When R. Zeira was going up to the Land of Israel, he could not find a ferry to cross [a river]. He held onto a rope and crossed. [Seeing this,] a certain Sadducee/heretic said to him: “Impetuous people; you put your mouths before your ears, and you continue to behave impetuously. [R. Zeira] said to him: “A place that Moses and Aaron did not merit [to enter], who says that I will merit [to enter] it?
Tractate Ketubot discusses traditions of marriage, in general, and the Ketubah (marriage contract), in particular. The Rabbis frequently liken the covenant between God and Israel to the covenant of marriage: Mount Sinai was the chupah and Torah is the ketubah. The marriage is fulfilled by living a life of Torah in the Land of Israel. Tractate Ketubot closes with a series of accounts about the extraordinary character of the Land of Israel and the Rabbis’ abiding love for the land. This material has an unmistakable messianic flavor. Our story about R. Zeira, impatient to across the Jordan River (the gateway to the Land of Israel for those coming from Babylonia) is among them.
R. Zeira comes from Babylonia. Our story is the capstone to an account, several folios earlier, of a difficult conversation R. Zeira had with his teacher, Rav Yehudah, concerning R. Zeira’s passion for the Land of Israel and desire to move there. Rav Yehudah did not approve because he considered aliyah to the Land of Israel tantamount to an attempt to hasten the messianic age, an act that forces God’s hand. Rav Yehudah believed that it was God’s will that Babylonian Jews remain in Exile and endure God’s punishment until God chose to lift the decree. R. Zeira replied that moving to the Land of Israel would violate God’s will only if the entire community were to move, en masse. Individuals who choose to live in the Land, however, are not in violation of God’s will. And with that, R. Zeira left Babylonia for the Land of Israel, which is how he came to be standing on the shore of the Jordan River, eager to cross over and enter the Land. The very notion of crossing the Jordan River evokes two powerful images: First, the Israelites’ crossing without Moses and Aaron (Joshua, ch. 3). Second, Elijah parting the Jordan and crossing through “on dry ground” (2 Kings 2:8), which in turn evokes the image of Israel’s redemption: Moses parts the Reed Sea and the Israelites cross through on dry ground (Exodus, ch. 14).
The Yerushalmi (Jerusalem Talmud) also recounts that R. Zeira was so eager to cross the Jordan River, the portal to the Land of Israel, that he crossed the river in his clothing. Challenged by the Sadducee, he retorted, “Why should I not be impatient to pursue a blessing that was denied to even Moses and Aaron?” (JT Shevuot 35c)
With no boat in sight, R. Zeira grasps hold of a rope strung across the river for the ferryman to use to propel his craft, and crosses the river on his own. The man who observes R. Zeira is someone who does not have a religious connection to the Land nor messianic dreams and expectations. His accusation that Israel is an impetuous people is based on Exodus 24:7, which records that when Moses delineated God’s commandments for the Israelites, the people responded: נַעֲשֶׂה וְנִשְׁמָע “We will do and we will listen/understand.” The heretic implies that from the beginning, Jews have rushed into action before taking the time to carefully consider what they are doing. Just as they responded to God with their mouths (“we will do”) before using their ears (“we will listen/understand”) so, too, R. Zeira rushes ahead to cross the river—a dangerous move—rather than wait for a boat to safely ferry him across. R. Zeira’s impatience is precisely what Rav Yehudah had warned against. R. Zeira responds to the man that he is privileged to go where even Moses and Aaron were not permitted to go—into the Land of Israel. Who wouldn’t jump at such an opportunity? Who wouldn’t be eager and impatient?
Patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet. (Aristotle)
The story both acknowledges the danger of messianism—you could “drown”—and expresses compassionate understanding for the desire to participate in bringing that time closer. Throughout our history we have wrestled with the notion of messianic age: Is it close? Is it a goal or ideal more than a concrete expectation? Can people participate in bringing it about or do we wait passively for God to bring it about? Throughout our history we have seen that messianism is fraught with danger. Messianism played no small role in the disastrous Bar Kochba Revolt (135 C.E.) and in Sabbateanism. From the cult of David Koresh to the current horror of the apocalyptic vision of ISIS, messianism has proven its danger time and again.
“There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.” Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER AND DISCUSS
- Do you think Rav Yehudah, living in the 3rd century C.E., was concerned with the possible danger of messianism (he lived after the Bar Kochba Revolt) or do you think he was convinced that Israel must endure its exile until God initiates change?
- The Jewish idea of the messiah began with the hope for a king from the line of David who would unite the nation and restore Jewish sovereignty over the Land. Many Jews believe that God will send just such a “personal messiah” some day. Others believe that the description of the age that the messiah will inaugurate constitutes a vision of the ideal world we should strive for. Does either reflect your view?
- When is it good to be patient, and when is it preferable to be impatient? Consider a wide array of issues such as: peace, poverty, hunger, homelessness, persecution, racism, climate change, refugees, interfaith relations, violence against women.