brought produce from his fields. This suggests that one should bring only one’s best to God. Yet this passage from the Talmud pointedly says God doesn’t not always want the finest quality. How would you explain this seemingly contradiction?

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Why Do People Repent? — BT Yoma 86a — #127

R. Chama b. Chanina said: Great is repentance because it brings healing to the world, as it is said, I will heal their backsliding, I will love them freely (Hosea 14:5). 
 R. Chama b. Chanina pointed out a contradiction: It is written, Return, you backsliding children (Jeremiah 3:22)—that is, you who were backsliding (i.e., rebelling) in the beginning. But [then] it is written, I will heal your backsliding (Jeremiah 3:22). There is no difficulty: Here, [the reference is to where they repent] out of love; there [to where they repent] out of fear. 
Rav Yehudah pointed out this contradiction: It is written, Return, you backsliding children, I will heal your backsliding (Jeremiah 3:22), but it is also written, For I am a lord to you, and I will take you one from a city and two from a family  (Jeremiah 3:14). There is no difficulty: Here, [the reference is to where they repent] out of love or fear; there [the reference is to where they repent] through suffering.
R. Levi said: Great is repentance because it reaches the heavenly throne, as it is said, Return, Israel, to Adonai your God (Hosea 14:2).

The building blocks of our lives are our relationships (with ourselves, with God, with other people) and all relationships are tested by life. We would hope that all apologies are sincere, heartfelt, and healing. Teshuvah (repentance), the path to reconciliation and healing, is therefore crucial. But who hasn’t heard, “I’m sorry you feel that way,” which isn’t an apology at all? And who hasn’t blurted out, “I’m sorry” without fully meaning it? The passage above opens a longer conversation in tractate Yom on repentance, a most appropriate discussion for the talmudic tractate concerning the laws and rites of Yom Kippur.

R. Chama b. Chanina opens the discussion of teshvuah by pointing to the potential of repentance, and hence how high the stakes are: repentance brings healing not only to individuals in the context of interpersonal relationships, but is the source of healing for the the world when the breach is between God and humanity. With a claim this lofty, it is unsurprising that someone should ask, “But doesn’t it matter why the offending party repented?” and “Does teshuvah have the power to repair every breach?” Two efforts to dissecting the relationship between motivation, sincerity, and outcome of repentance follow. Both follow a common rabbinic formula: Two scriptural verses are presented that seem, at first glance, to contradict one another. A resolution is offered that solves the contradiction by slicing and dicing the verses, assigning each verse to a different situation. Hence the truth of each verse is preserved, and a distinction is made between applications in a manner that invites a more nuanced view of the subject itself.

In the first “slice and dice,” R. Chama b. Chanina contrasts the first half of Jeremiah 3:22 with the second half of the same verse. Return you backsliding children suggests to R. Chama that Israel’s rebelliousness is a foolish act of childish insubordination—over as quickly as it began. However, as R. Chama understands the latter half of the verse (I will heal your backsliding) the Israelites require God’s healing because they remain, even after teshuvah, tainted by their sin. Does repentance wipe the slate clean, or is the offender forever marked by the sin? R. Chama resolves the contraction by assigning the first half of the verse to repentance undertaken out of love. It is genuine and heartfelt and thereby fully clears the sinner’s account with God. He assigns the latter half of the verse to repentance undertaken out of fear (for a delightful treatment of repentance coerced by fear: Tom Chapin’s “Mikey Won’t). This implies that repentance evoked by fear is likely to be defensive—more intended to avoid punishment than forge reconciliation.

Rav Yehudah offers a second “slice and dice.” For him, Jeremiah 3:22 in its totality implies that repentance effectively brings healing at all times, for all people. He contrasts this with another verse from Jeremiah (3:14) that suggests God picks and chooses whose repentance to accept, implying that repentance is not always effective and healing. Rav Yehudah resolves the seeming contradiction by assigning 3:22 to repentance undertaken either out of love or fear—regardless of what inspires a person to repent, sincere repentance brings healing. He assigns 3:14 to the experience of suffering, which, often understood as punishment from heaven in Rav Yehudah’s world, would naturally be expected to inspire repentance. But suffering does not always inspire repentance. The picking and choosing of 3:14 is that of suffering individuals who decide whether or not their suffering motivates repentance. 

R. Levi quotes Hosea 14:2, a verse that cuts through the analysis, argument, and slicing and dicing by asserting that all repentance, regardless of how human beings are inclined to judge one another’s sincerity, reaches the throne in heaven; that is, it is fully accepted by God. 

