Monday, February 26, 2007

My New Roommate (Moed Katan 25a)

As of last week, I have a new roommate. At first, I was excited – after living alone for a while, I thought it would be fun to have a companion. I would not have to worry about noise or distraction, because my roommate never speaks – my roommate is, in fact, incapable of speech. My roommate also isn't too demanding, since this roommate of mine simply lays there on the couch all day. But even so, I found that having a roommate has resulted in some dramatic changes in my daily habits. I can no longer leave the door open when I go to the bathroom; I don't feel comfortable blasting silly music and singing along at the top of my lungs; and suddenly I'm responsible for making sure my roommate gets to shul on time every Shabbat morning.

When I had a friend over two nights ago, we had no place to sit in my small studio – it didn't seem appropriate to carry my roommate up to my lofted bed, nor did it seem right for all three of us to share the couch. I have no chairs in my apartment, and we considered standing, but this was not particularly conducive to an hour-long Gemara chevruta. In the end, my roommate lay on my desk and we took over the couch, although I'm still not sure this was the best solution. After all, given the primacy of Torah she'bichtav over Torah she'b'al peh, can you really move aside a Sefer Torah to make room to study Talmud?

The Gemara in Masechet Moed Katan, which we proceeded to study that evening, considers a dilemma not unlike the one that my friend and I faced:

When Rav Huna died, they decided to put a Sefer Torah on his bed [next to his dead body]. Rav Chisda said to them: You can't do something that Rav Huna himself wouldn't have permitted! As Rav Tachalifa said: We saw one time that Rav Huna wanted to sit on a bed where a Sefer Torah was resting. So he put a jug on the ground and rested the Sefer Torah upon it. Therefore Rav Huna [must have] reasoned that it is forbidden to sit on a bed on which a Sefer Torah is resting.

I don't have any jugs in my apartment, and the Brita filter in my refrigerator would almost certainly have collapsed under the weight of a Sefer Torah. So I guess my desk was the best option, even if it meant finding a new home for my laptop and manuscripts.

By the way, if you are wondering what then happened in the room with the dead body and the Sefer Torah, here is where the sugya gets even more curious:

They could not fit Rav Huna's deathbed through the doorway, so they decided lift it out through the roof. Rav Chisda said to them: But haven't we learned from Rav Huna that a righteous man's honor requires that he exit through the doorway? So they decided to move his dead body to a narrower bed. Rav Chisda said to them: A righteous person's honor is tied to his first bed. How do we know that a righteous person's honor is tied to his first bed? As it is written, "And they carried the ark of the God on a new wagon" (2 Shmuel 6.3). And so they broke down the door [and carried out Rav Huna].

Since moving the ark to a new wagon led to disastrous consequences (namely the death of Uzziah, as described in Samuel), the rabbis learn that the ark should always remain on the same wagon. The ark is compared to a righteous person, since both are holy – thus, just as the ark should not have been moved to a new wagon, so too should Rav Huna not be transferred to a new bed. Ironically, this means that the Sefer Torah--which strikes me as much more similar to an ark than a dead rabbi--is transferred instead. Given this irony, perhaps it was appropriate for me to feel uncomfortable when my friend and I relocated the Torah to make room for us to sit on the couch.

After about a half hour, I relocated to the kitchen to prepare a snack for us to eat. While I was waiting for the kettle to boil, my friend read aloud the end of this sugya, which is also about relocating objects and rabbis:

The rabbis asked: Where should we bury Rav Huna? They decided: Rav Huna taught Torah in Israel, as did Rabbi Chiya, and therefore Rav Huna should be buried beside Rabbi Chiya. They asked: Who should take Rav Huna's body into the cave where Rabbi Chiya is buried? Rav Chaga said: I will do it, because I have the virtues of abiding by my learning, and because until the age of eighteen I never had a seminal emission, and because I used to serve Rav Huna, and I knew of his greatness. For instance, one day Rav Huna's tefillin strap flipped over so that the underside was showing, and he consequently fasted forty fasts.

