When I arrived at Rav Ish-Shalom’s house, I found my teacher still cleaning up the breakfast dishes. As I waited, I glanced at the books on the table to see what he was working on. There was a book on the Halakhah of agriculture, a journal of marriage laws, and a volume of Talmud. I looked to see what Tractate it was. Bava Metziah. On top of that was the beautiful Tanach that I’d given him.
Probably someone is coming over today to learn Gemara, I thought, with a twinge of envy. Lucky bastard!
I’d met with yet another prospective havruta the night before and it had not gone well; our learning styles didn’t mesh. So now I sat at Rav Ish-Shalom’s dining table bemoaning the situation.
Rav Ish-Shalom nodded sympathetically. “It is very, very hard to find someone with whom one can learn the deepest things, for whom the text is a vehicle for reaching what we already know, but would never have discovered without the presence of the other across the table.”
I thought of the story in the Talmud where Rabbi Yochanan falls into a depression and dies because he has lost his best and only true havruta, Resh Lakish. Sometimes the most valuable gifts are the lessons that aren’t written black on white on the page at all, but come out in the white spaces between the letters.
“Welcome to the real world,” said Rav Ish-Shalom. “Too much of education in general is a method of putting blinders on people so that they won’t see anything that you don’t want them to see. ‘Let’s just turn out carbon copies of ourselves, why don’t we!’ says the teacher. Never mind that he got to where he is through struggle and error…he now wants everyone else to get to the exact same place without it.”
“Sadly, I don’t think experience is transferable other than by living it,” I said.
My teacher nodded. “There’s a saying of the Hazon Ish… Now how does it go…. Oh yes! ‘Trying to produce great Torah scholars in a yeshiva environment is like growing trees under a table!’ And that’s supposedly the more moderate version of the quote!”
I smiled at the image. It seemed to sum up most top-down educational systems.
Rav Ish-Shalom sighed. “Most people seem to be quite satisfied with just surfing across the surface of the text,” he said. “True learning requires that both partners reveal, first of all to themselves, the depth that is in them. But many don’t want to look deeper. They are afraid of coming face to face with themselves in the text. So many people are satisfied with so little. It’s a sad and frightened world.”
As luck (as we like to call it) would have it, the next bit of Orot HaTeshuvah that we read contrasted the superficial will, by which one lives day to day, with the deep upwelling of “soul-will” that comes from the roots of the soul.
“How does he always know?” I asked, somewhat facetiously. “How did Rav Kook know what we would be discussing just before we read this paragraph?”
“Ruah HaKodesh”, replied Rav Ish-Shalom in the same tone.
And so we spoke of what it means to live on the surface of things, rather than living from the depths of one’s soul. Rav Ish-Shalom reached across the table and brought out the volume of Talmud I had noticed earlier. “Whew! Now there’s a weighty tome!” he said, as he hefted it around to face me. Reading the text upside down, he flipped a few pages to find what he was looking for.
“Read from the second of the medium-length lines,” he said.
I slowly began puzzling out the Aramaic words.
“No. Read aloud!”
I froze. Rav Ish-Shalom knew well how difficult it was for me to read aloud, on command. He knew where the block was from.
My doubtful look was met by a deadpan stare.
“I don’t hear you!” he said, cupping a hand around his ear.
So I made a start. I sounded out the Aramaic words slowly and painfully, and Rav Ish-Shalom patiently corrected my pronunciation, then translated the words into Hebrew to make sure I got the meaning. It took only a few words for me to see that the passage was the famous story about Rabbi Yohanan and Resh Lakish!
It’s a very short bit of storytelling—only about fourteen lines long in the telegraphic style of Talmudic Aramaic—but absolutely packed with symbols and improbable turns of fate.
One day R’ Yochanan was bathing in the (Jordan) river. Resh Lakish saw him and jumped in after him.
R’ Yochanan said to him: “Your strength should be for Torah!”
Resh Lakish replied: “Your beauty should be for women!”
I could picture the scene and it made me smile.
“Rabbi Yochanan was known for his great physical beauty,” Rav Ish-Shalom explained. “Meanwhile, Resh Lakish at that time was the leader of a band of brigands. It was a very unsettled time. The Romans were still here, although the worst of it was over. There was little central government; various sects abounded, such as the early Christians. Resh Lakish seems to have had a ‘mixed past’ without going too deeply into it.”
R’ Yochanan said: “If you return, I will introduce you to my sister, who is more beautiful than I am!” Resh Lakish took it upon himself. He tried to return across the river to retrieve his clothing, but could not.
“He was unable to get up the banks again”, said Rav Ish-Shalom. “What’s going on here?! He agrees to do teshuvah and all of a sudden his strength leaves him?!”
R’ Yochanan taught him the Written and Oral Torah, and made him a great man.
“But wasn’t he great in some way before that?” I asked. “One doesn’t get to be a leader, even a leader of highwaymen, without some element of greatness. Seems to me that this is being told from the viewpoint of Rabbi Yochanan.”