  1. What is the difference between saying, “I’m sorry” and doing teshuvah?
  2. Does it matter whether love, fear, suffering, or something else motivates a person to repent? If so, why? Is R. Chama’s distinction between teshuvah from love or fear an observation or a judgment? Is Rav Yehudah’s comment about sufferers who do not repent an observation or a judgment?
  3. The discussion in tractate Yoma ends with a statement by R. Meir (below) that goes even farther than that of R. Levi, claiming that God forgives the world for the sake of the repentance of an individual. Can an individual apologize on behalf of a group? Can an individual repent on behalf of a group? Why do you think he makes this claim?

R. Meir says: Great is repentance, for on account of an individual who repents, the sins of all the world are forgiven, as it is said,  I will heal their backsliding, I will love them freely, for My anger is turned away from him (Hosea 14:5). It is not stated “from them” but rather “from him.” (86b)

Revenge vs. Restorative Justice — BT Berakhot 10a — #126

There were hooligans in R. Meir’s neighborhood who tormented him greatly. He would pray for mercy with respect to them—that they would die. R. Meir’s wife, Beruriah, said to him, “What is your reason [for praying this way]. Is it because it is written, May sinners disappear from the earth (Psalm 104:35)? But is it written ‘sinners’? ‘Sins’ is written. What is more, go to the end of the verse: and the wicked be no more (Psalm 104:35). [Therefore the verse can be understood:] May sins disappear [from the earth], and the wicked be no more. Rather, pray for [God to have] mercy on them so that they will repent. [R. Meir] prayed for mercy on them, and they repented.

Is there anyone who has not experienced torment, insult, or degradation and not wished for their tormenters’ demise (or at least disappearance)? Not a pretty thought, to be sure, but unquestionably human enough. Vengeance is a natural emotional response to cruelty and oppression, but that does not make deeds of vengeance morally justifiable. The short interchange between Beruriah and her husband, R. Meir, concerning his feelings and consequent actions with regard to neighborhood hooligans is a blueprint for how we should (1) stop,  (2) think, and (3) respond to instances of mistreatment we endure from others. What is more, in this story, R. Meir, the preeminent Torah scholar of his generation is the student; his wife Beruriah is the Torah scholar and teacher.

The Talmud does not describe how R. Meir is tormented by the neighborhood ruffians. Perhaps they are nightmare neighbors: loud, filthy, destructive. Imagine living next-door to the worst frat house (certainly not the one you lived in in college), whose members are loud and offensive, drunk and brawling all night long. Or, perhaps R. Meir’s neighbors are verbally abusive in a manner we would liken to racism and anti-Semitism today. The description of the situation is sufficiently vague to enable us to draw a connection between R. Meir and a situation in our own lives when we, like R. Meir, find a certain person or group intolerable and cannot stop ruminating on it. When R. Meir prays, his nemeses are foremost in his mind. He therefore asks God to be “merciful” in a way that would satisfy his pain: by making them die. The irony of equating God’s mercy with causing their death is pointed: he is so angry and resentful that his conception of divine mercy conforms to his fantasy of revenge.

Imagine the impact on R. Meir—emotionally and physically—of this attitude. Consider how his stress effects him and how his desire for revenge consumes his thoughts.

R. Meir is blessed with a wife and partner who, in her own right, is a Torah scholar. Beruriah is psychologically astute, as well. She neither judges nor criticizes her husband. Rather, she offers him a scholarly argument—right in his wheelhouse—successfully engaging his attention. She gets him to stop. It is based on the interpretation of Psalm 104:35—May sinners disappear from the earth, and the wicked be no more. Because the Bible is written without vowels, the word “sinners” (chot’im) can, by changing the vocalization, be read “sins” (chata’im). Beruriah argues: Perhaps, dear husband, you are praying for our neighbors to die because you understand from Psalm 104:35 that if sinners disappear from the earth, then there will be no more wicked people. But here’s another way to understand the verse: read “sinners” as “sins”; if sins disappear, then, by definition, there will be no more wicked people. Therefore, dear husband, pray instead that  our neighbors stop sinning and repent; then they can become a force for good in the world, our problem will cease, and the verse will be fulfilled. With this forceful argument, Beruriah gets R. Meir to rethink his relationship with the neighbors.