Rav Chaga took Rav Huna's dead body into the cave. Inside, Yehuda the son of Rabbi Chiya was to the right of his father, and Chizkiya his son was to his left. Yehuda said to Chizkiya: Get up out of respect for Rav Huna. When he got up, a pillar of fire rose up with him. When Rav Chaga saw the pillar of fire, he grew terrified and he put down Rav Huna's coffin and ran out of the cave.

My co-gabbai returns from America next week, and then I'll go back to living alone. Meanwhile, for as long as the Sefer Torah is in my apartment, I will try to dress modestly and make sure that I never inadvertently reveal the wrong side of my tefillin strap. I will hope that no dead rabbis start turning over in their graves and speaking to each other, and that no pillars of fire leap out at me when I am boiling water on my stove. But if the stress of living with a Sefer Torah becomes too intense, you may just find me climbing through the roof.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Extempore Effusions on the Completion of Masechet Ta'anit

When to start prayers for the rain?
Begin on Sukkot – or abstain?
Yehoshua says "Wait!
Could there be a worse fate
Than a storm on Sukkot -- what a bane!"

We extoll God for blowing the winds
It's a blessing He never rescinds
Though His people are scattered
To four winds, and battered,
It's only because of our sins

Will the dew on our feet manifest,
(Wallace Stevens) It falls without rest
Every day there is dew
Though the same is not true
Of the rain, which depends if we're blessed.

A fiery student may shout:
"Like a seed in the ground, I want out!"
If he comes to a boil
One need not recoil;
It's Torah that's burning to sprout!

In the days of Yoel, there was locust
The people, all starved, prayed with focus
In the antholes and cracks
Appeared food; no one lacked
God had heard and performed hocus pocus.

Shmuel met death at age fifty-two
Which was young, but, hey, what could God do?
Shmuel had to expire
Because he desired
That Saul reign. But David was due.

Like a beautiful tree, you grow tall
Bearing flowers and green leaves that fall
So in order to bless
You, I wish you no less:
May your children, like you, have it all.

It's the rain that impregnates the earth
And enables the ground to give birth
We might like to stay "Stop!"
But we must greet each drop
As a groom greets his bride, filled with mirth.

Rav Papa knows just what is said
By those almost so lazy they're dead.
When they open the shutter
To rain, these folks mutter:
Hey ass-riders, go back to bed!

A day of much rain is as great
As the day that the dead meet the fate
That God promised, reviving
Those no longer thriving
It's true! Rabbis don't overstate.

A day of much rain is first-rate.
Like Vav Sivan, the big Torah date
Some say rain's even better
Than Torah. It's wetter
Though thunder at Sinai was great.

Torah is an elixir of life
If learned for its own sake, it's rife
With the power to heal
And to make someone feel
If they hold fast, they'll never know strife.

Torah says that a man is a tree
Of the field – but can that really be?
If he learns, you can eat him
If not, chop! Delete him!
(I'm speaking arboreally.)

A scholar of Torah's like fire
He lights up with burning desire
Won't ignite on his own
As no stick will, alone –
To learn paired is the way man is wired.

Caesar's daughter said, "Hey, with that mug
You should be not a Rav, but a thug."
Yehoshua said, "Wine
As you surely will find
Spoils faster when in a gold jug."

In the future, the beasts will all say,
To the snake, "What's the use of your prey?
As you bite men with venom
So send to Gehennom
All gossipers; they've gone astray."

A sky that's stopped bringing forth rain:
Like a woman contracted in pain
Who, though pregnant, can't birth
What's her pregnancy worth?
So with storm clouds that heave, but refrain.

If a man counts his sheaves, one two three—
He may pray ere the count, but can't be
Praying after the count
Once he knows the amount
God will not change a fait accompli.

Rabbi Yochanan said to the child
Of Reish Lakish, who'd learned for a while—
Before you rehearse
What you learn, does each verse
Have a proof text, or does it beguile?

Rav Simi asked questions so tough
That though Papa knew all of his stuff,
Papa felt most disgraced
He fell flat on his face;
Simi silenced himself, 'twas enough

Ulla tasted in Bavel a date.
It was yummy. He filled his whole plate
He said, "Why don't they learn more
In Bavel. They earn more."
His bowels, alas, met their fate.

