We are finishing the tractate. The first part of the tractate focused on relationships which permit or prohibit the act of Yibum or marrying your dead brother’s wife. The second main theme is when a woman may remarry in the absence of normative proof. We have a Mishna that allows for two different results arising out of one husband. My favorite Mishna is a man takes his two wives oversees. The man did not return but both wives did and one said he is dead and one wife said he is still alive. They are both believed. One wife can remarry and one wife cannot.
The journeys in these cases fascinates me. Travelling in the ancient world was dangerous. Besides being eaten by a lion or a bear, there were marauding soldiers, thieves. Travel was not undertaken lightly. The difference between returning and not returning could be very arbitrary.
Recently a the Metropolitan Musueum of Art there was a bunch of pictures by Winslow Homer who painted sea faring scenes. One picture is very poignant. It is a man in a boat who is clearly in distress. In the foreground of the picture is a small boat…. A chance to be saved! salvation. The problem is his head is turned away from the boat . We don’t know if he will be saved We don’t know if he will be seen or he will see the boat.
Yefvamaos recognizes that life is dangerous. Life is full of tragedy and our job is to make the best of bad situations. The Tractate goes to great lengths to allow marriage, to avoid chained women or agunas. Travel like life is difficult. But it is good to know that Jewish law recognizes this and does its best to avoid bad outcomes. Life is arbitrary, but based upon many of the situations in Yevamaos, the law does its best to soften the pain,
The Mishna on 116 cites a ruling of Hillel who says that if a woman says her husband died and there are specific circumstances which are similiar to a prior ruling- she is believed. Hillel says the circumstances must be identical : ie the grain harvest and in the same county. Shammai disagrees and says we don’t need exact facts such as grain harvest, it could be olive or grape harvest. The big question is how we rule on fact issues. How similar do the facts have to be to rely upon a prior ruling. Ultimately Hillel reverses his position.
In a week with big issues decided in the Supreme Court, this daf is rather timely. The dispute here is one of jurisprudence. How similiar or close to the original content or decision must the facts of current dispute be to one where a ruling has already occurred. In essence, how do we make legal decisions. Do you look expansively? Do we look narrowly?
The facts of the original case are finally discussed in the Gemara. During a wheat harvest a bunch of people where working and a snake bit someone in the field. A woman came to Beis Din and said her husband died. She is believed.
The SD would like to weigh in. The Court is looking at the law, but maybe also the circumstances, the veracity of the woman, the situation. It is not making a dispassionate decision. It is weighing the real life situation. Clearly the Court must base its anaylysis on law, but uses law for just and compassionate outcomes . Jewish law at its best: stare decisis (precedent) and compassion.
Parsha Emor starts with the statement: Tell the Kohanim -sons of Aharon (priests) not to become Tuma-impure by death defilement (contact with dead.).
Ishbitz has a unique understanding of tuma (impurity). He starts by saying “kohanim” refers to all people who understand that all that happens is from God and all that happens is good. Good even if it seems to be painful or detrimental. Isbhitz wisely notes that a person who understands this might become resentful of GD for giving him troubles that he cannot comprehend . Therefore the Torah says dont’ be “tamei” or resentful of what God sends you. Tuma is the product of resentment or even resentment of God’s actions.
This is really the core inner conflict of the religious person- recognizing that God causes pain and suffering. We believe, but the inevitable resentment naturally follows.
The lesson is resentment is like impurity or maybe according to Isbitz resentment is impurity incarnate. Resentment is mars our soul the same as a dead body contaminates.
This is the challenge: Not to allow resentment of Gd’s will mar or bring impurity to our soul.
The parsha of Kedoshim has the famous line: “Love your neighbor as your self”. What is often forgotten is what comes immediately before: -Do not hold a grudge. Interestingly, Yevamos 62 which is the next day after reading of Kedoshim this year, quotes the story of Rabbi Akiva’s students who died According to this page, they died because they lacked respect for each other. A footnote in the Arstscroll quotes a midrash explains that this manifested as an “inner flaw of stinginess of spirit?
It seems that a “grudge” or “stinginess of spirit” is very different than all other sins. It is not an action of hurt; it is not a statement of hurtfullness or offense. A grudge is an inner emotion deep in our consciousness. Grudges are a natural feeling that most humans encounter. A grudge or stinginess of spirit is part of the human condition or an understandable character flaw that all people can succomb to. In essence, it is part of the human condition. At best, we seek to control it.
The SD would like to weigh in. This is exactly where the standard of holiness comes into play. Holiness is NOT merely doing mitzvos or acts of chesed. Holiness is not simply complying with the Torah. Holiness is the transformation of self beyond normal human frailities and conditions. Holiness is doing these mitzos or acts of kindness in a state of true love and respect for others. Holiness is where you transform your soul to use all mitzvos as a springboard to improve your relationship with the neighbor-regardless of what the neighbor says or has or does.
Conquering our inner demons is what true holiness is. Love your neighbor really means, conquer your own demons, eradicate your negative feelings or petty emotions.
In parsha Shemini at the height of the inauguration of the Miskan (Tabernacle), two sons of Aharon the hight priest bring a “strange fire” into the Tent. They are immediately consumed. It kills the joy of the time. The commentaries discuss why this happened; arrogance? drunkeness? The most plausible and kind is that they were so engulfed in a spirirtual frenzy they went too far.