R. Meir is persuaded. Beruriah’s reinterpretation of the verse frees R. Meir to reframe his attitude and relationship toward, his neighbors. He prays for their sins to cease. Imagine how R. Meir behaves when he encounters them after the reframing inspired by Beruriah’s reinterpretation of Psalm 104:35. Imagine his very different response. Does he nod when he passed them? Does he say good morning? Does he engage them in conversation? Does he find a way to express his concerns about their behavior? Does he stay long enough to listen to their concerns and explanations?

This story highlights the overwhelming influence of attitudes we hold to determine our behavior. Our capacity to revision a relationship and open dialogue with an adversary can convert an enemy to a friend. The astounding power of repentance to establish justice and peace speaks to the moral potency and transformational power of restorative justice—far to be preferred over revenge. Restorative Justice provides an alternative to retribution. It affords victims a voice and active role in the process. It offers offenders the opportunity to redeem themselves though repentance and atonement.

  1. Presuming that God responded to R. Meir’s initial request that the hooligans die (the belief that there is a God who operates this way is another discussion), would that solve R. Meir’s problem? What would happen the next time someone angered or tormented him? Consider the “collateral damage” of revenge: R. Meir’s family, the family and friends of the hooligans, other neighbors. How might their lives have been effected?
  2. Have you ever undergone a transformation in the way you thought about a situation? Have you ever befriend a person you had considered an enemy? How did it affect your life?
  3. If something unsavory and hurtful to others in your past were discovered and revealed, in the spirit of Restorative Justice, how might you respond? If something hurtful to you from another person’s past were discovered, what would be the best way for you to respond?

Friday, February 1, 2019

We Will Do and Listen — BT Shabbat 88a,b — #125

R. Elazar said, “When the Israelites gave precedence to ‘We will do’ over ‘We will listen,’ a bat kol (heavenly voice) exclaimed to them, ‘Who revealed to My children this secret the Ministering Angels use? As it is written, Bless Adonai, you angels of [God], mighty creatures who do [God’s] bidding, hearkening to the voice of [God’s] word (Psalm 103:20)—first they fulfill, and then they hearken.” R. Chama b. R. Chanina said, “What is the meaning of, As the apple tree among the trees of the wood, [so is my beloved among the sons] (Song of Songs 2:3)? Why were the Israelites compared to an apple tree? To teach you that just as the fruit of the apple tree precedes its leaves, so did the Israelites give precedence to ‘We will do’ over ‘We will hearken.’” 
A heretic saw Rava engrossed in his studies while his fingers were under his leg and he was squeezing them so that his fingers spurted blood. [The heretic] said [to Rava], “You impulsive people who accorded precedence to your mouth over your ears—you still persist in your impulsiveness. You should listen first [to the conditions of the Torah] and, if you are capable, accept; if not, do not accept.” [Rava] said to [the heretic], “Concerning us, (88b) who are wholehearted, it is written, The integrity of the upright will guide them (Proverb 11:3). But concerning others, who walk in deceit, it is written, And the deviousness of the treacherous leads them to ruin.

In the course of conveying God’s laws to Israel, Torah several times recounts the Israelites’ affirmation, “All that Adonai has said, we will do” (e.g., Exodus 19:8 and 24:3), but Exodus 24:7 employs the singular phrase na’aseh v’nishma (“We will do and we will hearken”), which  suggests  to the Rabbis that the Israelites were prepared to do as God commanded before hearing or considering the laws they were committing themselves to obey. In context, this is a difficult interpretation because na’aseh v’nishma follows on the heels of, “Moses took the record of the covenant and read it aloud to the people.” A more accurate translation is, “We will do and obey.”

R. Elazar tells us that at the very moment the Israelites uttered the words na’aseh v’nishma, a heavenly voice (i.e., God) cried out, “Who told the Israelites the angels’ secret?!” The claim that the angels obey God’s commands before they even hear them is supported by a verse from Psalm 103, which uses the same two linguistic roots as na’aseh v’nishma, in the same order—hence “doing” before “hearing.” For the psalmist, these are two parallel phrases that convey the same meaning; for R. Elazar, their order places precedence on “doing” over “hearing,” proving that this is an angelic, heavenly, divine mode of receiving God’s commands.