Do not take strides too large on a trip
For you never know when you might slip
Don't stay out for too long
Or you've done something wrong:
You must get home before the sun dips.

Do not eat too much food on your way.
What's the reason for that, if you may?
Cuz you'd run out of food?
Or make farts, sounding rude?
Choose your reason. But do as they say.

When Israel was fighting its foe
Moses lifted his hands, saying so:
"While Israel's in pain,
I'll at least feel some strain."
But did lifting avert any blows?

When a man we refer to as "late"
Comes to heaven's great pearly white gate
The angels say "Sign
Here on this dotted line."
Thus a person owns up to his fate.

What does this mean: "take a doze"?
It's a concept Rav Ashi well knows:
He awakes then he sleeps
Stirs when he hears a peep
When asked questions, he's not on his toes.

All fresh air on Nine Av turns sour
And they say it gets worse every hour.
Not just empty belly --
We also are smelly
No Temple, and hence we don't shower.

Locusts, mosquitos, and flies
Are reasons to cry to the skies
Also scorpions, snakes
And diseases that ache
And a ship that can't float though it tries.

On our fast days, we don't just not eat.
For we bring out the ark to the street
We place ashes on top
And cry out 'til we drop
May God please help us back on our feet!

If a man steals a beam to extend
His own house, then decides he will mend
His ways; he'll take apart
His house, place beam on cart
Give it back in one piece to his friend.

One repents, then re-sins once again
Now how should we compare these bad men?
To one wise as a wizard
Who dips with a lizard
In hand; what good has he done then?

A kohen awaiting his turn
To serve in the Temple may yearn
To wash down some wine
But that would not be fine
Some say "never" and some: "that's too stern."

(18a cf. RH19a)
The end of Adar brought good news
Though the Romans had said we must lose
Out on Torah, we went
To a matron who sent
Us to protest, and that saved the Jews.

The Greek Nicanor was hell-bent
On destroying the Jews (his intent).
But the Jews sealed his fate
When they hung at their gate
This man's arms, legs, and mouth. (He was spent.)

Rome's man Turyanus wanted to kill
Two nice Jews, and he said, "Now I will."
But then when he was done
Came the end of his fun
He was stabbed in the brain. He was nil.

The rain that does not fall in time?
Like a master who won't pay a dime
To his workers 'til late
So they can't fill their plates
Before Shabbos. They starve. What a crime!

Nakdimon made a deal with a lord
"Lend me water of your own accord.
And I'll pay you back soon."
Not ‘til just before moon-
Light was seen was he saved by the Lord.

The sun does not stop in the sky
Very often (we do not ask me why.)
But for Nicanor, Josh-
Ua Moses, My gosh!
It just stood there, unmoving. Oh my!

Elazar was astride on his ass
When the ugliest man tried to pass
He said "Ugly!" The man
Said, "Tell Him by Whose hand
I was made." Elazar was abashed.

Rav and Shmuel did not like to ramble
Near an unsteady wall. Ada ambled
'Neath that same creaky wall
Without fretting at all.
He said, "God will protect me, I gamble."

Oh the virtues of Huna were many
Every Friday he spent his last penny.
Buying up grapes of wrath
Oh! The sad aftermath
For the poor man who hasn't got any.

Rabbi Yochanan loved to be learning
As did Eelfa, his partner discerning.
When they needed to work
Rabbi Yochanan shirked
His own duty, and sent Eelfa earning.

Nachum Ish Gam Zu never expressed
Any sign of despair or distress.
Though he suffered a lot
He said "All of this rot
Is from God. And it's all for the best."

Although Rav was a great man and master
(In Talmud class, no one learned faster.)
Still the one to admire
Is she who lent fire
'Twas she who averted disaster.

Letting blood was (back then) quite an art
Aba Umana took this to heart.With each woman he'd treat
He was highly discreet
Therefore he tops the righteousness chart.

There's a wild beast out on the prowl!
Can you hear it? It makes the wolves howl.
Tell the village "Amass!"
And decree a big fast
For it's sure to eat someone. How foul!

