Rav Ish-Shalom met me at the door with a smile and a cup of coffee. We exchanged our news of the week, and then settled into learning Massechet Taanit.
The first phrase on the page before us (Taanit 9a) was:
עשר תעשר.” עשר בשביל שתתעשר”
“Tithe (with the word repeated to emphasize command) so that you will grow rich.”
The fact that “tithe” (asser) is spelled the same as “rich” (ashir) allowed R’ Yochanan to teach: If you give freely to the poor, you will be given to.
“This is the pasuk from which we derive the idea that one takes t’rumot u’Ma’aserot from one’s fields, but not from a crops grown in a greenhouse,” said Rav Ish-Shalom.
“But wait a minute,” I said, “it can’t be that crops grown in a greenhouse are exempt; it’s the same soil! How can you justify not giving Ma’aserot from those crops?!”
“Is it the same soil? We don’t give Ma’aserot from crops grown in a house.”
“Well, but a greenhouse isn’t a house; it’s just a roof placed over the fields. Does one put a Mezuzah on a greenhouse?!”
At this point, Rav Ish-Shalom got that gleeful look that he gets sometimes when I challenge his reasoning. “Ah, but what have we done by building a greenhouse?” he asked. “For better or worse, we’ve built our own little ecosystem, independent of Hashem’s rain and Hashem’s weather! We are told to take Ma’aserot of our crops to remind us that the crops are not ours. But the crops grown in the greenhouse are ours! We have provided the conditions for their growth, for better or for worse! We have determined the conditions for the plants’ growth. We may ensure a good crop, but by taking control of the outcome, we are denied the mitzvah.”
Well, this simply bowled me over. We give Ma’aser of what we don’t own, to show us that we had no input in its production. We don’t give Ma’aser of our own, because we are the owners.
“This is what we do in raising children,” my teacher continued. “We raise them in greenhouses. We try to deny Hashem any influence. We don’t want our children exposed to the vagaries of chance. But if we overdo this, we run the risk of keeping God out of our children’s lives. If I try to arrange for my son to marry someone that I, in my over-inflated wisdom, see as a perfect match, rather than allowing Hashem to arrange for his meeting with his true beshert in the normal course of human interaction, I have short-circuited hashgacha pratit (Divine providence). The marriage may well work out. But I am denied the mitzva.”
In the course of ten minutes of learning Gemara, he taught me something that I could have lived years without learning. It’s clear why people like Rav Ish-Shalom are the channels of Matan Torah. But I suppose we function as such channels to each other at all times. Just that most of the time, we are unaware of it.