R. Chama produces a second verse in support of R. Elazar’s contention. In Song of Songs 2:3, a woman describes her lover as a sole apple tree in a forest—distinct, superior, bearing fruit. The Rabbis understand Song of Songs to be an allegory for the love relationship between God and Israel. Accordingly, and in defiance of botanical science, R. Chama explains that just as the apple tree bears fruit (equivalent to “doing”) before it produces leaves (equated with “hearing”), so too the Israelites committed to God’s Torah before they had heard a word of it.

The acclaim of Israel’s sight-unseen, word-unheard acceptance of God’s Torah is next bolstered with a story about Rava’s encounter with a heretic. Rava, we are to understand, was so utterly engrossed by his Torah studies—so thoroughly engaged in a way that reflects a post-Sinai version of na’aseh v’nishma—that he caused what should have been painful bleeding to himself, yet was neither aware of the blood or the pain. The heretic observes that the impulsive quality of the Jews, which caused them to accept God’s Torah without first knowing what they were committing themselves to, is evident in Rava’s irrational behavior. Rather, the heretic opines, one should first listen and considered whether one has the capacity to fulfill a commitment, and decide accordingly whether or not to accept it. Rava responds that those who are truly upright are guided by their integrity, which entails saying yes to God immediately, and only afterward asking what God’s requirements comprise. Those who are not upright and lack such integrity are devious and their modus operandi is treachery rather than devotion; this leads them to ruin.

  1. The Rabbis make their best case for Israel’s fervent and unqualified commitment to God’s commandments before having an inkling of Torah’s content—despite Torah’s multiple affirmations that things didn’t happen this way, and the likelihood that na’aseh v’nishma is best understood “we will do and obey.” What does it mean to accept God’s Torah whole cloth in a religious tradition that encourages adherents to scrutinize, interpret, and reinterpret every word? What is the meaning of na’aseh v’nishma today? How do you interpret it?
  2. Na’aseh v’nishma has long been emblematic of Israel’s unique commitment to God. Midrash Sifri Deuteronomy 343 (and at least four other midrashic compilations) recounts that God shopped the Torah around to other nations, each of which asked what it contained. As soon as God revealed a sample commandment, each nation rejected the Torah because they did not like that particular rule. Only Israel accepted the Torah sight unseen. The midrash intends to assert a qualitative difference between Israel and other nations. What do you think?
  3. Curiously, after the people utter na’aseh v’nishma, the next verse (Exodus 24:8) recounts that Moses dashes the blood of sacrificial offerings on the people. There is, as yet, no sacrificial system because the Mishkan (Tabernacle) has not been built, so it would appear that the nation itself is the altar or parochet (curtain) at this stage. That in itself is a fascinating idea to reflect upon. Additionally, do you think there is a connection between Exodus 24:8 and Rava’s blood, which flowed because of his exceptional devotion?

Friday, January 25, 2019

Torah of Wine, Water, & Milk — BT Ta’anit 7a (part 2) — #123

R. Chanina bar Pappa raised a contradiction: It is written, Bring water to the thirsty (Isaiah 21:14) and [elsewhere] it is written, All who are thirsty, go to water (Isaiah 55:1). If the student is worthy, Bring water to the thirsty, but if not, All who are thirsty, go to water. R. Chanina bar Chama raised a contradiction: It is written, Let your springs be dispersed outwards (Proverbs 5:16), and it is written, Let them be for you alone (Proverbs 5:17). If the students are worthy, Let your springs be dispersed outwards, but if not, Let them be for you alone. 

In this next installment of a continuing conversation about Torah study (see TMT 120), the Rabbis turn to a new set of metaphors. Here we find the an oft-used metaphor: water. As with the metaphors of fire and trees (TMT 121) the Rabbis take us in unexpected directions that challenge  our presumptions. The two sages quoted in this pages are both “Chanina,” so I will refer to them by their full names.

R. Chanina bar Pappa and R. Chanina bar Chama both offer a set of verses that, on the surface, seem to contradict one another. A common interpretative technique of the Rabbis, when confronted with conflicting verses, is to apply each to a different situation and thereby maintaining the truth of each. In this case, however, R. Chanina bar Pappa and R. Chanina bar Chama are making use of that technique to construct an argument with the appearance of that mode of interpretation. They have each purposely found two verses that appear to contradict one another and assigned separate meanings to each. We will take each in turn.

R. Chanina bar Pappa brings two verses from Isaiah. “Bring water to the thirsty” suggests we should bring water (Torah learning) to the thirsty (students desirous of learning). The second verse seems to say the opposite: let one who is thirsty (for Torah learning) come to the water (the font of Torah: the scholar). The first verse would seem to imply that Torah scholars should go out looking for able, interested, worthy disciples, while the second verse can be interested to mean that Torah scholars should let eager students approach them. Should Torah scholars recruit disciples or wait to be approached by those eager to learn? 

