The Fall of a Scholar: The importance of remaining in the communal dialogue
In Pirkei Avot we are introduced to Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, the leader of the Jewish people in Judea after the destruction of the Second Temple in the first century of the Common Era, and his five students. The Mishna goes on to describe the unique characteristics of each of those disciples, and mentions that Rabbi Eliezer ben Arach was the greatest of all. He is described as maayan hamitgaber, an ever-flowing spring of Torah knowledge and inspiration.
Rabbi Elazar ben Arach and his wife thought that he would be the natural successor of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai – but he was not chosen. Disappointed, he moved to a different location and started his own academy.
His students failed to follow him and the yeshiva did not flourish.
We are told in Tractate Shabbat that when Rabbi Elazar ben Arach returned to the Beit Midrash, after his time away, was called to read from the Torah. Reading from this week’s Torah portion, he came to the verse: “hachodesh hazeh lachem” – this is the way you consecrate the new month, instead he read, “hacheresh haya libam”- their heart has become deaf.
The Maharsha, , Rabbi Shmuel Eidels (1555-1631) in his commentary on the Talmud, asks: “why is this story of Rabbi Elazar ben Arach scripted and choreographed around our Torah portion, and the first mitzva of the Torah, the mitzva of consecrating the new moon?”
The Maharsha explains that this incident serves to highlight that when you walk away from the Torah conversation, the Beit Midrash, even if you are as great a scholar as Rabbi Elazar ben Arach, you can even forget how to read the first mitzva in the Torah.
I’d like to suggest a different answer.
How is the new moon consecrated?
It’s consecrated by two Jews going to a Beit Din, a court, and announcing that they saw the new moon.
These two Jews do not have to be great Torah scholars, they don’t even have to know how to read from the Torah, but if they can testify on what they’ve seen. That is sufficient.
The three members of the court are appointed by Beit Din HaGadol – and that is also sufficient.
A conversation takes place. Testimony is given, questions are asked and answered. And this conversation establishes the new moon. The entire Jewish calendar, the date that the festivals take place, is established through this conversation.
Even a great personality who has expertise in astronomy and in the orbit of the moon cannot contradict the outcome of that conversation on the new moon.
We follow the conversation, the dialogue that takes place between these two witnesses and the court.
What a powerful message! Even an astronomer or a professor of mathematics cannot contradict the consecration of the moon, the consecration of the new month that is established by these two individuals in their dialogue with the Beit Din, the Jewish court.
I think the message that the Gemara is trying to highlight is that no man, even a great scholar like Rabbi Elazar ben Arach, can work in a vacuum.
He made a mistake when he read the parsha, this week’s Torah portion, that speaks about the need for a dialogue, a conversation. The Jewish calendar is can only be established when Jews are in conversation with each other.
This is what allows us to orchestrate the holidays. And the question we need to ask ourselves, as individuals, is have we lost the ability to have a conversation? Have our hearts become deaf? Do we actively listen to others? Do we sanctify the calendar and time by actively listening?
Do we listen to our children, or do we have an automatic response?
Do we find time to listen to our spouses? Do we find time to listen to Jews who celebrate their Judaism differently than we do, or perhaps don’t even celebrate their Judaism at all?
Are we willing to listen to them? Are we willing to give them credence?
Rabbi Elazar ben Arach thought that he could be an island unto himself. That simply doesn’t work.
You need to have a conversation. The first mitzva in the Torah highlights the responsibility for us to celebrate the calendar, the freedom to be able to control our time through the establishment of a new month, through a conversation between people.
Parshat Bo. The first mitzva in the Torah reminds us of the sacred opportunity to actively listen and maintain a dialogue.
And when even the greatest of Torah scholars forgot that, he loses his Torah knowledge, because without the conversation, our Torah knowledge in many ways lacks intellectual honesty and remains incomplete.
“Pharaoh, Frankl & Maimonides: Choose Your Way”
Viktor Frankl, a psychologist and therapist, wrote books that are considered to be among the most powerful works of the twentieth century. He lived from March 26, 1905, to September 2, 1997, and survived at least four concentration camps.
In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, pp 65–66 he wrote:
“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way. And there were always choices to make. Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom.”
Frankl is talking about what our rabbis called bechira chofshit: free will.
