On renewal and deafness
The Maftir reading for this Shabbat is that of Parashat HaChodesh (Shemot 12:1-20). It is reasonable to assume that during the Mishnaic period, the custom of Eretz Yisrael was observed, and on the Shabbat when the prayer for the month of Nissan is recited, this portion alone was read. The Mishnah states:
If Rosh Chodesh Adar falls on the Shabbat, we read the portion of Shekalim. If it falls in the middle of the week, it is read on the Shabbat before, and on the next Shabbat there is a break. On the second [of the special Shabbatot], [we read] Parashat Zachor (Remember Amelek), on the third, Para Aduma (Red Heifer), on the fourth, "This month is for you". On the fifth, the regular order is resumed. (Megilla 3:5)
"This month is for you" is the first law imposed upon the Children of Israel.Were it not for the need to teach the basic principle that "The earth and all that is therein is the Lord's" (see Rashi's commentary on Bereishit 1:1), the Torah could have begun with this commandment. It is the commandment of "Sanctification of the Month", the commandment that establishes the calendar and festivals for us. The dates and festivals are essential to public and social life. This parasha also marks the beginning of the salvation from
Egypt, the freeing and the renewal.
The Torah reading, as with every reading, is a dialogue between reader and text. It meets the reader in various situations, and therefore it is interesting to note what happened to one of our great sages, Rabbi Elazar ben Arach, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai's prize student. The story appears in Tractate Avot - Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Fathers:
Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai had five students, as follows: Rabbi Eliezer ben Horkanos, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Hananya, Rabbi Yosi HaCohen, Rabbi Shimom ben Netanel, and Rabbi Elazar ben Arakh. He used to recite their fine attributes:
Rabbi Eliezer ben Hokanos is a lined reservoir which does not lose a single drop. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Hananya - fortunate is the woman gave birth to him. Rabbi Yosi HaCohen, a hassid. Rabbi Shimon ben Netanel, sin-fearing, And Rabbi Elazar ben Arakh, An overflowing fountain.
He was wont to say: "If all the wise men of
Israel were on one scale of the balance, and Eliezer ben Hyrcanos in the other, he would outweigh them all." Abba Shaul, however, quoted him otherwise: If all the wise men of Israel - including Eliezer ben Hyrcanos - were on one scale of the balance, and Elazar ben Arakh in the other, he would outweigh them all. (Trac. Avot 2:8)
The Talmud tells of Rabbi Elazar ben Arakh:
R. Eleazar ben Arakh visited that place [Diomsith and Perugitha - towns in northern
Israel, famous for their wines and waters} He was attracted to them, and [consequently] his learning vanished. When he returned, he rose to read in the Scroll [of the Torah]. He wished to read, "Hachodesh hazeh lakem" ["This month shall be unto you, etc."] [instead of which] he read "hacharesh hayah libbam" [Did their heart become deaf?"1 But the scholars prayed for him, and his learning returned. (Bavli, 147b, in other version in Avot d'Rebbi Natan, Kohellet Rabba, and Yalkut Shimoni}
Other, more developed, versions of this story are to be found, but from the Bavli story, one can imagine a situation in which, following the death of his illustrious teacher, R' Elazar ben Arakh left the other scholars for more pleasant and satisfying environs with baths and vineyards. The price for his secession was that he forgot his studies. Upon his return to his scholar colleagues, probably on the Shabbat on which our parasha was read, or perhaps even on Parashat HaChodesh, he was honored with reading from the Torah, and he erred in identifying certain words of the parasha. One can assume that even a child who had learned to read would not make such gross errors, and we presume that it was not the Talmud's intent to inform us of a decline in R' Elazar's sight.
Maharsha detects significance beyond R' Elazars's simple misreading of similar letters (daled-resh; kaf-bet) and his confusion of vowels that so changed the meaning of the passage:
His mistake was related to his person, for his heart became a heart of stone, deaf to understanding, previously having been as an overflowing fountain while in the company of the Sages.