Rav Ish-Shalom nodded and gestured for me to continue.
One day they were arguing in the House of Study: “The sword, the dagger, the hunting spear, the military spear, the hand-scythe and the harvesting scythe—at what point can they acquire ritual impurity?
When their manufacture is complete.”
When is their manufacture complete?
R’ Yochanan said: When they are hardened in fire.
Resh Lakish said: When they are quenched in water.
R’ Yochanan said to Resh Lakish: A brigand knows his brigandry!
I looked up from the page. I was at a loss for words and Rav Ish-Shalom was not about to help me find them.
“But that’s terrible!” I finally blurted out. “It’s like calling into question his teshuvah. It’s one of the worst things one can do, to remind someone of a past that he’s done his best to leave behind. How can he even so much as hint that Resh Lakish hasn’t changed?! That he’s still a brigand…?”
“Is it calling into question his teshuvah, or is it something else?” Rav Ish-Shalom asked.
“Well, even if it was said in jest,” I said. “It’s still an insensitive thing to say.”
I thought of all those times when Rav Ish-Shalom had been at pains to put the unspoken word former in front of any mention of my own role in Birkenau. Yes, I did what I did, but I was no longer doing it, and I was doing everything I could to become someone who could not do again what I had done.
…Could not do what I had done… That’s the key to the earlier part, I thought. Resh Lakish wasn’t able to climb back onto the riverbank and retrieve his old clothes—the uniform of a robber. The same words: “could not”.
Rav Ish-Shalom gestured for me to read on.
Resh Lakish replied: What benefit have you brought me?! There they called me ‘rav’, and here they call me ‘rav’.
R. Yochanan replied: I benefited you by bringing you under the wings of the Shechinah!
“This is very harif (harsh)!” I said.
“Indeed it is!” said Rav Ish-Shalom. “And it gets worse. But how could a great man like Resh Lakish say such a thing?! ‘What good have you done me?’ As if being seen as a leader is all there is to it!”
I thought about it. “Well, if the only change that’s taken place in him is the way people see him, then perhaps he really hasn’t changed after all. It’s clear that for Rabbi Yochanan the inner change is the crucial part.”
R’ Yochanan became depressed. Resh Lakish became ill.
R’ Yochanan’s sister came to him in tears.
She said: “Do it (apologize) for the sake of my son!”
“She already knows he won’t do it for her husband’s sake,” I said. “So at least for her son’s sake…”
He quoted: “Abandon your orphans – I (God) will sustain them”.
“The source for that is Yermiyahu…” I said, citing the reference in the Talmud.
“Give me the full reference’, said Rav Ish-Shalom. “I happen to have this lovely Tanach here that was given me by a friend…”
He quoted the whole passage, the general gist of which is “Don’t worry! Everything will work out.”
“Wonderful…” I said. “She’s worried sick about her husband, and Rabbi Yochanan just quotes vague prophecies at her!”
“It gets worse,” he said.
“Do it for the sake of my widowhood!”
“And your widows may rely on Me” he quoted (the continuation of the previous verse).
“Lovely,” I said. “He won’t even talk to Resh Lakish for her sake, but just says, ‘Don’t worry: if you’re widowed, I’ll support you!’”
“Well, we know the end of the story,” said Rav Ish-Shalom. They both died of this altercation. Resh Lakish died of a broken heart and Rabbi Yochanan later died of… what? Remorse? Lack of mental stimulation? Depression? We don’t know.
“But the real question…” he went on, “Did any of this really happen?”
“Why not?” I said, “Pride can cause people to do stupid things.”
“What? These two great rabbanim are going to have a falling out over such a minor point, and refuse to speak to each other? And die over it?! And one of them violates an important point of halakhah, and reminds a ba’al teshuvah of his past? Someone that he himself helped to turn around?”
I started to say something, but my teacher was on a roll. “And speaking of which, what about that story about their meeting while bathing? A well-known brigand is going to do teshuvah just to marry Rabbi Yochanan’s sister? And Rabbi Yochanan is going to agree to the marriage on those terms?”
He finally paused and drew breath. “The whole thing smells fishy,” he said.
“Does it really matter if it happened?” I asked. “Surely the reason it’s in here is to teach us something, no? Look at all the symbolism in it—the water, the element of teshuvah, marrying the sister… So perhaps it’s meant as Midrash Aggadah.”
“Now you’re talking!” said Rav Ish-Shalom. “In which case, Rabbi Yochanan is not Rabbi Yochanan, Resh Lakish is not Resh Lakish, the sister is not the sister, and her son is not her son… Nor is the knife a knife…
“And there’s more. That point of law they were debating about? That whole debate couldn’t have happened at all!”
I looked at him quizzically.
“That question about when does a tool become susceptible to impurity is addressed very clearly in the Mishnah, and these two would have known it: ‘When does a knife become susceptible to impurity? When it can be classified as a working, usable tool. When is that? When one sharpens it so that it will cut!’ Neither of the answers given in this story matches the actual halakhic answer!”