Will some wolves eat a baby? Well, sure.
Heck, it's not like all wolves are demure.
Once they ate a small kid
Chomped right on him, they did.
Ruled the rabbis: His bones are still pure.

May we pray for the rain to subside?
Or must we go along for the ride?
When an Arab looks small
As a worm, though he's tall –
You can pray that God hold back the tide.

Honi planted a tree, then conked out.
'Til his grandson came walking about.
'Told you so!" Honi said
(It had gone to his head.)
But you've got to admit: He had clout!

Chanan Hidden would wear a long gown
When no rain came, they'd send from the town
A small kid who could plead
For the rain they would need
Then Chanan would pray, "Don't let him down!"

Elazar gave tzedakah – too much
Even those who collected thought such.
When just few coins remained
He bought one stalk of grain
And it multiplied! (God's magic touch.)

Chananya ben Dosa was sad
For his daughter was feeling quite bad
That she lit the wrong candle
Said he, "God can handle
It." Shabbos was bright. She was glad.

Do not have a feast then a fast
For your stomach will not have a blast.
It is better to wait
A few days, once you ate.
Before fasting, have one small repast.

Though we cannot give sacrifice now
We can alter the altar. And how?
Every prayer (if not rote)
Counts for God as one goat
"Prayer's OK," God says. "Don't have a cow."

To the Temple, the Jews must bring wood.
But what happens when nobody could?
Though the Romans may struggle
To stop us, we'll smuggle
The trees under dates. All is good.

A man who has only one shirt
May go rinse in the river its dirt
Although Av is the season
To mourn, that's no reason
For friends, fleeing stench, to desert.

(30b -- Tosafot)
How to mourn that the Temple is dead?
Jews for centuries turned over their beds.
Why don't we? You may wonder
'Cause ghosts who live under
The mattress may then rear their heads!

On the fifteenth of Av, every maiden
Would take a white gown, do a trade-in,
And dance before men
Who would snatch them up then
Tell me – was it those gowns they got laid in?

Said Isaiah: ”One day God will make
Song and dance for the righteous man's sake.”
As we say the Hadran
And the storm clouds move on
Let more Torah rain down in their wake!

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Loveliest of Trees

As Tu Bishvat approaches, I find myself thinking about the section of Pirkei Avot (the Ethics of the Fathers) that deals with appreciating the beauty of trees. It is a text that has long troubled me, as it seems to contradict everything I most love about Judaism.

Rabbi Yaakov says:
One who is walking along a path while learning
And interrupts his learning to say:
How lovely [naeh] is this tree!
How lovely [naeh] is this field!
The tradition considers it as if he bears guilt for his soul. (3:9)

In this text, Rabbi Yaakov casts aspersion on the student of Torah who breaks from her studies for even a moment to admire the beauty of the world around her. Yet how can this be? Is this student's behavior really so egregious? After all, aren't we commanded to appreciate the beauty of the world that God has created for us? There is even a blessing that we are supposed to recite upon seeing a beautiful tree:

Rav Yehudah says: One who goes out during the Spring months
and sees trees that are blooming should say,
"Blessed is He Who does not leave out anything from His world
And Who created in it good creations and good trees
For the pleasure of human beings." (B. Brachot 43b)

Rav Yehudah commands us to take note of the world around us and to thank its Creator. The very same action that Rabbi Yaakov condemns in the first source, the appreciation of natural beauty, is mandated by Rav Yehudah in this second source.

But is it the very same action? There are several differences between the two texts. Most notably, the first source is about a person who interrupts his learning, while the second source is about an individual who does not seem to be otherwise occupied. Perhaps the sin is the interruption of learning, and not the admiration of nature per se?

I find this interpretation troubling. After all, are we not always supposed to be learning Torah? Shouldn't the words and the melody of Torah be on our lips at all times? If so, then there should really be no distinction between the person who is walking while studying, and the person who is just walking along during the Spring months.

The key difference between the two sources is not whether the individual in question is in the middle of studying, since we should always be immersed in Torah. Rather, the distinction is that only in the first source are we told that the individual interrupts his studies. In the first source, Torah is interrupted; in the second source, there seems to be no interruption involved. Why?