R. Chanina bar Pappa solves the seeming contradiction by assigning the first verse to “worthy students” and the second verse to students who are not worthy. His message is: Go out and recruit worthy students; let all others seek you out. At first blush, this sounds like an elitist attitude. That view, in itself, may well be shaped by our age and society, in which education is often an elitist affair and “worthy” is too often associated with SAT scores and money (fortunately not exclusively so). However, let’s give R. Chanina bar Pappa the benefit of the doubt and consider another perspective. Surely, intelligence is an important factor in learning, but far from the only necessary quality, especially for Torah learning in his time. Desire to learn, and especially in the case of Torah learning, commitment to Torah, are equally important. What is more, in R. Chanina bar Pappa’s world, Torah scholars invested far more time and effort in their students than teachers invest in their students today. Often, a disciple lived with his master, eating at his table and learning with him all day. Scholars invested their resources, time, energy, and emotions in their students. Perhaps R. Chanina bar Pappa is saying that those with the potential to be Torah learning rock stars should be recruited because the Jewish people cannot afford to waste brilliant minds; others will find their to teachers if their desire is great enough, and allowing them to make the effort is an efficient way to measure their desire.

Following this model, R. Chanina bar Chama juxtaposes two sequential verses from Proverbs chapter 5. The first verse tells us that spring water should be brought to those who are thirsty, while the verse next verse says that those who are thirsty should come to the spring to drink. Translating that into a conversation about Torah scholars who dispense Torah learning and students who desire to learn, the first verse seems to say: Go out and bring Torah learning to those who want to learn. The second verse seems to say: Let those who want to learn come and find themselves a teacher. R. Chanina bar Chama does what his colleague does: he assigns to the first verse the meaning: spray the waters of Torah onto a worthy student. To those deemed  “unworthy,” he assigns the second verse, which now comes to mean: don’t share Torah learning with unworthy students. 

If R. Chanina bar Pappa’s application of the verses from Isaiah sounded elitist, what are we to say about R. Chanina bar Chama’s application of the verses from Proverbs? Perhaps the first sage is warning Torah scholars to marshal their resources carefully and make considered decisions. Perhaps the second sage is revealing that his personal resources are more limited.

  1. Does the notion of who is “worthy” serve us today? How else might we understand the meaning of each sage’s message?
  2. The Talmud tells a story of a time when Rabban Gamliel, president of the Sanhedrin, was deposed for a short time and replaced by a young scholar who threw open its doors to welcome all who wanted to enter and learn. Does this dilute the quality of the learning? Does this benefit the society-at-large? How are the two concerns to be balanced?
  3. How can we fulfill Bring water to the thirsty and Let your springs be dispersed — enlarge Torah learning today, given all the social and cultural exigencies that exist in our communities and our lives?

Torah in an Ugly Container — BT Ta’anit 7a (part 3) — #124

R. Chanina bar Idi said, “Why are the words of Torah compared to water, as it is written, All who are thirsty, go to water (Isaiah 55:1)? This is to tell you that just as water flows from a high place to a low place, so too are the words of Torah retained only by someone of humble spirit.” And R. Oshaya said, “Why are the words of Torah compared to these three liquids: water, wine, and milk, as it is written, All who are thirsty, go to water (Isaiah 55:1) and it is written, Come, buy food and eat; buy food without money, [buy] wine and milk without cost (Isaiah 55:1)? This is to tell you that just as these three liquids are stored only in the least of vessels, so too words of Torah are stored only in someone of humble spirit.”
 This is illustrated by a story about the daughter [of the Roman emperor] and R. Yehoshua b. Chananiah. She said to him, “Alas, glorious wisdom in an ugly vessel!” He said to her, “Does your father put wine in earthenware vessels?” She said to him, “What else should we put it in?” He said to her, “Your [father] who is so important, should put [his wine] in vessels of gold and silver.” She went and said to her father and he put [his] wine in vessels of gold and silver and it turned sour. They [the emperor’s servants] came and told him that the one had gone sour. [The emperor] said to his daughter, “Who told you to do this?” She said, “R. Yehoshua b. Chaniah.” He summoned [him] and said to to him, “Why did you say this?” [R. Yehoshua] said to [the emperor], “I said to her what she said to me.” [The emperor said], “Surely there are are good looking people who are learned!” [R. Yehoshua replied], “If they had been ugly they would have been more learned.”
Another explanation: Just as these three liquids can be spoiled by inattention, so too words of Torah can be forgotten through inattention