The Holy Ishbitzer says the following: Their intention was to break loose of boundaries. He seems to say that they wanted to break the constraints of the restrictions, prohibitions and guidelines of Torah and make the religion more about feeling, emotion or connection than structure.
The great modern Jewish thinker Shaul Magid discusses two paradigms of Judaism. The first is “Abrahamic” . Abrahamic is where your Judaism is centered on acts of kindness, mercy, meditation without the strictures and rules of the formal Torah. The second is Mosaic/Sinaitic. This is the formal structure of Torah which outlines the rules of charity, kindness, shabbos, society etc. This is all formally legislated.
THE SD thinks Nadav and Avihu seem to want the best of both worlds. They want the Mishkan and its trappings and they also want the hippy freedom of no rules. The SD thinks this is the challenge of Judaism. Finding that Spiritual high within the structure of Torah.
As Brother Shlomo Carlebach sings :”Lord get me high, get me high, get me high…Higher and Higher”
The last pages of Chagiga argue about the status of the altar and table in the Temple. The discussion is whether these items are in essence “wood” or does the gold plaiting makes them different and subject to Tumah. Frankly it is complicated.
But out of nowhere the Talmud pulls out a beautiful thought. To bolster the argument that its essence is wood it quotes a section of Ezekiel :The altar is wood three amos high and and the angel said This is the Table of Hashem.” The Talmud asks why switch from altar to table. The answer given is pricelesss. During the time of the temple, the altar atones for our sins. During our day, our home table when we bring in guests and the needy atones for our sins.
This is a pretty radical thought. Atonement switches from ritual to acts of kindness. The message is simple. Our religious observance is rooted in acts of charity and kindness.
The Mishna on page 18 states that to eat “chullin” or regular non-holy bread and Maaser Sheni food (a portion of your produce taken to Jerusalem to eat) requires that hands be washed with a vessel.
The Talmud presents a statement which contradicts the Mishna in another source. The resolution is one refers to eating and one refers to touching.
The more interesting question is why does eating bread require this seeming stringency where other foods do not require handwashing, meaning one does not have to been in a state of hand purity.
The SD would like to weigh in. We know from the Talmud that in the ancient world people used bread to dip, to convey food from plate to mouth. It seems that bread was like a utensils. One imagines all the Israeli dips that we have at a table and everyone shoving the bread into the dip and then into their mouths. If there hands are dirty, the bread is dirty and then it gets transmitted. In a communal setting this is basic hygiene. But why Maaser Sheni also require washing? My friend Zach Prensky once commented that a farmer in a good year would have lots of produce to Jerusalem for consumption. The farmer and his family could not possibly eat all that food. Therefore they probably invited guests, strangers and poor people to help finish off the food. He imagines a big food party in Jerusalem. A big sharing generous event. It is a communal event where everyone is putting their hands on food. Again a communal setting requiring hygiene.
What is the common thread? Community and sharing. We must eat together . We must enojoy life together. But community requires cleaniness and hygiene.
Chagiga 4 is one of the most powerfully thought provoking in shas. It can be seen as pessimistic and arbitrary.
One the last part of 4b, there is a bizarre story. The Angel of Death sends a messenger to take the life of “Miriam the hairdresser”, yet the emissary mistakenly takes the life of “Miriam the child watcher.” When the mistake is realized the emissary asks, “shall I return her?” and the answer is flippant and casual. Essentially, dont bother.
For those of us who look to text for inspiration and answers to life, to difficulties, obstacles or seeming injustices- this is a tough one. Is heaven and it emissaries so flippant with out lives. It sounds like the greek gods playing with humans.
Rabbi Schwartz of OZ gave a comment. When somone one is taken or someone is taken seemingly before their time, dont ask questions. Dont’ look for a reason why such a thing happened. There is mazal in this world and lack of mazal.
Herein is the midlife dilemena. All our lives we are taught that hard, discipline, rigour or righteousness is the key to a happy or fulfilling life and in one page of talmud that is shattered. This daf feeds into the midlife dilemna. We realize that life is really not fair, is arbitrary, and most importantly not really understandable or in our control.
There are some harsh lessons in Judaism. This is one of them.
Taanis 21 B has two stories about regular people being credited with saving a community rather than the presence of rabbi. The first story is about a neighborhood in a town that is saved from pestilence despite other areas being stricken. The talmud says it is NOT due to the presence of a great Rabbi, but to the man who lent out his shovel to bury the dead.
The second story about a town which was free of fires. Again, the credit do NOT go to the presence of a great Rabbi, but rather to a women who lends out her oven so all can cook.
The SD would like to chime in. Neither situation is a great miracle or unexplainable. In the first situation, burying dead stops the spread of pestilence and disease. Clearly, by lending his shovel and allowing the dead to be buried, his act of kindness saves the community. It is not miraculous or a credit to the presence of a great rabbi but science.
The second story is equally logical. The person who lends her oven prevents fires from being started in houses which have no proper ovens. Again, common sense. These two stories demonstrate that kindness and mercy within the natural order of the world gives the appearance and effect of a miracle
Today is the Fifth day of Chanukah. Chanukah is about miracles. These two stories demonstrate that kindness is transformative. It allows normative and logical acts and behavior to be miraculous.