But…then what was this all about?
“So what is it about?” Rav Ish-Shalom asked, echoing my thought. “What is it that they were arguing about?”
He paused and gave me that look that says: this has your name on it. “The conversation was not about a point of halakhah at all.” he sad softly. “They were arguing about a human being—about teshuvah. At what point does a human being become responsible for his actions?”
I was stunned. This was a whole new way of seeing things!
“A child may do wrong,” Rav Ish-Shalom continued. “But he isn’t held responsible by a court of law. An adolescent may be held responsible by law after Bar or Bat Mitzvah, but as we’ve discussed, God judges him or her more leniently up until the age of 20 or so. So when does a person become a ‘finished product’ in the moral sense?”
I looked back over the text. What answers had they each given? Rabbi Yochanan said: when it has been heated in the furnace. Resh Lakish said: when it has been plunged into water.
Could Resh Lakish be referring to the circumstances at the beginning of the story, the fateful meeting in the river that led him to do teshuvah? If so, then Resh Lakish holds a person morally responsible after he has acknowledged that what he’s doing is wrong and taken the first step to turn around. Before that, he may be held responsible by law, but he doesn’t feel responsible. He doesn’t feel contaminated by wrong-doing. He’s not “susceptible to impurity” because he’s not conscious that he’s not living up to what he can be.
And Rabbi Yochanan?
I thought of a quote of Martin Buber’s:
Only out of a personal relationship with the Absolute can the absoluteness of the ethical co-ordinates arise without which there is no complete awareness of self. Even when the individual calls an absolute criterion handed down by religious tradition his own, it must be reforged in the fire of the truth of his personal essential relation to the Absolute if it is to win true validity. (From Religion and Ethics)
But Rav Ish-Shalom had his own take on Rabbi Yochanan’s position. “The Talmud is full of arguments between Rabbi Yochanan and Resh Lakish”, he said, “In most instances, Rabbi Yochanan’s opinion is very theoretical. Resh Lakish’s answers tend to be practical. He brings to it his rich life experience. So they each represent a different type: Rabbi Yochanan hones his arguments in the heat of debate, the fires of intellectual discourse, but always staying within the four walls of the Bet Midrash. Resh Lakish, on the other hand, speaks from experience. He brings with him the fluidity of the rough and sometimes violent meeting of the ideal with the real world.”
Two very different viewpoints, which result in some of the richest debates in the Talmud.
But perhaps one can see Rabbi Yochanan’s answer in yet another way. It isn’t the heat of debate and contention that he’s referring to, but the fires of experience. One becomes responsible from the moment that he is “hardened” by experience. In any case, it would seem that Rabbi Yochanan’s view has responsibility setting in at an earlier stage than does Resh Lakish, since the manufacture of a blade calls first for heating and only after for quenching.
Perhaps his remark to Resh Lakish was not meant badly after all: “Only you, who have actually been there, can know at what point you should became ‘subject to tumaa’.” But whatever the case, the reminder was not taken well, which is one of the reasons such reminders are prohibited. Too easy to misjudge and do incalculable damage, despite the best of intentions.
Or perhaps, it was even worse: “You say you were ‘susceptible to tumaa’ only after you did teshuvah? No! You were fully aware even before that! You knew that what you were doing was wrong. You had simply hardened yourself in the fires of wrong-doing.”
I stepped back and looked at the story in one of the ways Rav Ish-Shalom had taught me: what has this to do with this moment? That was always his first question when confronted with any new text.
I thought of our first face-to-face meeting, the night I came to him for a psak din on what I had done to survive. Had Rav Ish-Shalom taken Rabbi Yochanan’s approach or that of Resh Lakish? Had he given any hint that I knew I was doing wrong all along?
No. He later said, “I took my cue from you.” I was the one who told him that I had felt the wrongness. He never made that assumption, or any other.
And so I have witnessed halakhah in the making. Whatever else this story was meant to teach, I could see one thing that Rav Ish-Shalom himself had learned from it. I knew, because I had been the beneficiary of it.
Rav Ish-Shalom’s voice echoed in my head: “Rabbi Yochanan is not Rabbi Yochanan, Resh Lakish is not Resh Lakish, the sister is not the sister…”
Who or what does the sister represent? She appears in close proximity to Rabbi Yochanan’s riposte: I brought you under the wings of the Shechinah! Does the sister in this story represent the Shechinah? If so, then their “marriage” takes on a whole new meaning.
Could I have ever seen any of this in the text without Rav Ish-Shalom sitting there across the table from me? Could either of us, by ourselves, have found the Shechinah hidden in fourteen short lines of text?
Ovadya ben Malka’s story is told in Returning, now available in book stores, on Amazon, and at a discount from the publisher’s website.
 משנה, כלים יד, ה: “הסייף מאמתי מקבל טומאה משישופינו והסכין משישחיזנה.”