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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?

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