This is the third in a series of issues of TMT exploring Torah learning (see TMT 121 and TMT 122). The Sages’ use of “water” as a metaphor for Torah in TMT 122 continues here. In the previous passage, which immediate precedes this one in the Talmud, two sages spoke those who are “worthy” and those who are “unworthy” to study Torah. The exclusionary and elitist taste that leaves in one’s mouth is now balanced out by a third R. Chanina whose teaching is a paean to humility, which he cites as a crucial attribute for retaining Torah learning.

R. Chanina bar Idi uses Isaiah 55:1, the same verse R. Chanina bar Pappa used (TMT 122) to teach an altogether different point. The phrase “go to water” suggests the well-observed physical phenomenon that water runs downhill, covering—and staying with—that which is at the lowest elevation. Following the metaphor, R. Chanina bar Idi interprets: Torah learning is best retained by one who, like water, runs downhill—i.e., who is humble.

R. Oshaya now becomes the third sage to quote the first half of Isaiah 55:1 in this section of Talmud. He expands the metaphor, however, by quoting also the latter half of the verse, which includes wine and milk in the list of available liquids God makes available to those in need and says “Come” to acquire them. R. Oshaya tells us that Torah is symbolized not only by water, but also by wine and milk. R. Oshaya does not focus on the attributes of water, wine, and milk and how they reflect the attributes of Torah or those who learn Torah (as we might expect) but rather observes that each of the three is stored in an inexpensive, common container—a “humble” vessel—just as Torah learning is best preserved in a “humble container.”

Where R. Chanina bar Pappa and R. Chanina bar Chama were concerned with whether students are worthy to learn Torah or not (TMT 122), R. Chanina bar Idi and R. Oshaya are focused on the importance of humility in the enterprise of acquiring—and retaining—Torah learning.

The Talmud illustrates R. Oshaya’s point with a famous story about R. Yehoshua, a tanna who, (according to many stories) interacted with numerous Roman nobles. R. Yehoshua was not a candidate for the cover of GQ. The emperor’s daughter wonders how he could be considered a vaunted scholar given what a plain, and even ugly, man he is. R. Yehoshua responds in way that accords perfectly with R. Oshaya’s teaching: wine is kept in cheap earthenware vessels. He challenges the emperor’s daughter to store them in silver and gold containers, which turn the wine sour. Her father, no doubt displeased by the destruction of a good deal of his wine cellar, asks R. Yehoshua why he instructed his daughter to have the wine rebottled in silver and gold. R. Yehoshua, we can imagine, shrugs as he says, “I just told her what she told me.” This allows the emperor to ask the question hanging in the air: Does this mean a good looking person could not be a Torah scholar? Surely not, R. Yehoshua responds, but without the distractions that come with good looks, such a person would be an even better Torah scholar.

  1. Which do you value more—beauty or erudition? Why? Which trait is more important to you personally—your looks or your intelligence? Why?
  2. Is there a way in which humility and learning go hand in hand? If so, why? Does humility promote learning, and even more, the retention of learning, as R. Chanina bar Idi claims, or do humble people have fewer egotistical distractions to interfere with learning?
  3. Human beauty is a subject discussed in every age and in every society. How is it valued? How ought it be valued? Do you think the answer to the question #1 above is different for people who are considered (or view themselves as) beautiful or good looking, than it is for people who are not?

Torah of Fire and Firewood — BT Ta’anit 7a (part 1) — #122

Rabbah bar Bar Chanah said, “Why are the words of Torah compared to fire? As it is said, Is not My word like fire, says Adonai (Jeremiah 23:29). This is to say: Just as fire does not burn alone [without fuel], so too words of Torah are not retained [by one who studies] alone.” This is what R. Yose bar Chanina said: “What is the meaning of the verse: A sword is on the lonely and they shall be fools (Jeremiah 50:36)? A sword is on the enemies of Torah scholars who occupy themselves with Torah all alone. What is more, they will become stupid, as it is said, they shall become fools. And not only that, but they will fall into sin: It is written here, and they shall be fools, and it is written elsewhere, Because we have been foolish and because we have sinned (Numbers 12:11). If you wish, you can prove it from this: The princes of Tzo’an [Tanis] have been fools…which will lead Egypt astray (Isaiah 19:13).” 
 Rav Nachman bar Yitzhak said, “Why are the words of Torah compared to a tree, as it is said, It is a tree of life to those who grasp it (Proverbs 3:18)? This is to say: Just as a small piece of wood can ignite a larger piece of wood, so too younger students of Torah can sharpen the minds of older ones.” This is what R. Chanina said: “I have learned much from my teachers, and from my colleagues even more than from my teachers, but from my students I have learned more than from all of them.”