In this week’s parsha, Parshat Va’era, God tells Moshe something extraordinary. “VeChizakti et lev Par’o,” “I am going to harden Pharaoh’s heart.” He is not going to allow you to leave Egypt of his own free will.
Maimonides, in his eight-chapter introduction to the six chapters of Pirkei Avot asks this very question. “How can Pharaoh be held accountable if he lacks free choice? How can a person be punished if he cannot determine his own actions? “
His answer: Pharaoh was not punished for refusing to free the Jewish people once God hardened his heart. All of his punishment, including the hardening of his heart, is due to his criminal acts. He lost his ability to choose because of the way he interacted with the Jewish people prior to that point. The loss of free will, the loss of his humanity, was the first stage of his punishment.
Free will is what makes us uniquely human. If we act inhumanely, we lose our ability to make moral choices. Our humanity becomes eroded.
Viktor Frankl, a concentration camp survivor, reminds us that whatever challenges we face in life, unlike Pharaoh, God does not harden our heart.
Even if we have health challenges, financial challenges, familial challenges, we can decide how we respond to the crises and the opportunities in our lives.
Parshat Va’era reminds us that the greatest gift that God has given us is free will. Not even God can intervene with that. Viktor Frankl realized that, while the circumstances of our lives may sometimes be beyond our control, our response to them is our own choice, and, please God, let us engage and face our challenges in a way that will truly celebrate the greatest gift that humankind has, the gift of free will.
Parshat Shemot: Living the Ideals of Chesed and Social Justice – A Necessary Requirement for Leaders
Rav Chaim of Brisk (1853-1918) revolutionized the study of Talmud through his novel “Brisker” approach, and added new dimensions to our ability to understand that magnum opus of Jewish scholarship. Talmud studies in any midrasha or yeshiva are greatly impacted by Rav Chaim’s textual analysis.
Rav Chaim lived in the Lithuanian town of Brisk and served as rabbi of the town, but was buried in Warsaw (that in itself is a story, but we won’t elaborate on it now). Rav Chaim requested that on his tombstone (not the one that marks his grave today, which was replaced after the original was destroyed by the Nazis) only the words “Av Beit Din d’Brisk” – Rabbi of Brisk – and “Ish Hesed” – a man of lovingkindness – be inscribed.
Rav Chaim did not want anything written about the books he composed, or the unbelievable advances in the study of Talmud be written. He felt that the most important job he had as a Rav was not delivering amazing sermons or coming up with incomparable chiddushei Torah, but rather to be a “Rav Chesed” – a man who performed acts of lovingkindness.
In the middle of his tenure as a rabbi, almost all of Brisk was destroyed in a fire. While the homes of the wealthy were soon rebuilt, those of the poor were not; Rav Chaim went and slept on the front yards of those homes, until they were rebuilt.
When there were babies that were born out of wedlock, the parents knew that they could be placed in the home of Rav Chaim, this great Torah scholar, and he would make sure that the mamzerim and mamzerot of the Jewish people would be taken care of.
When he was given a shed full of wood to heat his home, his condition was that there was to be no lock on that shed, so that the poor could also use the wood as needed.
That was Rav Chaim.
Nechama Leibowitz so correctly tells us that before you are introduced to the quintessential leader of the Jewish people, before he can stand on the stage of leadership, we have to be introduced to his CV, those acts and traits which make him truly unique.
What makes Moshe unique is that he is a man of chessed. When he sees something that is wrong, whether it is social injustice between a master and a slave, social injustice between two oppressed people, or social injustice between two strangers, Moshe needs to get involved.
That is what makes Moshe a leader. This is the quality of genuine leadership.
And subsequently, when Moshe sees the burning bush, he says, “Asura Na, v’er’eh,” I’m going to go over and look, “madua lo yiv’ar ha’sneh?”- Why isn’t the bush being consumed by the fire?
That was Moshe’s greatness. When something was not right, out of character; when someone was being oppressed, Moshe expressed concern.
This is the message that Rav Chaim of Brisk highlights to us. When he is buried, he requests that his matzeva, his tombstone, not focus on his scholarly Torah contributions, but rather on his contributions in the realm of chessed.
Parshat Shemot reminds us that if we want to be redeemers in our lives – like Rav Chaim of Brisk, like Moshe Rabbeinu – we have to speak truth to power, not only through the study of Torah, but by taking those values and implementing them every day of our lives.