The answer, I think, lies in the nature of the statements uttered. Saying "How lovely is this tree!" is very different from saying "Blessed is He Who does not leave out anything from His world…." The first statement does not invoke God at all. It is almost pagan in its utter and complete lack of attribution. "How lovely is this tree" – as if the tree had always been there, or had dropped by sheer force of gravity from the sky. The second statement, though, reflects a religious sensitivity. Unlike Rabbi Yaakov's speaker, Rav's Yehudah's blessing takes note of the beauty of the world and immediately attributes it to a divine Creator.

Perhaps Rabbi Yaakov is suggesting that we bear guilt for our souls any time we admire beauty without invoking the ultimate Source of that beauty. We cannot just be dazzled by a sky filled with colorful high-flying kites – we need to follow the kitestrings all the way to the divine kite runner. We cannot become like Wallace Stevens' complacent dreamer in "Sunday Morning," who feels "elations when the forest blooms" but opts to view the world as "unsponsored, free." Rather, we must attune ourselves once more to the "holy hush" that becomes audible, paradoxically, when we utter blessing.

If every gasp of admiration is immediately translated into blessing, then the appreciation of nature is not an interruption of learning, but an extension of it. If we say "Blessed is He" instead of "How lovely is this tree," then we do not interrupt our studies; we rather draw the world into our studies, and our studies into the world. We realize that beautiful blossoming trees are occasions for speaking words of Torah, because what is Torah if not a tree of life?

The necessity for an inextricable interweaving of Torah and world is beautifully enacted in Masechet Taanit (7a), in which the rabbis invoke several arboreal metaphors to describe the study of Torah:

Rabbi B'naeh (lit. "lovely") used to say:
Anyone who studies Torah for its own sake,
Torah becomes for him an elixir of life.
As it is written "It is a tree of life to them that hold fast to it" (Proverbs 3:18)
And it says, "It will be a cure for your body" (Proverbs 3:8)
And "All who find it find life." (Proverbs 8:35).
And all who study Torah not for the sake of heaven,
Torah becomes for him an elixir of death,
As it says, "My teaching shall fall like rain," (Deut. 32:2)
And there is no falling except in killing,
As it is said, "And they fell the heifer in the river." (Deut. 21:4)
Rabbi Yirmiyeh said to Rabbi Zeyrah: Come and teach us something.
He [Rabbi Zeyrah] said to him [Rabbi Yirmiyeh]: My heart is weakened; I cannot.
[Rabbi Yirmiyeh then said] Then teach us a word of Aggadah.
He [Rabbi Zeyrah] said: Thus said Rabbi Yochanan:
What does it mean, "For man is a tree of the forest"? (Deuteronomy 20:19)
Is man really a tree of the forest?!
Rather since it is written, "Because from him you eat, you must not cut him down,"
And it is written, "Him you should destroy and cut down."
How so?
If he is a proper student of Torah, 'From him you eat, you must not cut him down,"
And if not, then "Him you should destroy and cut down."….
Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak said, "Why is Torah compared to a tree,
As it is written, "It is a tree of life for those that hold fast to it"?
To teach you that just as a small tree will set a big one aflame,
So too, with Torah scholars, the lesser ones ignite the greater ones.
And thus Rabbi Chaninah would say:
Much have I learned from my teachers
and even more from my friends
and from my students, I have learned the most of all.

This sugya constructs a tree, with the verses quoted from the Bible serving as the trunk, and the two interpretations given to every statement branching off to left and right. These dichotomous offshoots are many: the elixir of life and the elixir of death; the study of Torah for the sake of heaven and its opposite; halachah and aggadah; proper and improper students; small trees that set each other aflame, and the Torah scholars who do the same. To map out this sugya is to construct a schematic tree from bottom up, with Rabbi Chaninah's statement as a leafy crown.

I have sketched this schematic tree in the margins of my Masechet Taanit, which is made of paper which comes from trees. I carry this volume with me everywhere I go, and learn Torah as I walk. I somehow manage not to walk into any trees; and when I see a particularly beautiful one, I try to remember to utter words of blessing.