The Rabbis revel in metaphors, as do we all. In addressing the value of Torah learning, they employ the metaphors of fire and firewood, but then make an unexpected shift to articulating surprising messages about how we should engage in Torah learning and who our best teachers may turn out to be.

What does it mean that Torah is like fire—but not because of it has power? What does it mean that Torah is like a tree—but not because of it is strong and grows?

Two metaphors for Torah are offered: fire and firewood. Rabbah bar Bar Chanah, quoting a verse from Jeremiah, compares Torah to fire, but not to the end we might expect: providing light or warmth, or as a symbol of power. Rather, he makes the point that a flame alone—without fuel to sustain it—is quickly extinguished. The fuel for Torah learning is a study partner. Taking the metaphor a step further, R. Yose bar Chanina cites a verse from Jeremiah that warns that foolish Babylonian magicians (badim) are in danger (symbolized by the sword). R. Yose reads badim as coming from the same root as bod’dim, meaning “alone.” In this way, he interprets the verse to characterize those who study alone as “enemies of Torah scholars.” It is not that studying by oneself makes one stupid (or: foolish), but rather that studying with a chevruta partner is far superior: someone who will ask you questions, challenge your ideas, share their ideas and interpretations sharpens your mind and, together with another, many more ideas will be generated. R. Yose suggests yet another danger in studying alone: falling into sin. He offers as proof two verses. A verse from Numbers includes both the terms “foolish” and “sin,” thereby  supporting a connection. A verse from Isaiah says the foolish actions of the princes of Tanis led Egypt astray, i.e., into sin. R. Yose does not tell us to which sins those who study Torah alone are particularly susceptible, but perhaps he believes that our connections with others engaged in Torah keep us on a straight path in life. Like Rabbah bar Bar Chanah, R. Yose's purpose is to encourage us to find a study partner. 

Rav Nachman bar Yitzhak offers another metaphor for Torah—the tree, which he grounds in a famous verse from Proverbs that is recited following a public Torah reading: It is a tree of life to those who grasp it; whoever holds on to it is happy (Proverbs 3: 18). Like Rabbah bar Bar Chanah, he pivots in a surprising direction. We might expect him to tell us that, like a tree, Torah is living, growing and strong, or that it provides people with metaphorical shade and comfort. Instead, Rav Nachman notes that a small piece of firewood (a young scholar) can ignite a large piece of firewood (an older, more knowledgable and accomplished) scholar. We are accustomed to thinking that elders possess store piles of wisdom and knowledge they impart to the young, but Rav Nachman flips this assumption on its head. He affirms that young scholars have bright, new ideas that can sharpen the minds of their teachers and elders, because older scholars are fully capable of generating new ideas.

This section is capped off with a famous teaching of R. Chanina that inverts a classic presumption that teaching flows from teachers to students. In the best of all possible worlds, it is a dynamic, two-way street: you learn plenty from your teachers, but more from your colleagues because you sit together and challenge one another, and even more from your students because they ask more questions and challenge you with bright, new ideas.

  1. Who are the teachers from whom you have learned the most? Why were they your best teachers? If you are a teacher, what have you learned from your students?
  2. Many of us grew up in an educational setting in which partner learning was not only not encouraged, but even forbidden (“Keep your eyes on your own paper!”). Consider this  teaching: Yehoshua b. Perachyah said: Find yourself a teacher, acquire for yourself a study partner, and judge each person for merit (Pirkei Avot 1:6) The Jewish way of learning is with a partner, a reciprocal give and take. How might you find yourself a study partner or small group for Jewish learning or another type of learning in which you engage?
  3. How do you understand this teaching: "The Sages said: Whenever [students of Torah] would sit, involved in words of Torah, they would seem as though they are vengeful of one another, and when they part, they would seem as though they were lovers from their youth.”  (Avot d'Rabbi Natan 1:1)