The Abot d'Rebbi Natan's version of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai's description of R' Elazar ben Arakh is richer than the Bavli's account. A bareyta reads:
And he called Elazar ben Arakh a rushing stream and a flowing spring, whose waters grow stronger and overflow, thus realizing that which is written (Mishlei 5:15): "Your springs will gush forth in streams in the public squares."
He is not only a "rushing spring", something which may symbolize exceptional creativity, or extraordinary intellectual capacity (as is explained by Rambam in his commentary on the Mishnah), but also symbolizes one whose waters overflow - he fertilizes his surrounding and contributes of his wisdom and abilities to society.
The praises heaped upon R' Elazar ben Arakh by his teacher, as per "Avot d'Rebbi Natan", match those familiar to us from the Mishnah ("If all the wise men of
Israel including Eliezer ben Hyrcanos are on one scale
of the balance, and Elazar ben Arakh in the other, he would outweigh them all"); He was the only disciple able to comfort his teacher upon his son's death (Avot d'Rebbi Natan 14).
The story about his separating from his companions and going to Porgitha-Diomsith following the death of his teacher is paradoxical and especially tragic.
The short versions of our story in the Bavli and in Avot d'Rebbi Natan do not provide us with motivation for R' Elazar's cutting himself off from his society. Kohellet Rabba and Yalkut Shimoni assume that he "went to his wife" and that it was his wife who enticed him to remain in these places for an extended period. As is known, this is not the only instance in which a woman is presented as the enticing and instigating factor, but there is no need to assume that R' Elazar's wife was the 'guilty' party in our story.
In Avot d'Rebbi Natan, apparently the oldest source for our story, this incident is attached to the story of the comforting of R' Yochanan ben Zakkai and his being led to the bath house.
Could it be that Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkei's praise for R' Elazar instilled a kind of conceit and egocentricism? Was this egotism responsible for R' Elazar's withdrawal into his four cubits, convinced that, having nothing to learn from others, he no longer needed chavruta (learning companions)? Perhaps in contrast to Rabbi Eliezer the Great - who was ostracized despite his desire to influence his colleagues - whose "colleagues separated from him" (as reported by Rabbi Akiva in Baba Metsiah 59b), he, R' Elazar, cut himself off from his colleagues.
As said above, the Bavli does not reveal the reason behind R' Elazar's travels to those locations, but rather focuses on the strength of the "la dolche vita's" attractions even for the greatest of sages. Pleasure has tremendous power, and no one is immune.
It seems to me that it is possible to widen the deep insight of the Maharsha which detected a connection between R' Elazar's sojourn in Diomsith and his erroneous reading of "this month is for you".
For various reasons - perhaps out of pride and superciliousness, perhaps because of his difficulty at observing his teacher in mourning, perhaps because of the magnetic pull of the world's delights, or perhaps of reasons unknown to us - R' Elazar felt that his place was not in the Beit Midrash, the Hall of Study, that he had no contribution to make and also that his motivation to give had dwindled. Therefore, he "escaped" from social and educational involvement, and focused upon himself. He did not realize that he had thereby foregone his spiritual growth and even begun to deteriorate.
Perhaps the lesson to be learned is that there no possibility of real spiritual growth without social involvement.
It would seem that that is no chance for geula - salvation, when, in the words of the Maharsha, the heart "is too deaf to understand".
This insight may have practical ramifications for our own generation. We have an opportunity for geula, freedom, revitalization and growth on many different planes, on person, social and national levels. This opportunity is dependent upon our ability to open our hearts to the distress of our surrounding society, on our involvement in the creation of more just society and on our striving for peace. Withdrawal to our own four cubits causes us to "make our hearts deaf", and stymies opportunities for growth, renewal, and geula on all planes. We must choose between histcharshut (becoming deaf) and hitchadshut(renewal).
Inasmuch as "a prisoner cannot free himself from prison", R' Elazar ben Arakh needs sages who are socially involved, who evince concern, to plead mercy for him, so that he may again open up to study and rejuvenation. Does there exist today leadership that can assist us in our constant struggle against deafness of the heart, and that can advance study, development and renewal?
1. A misreading of two consonants and four vowels changed the meaning of the text.
Pinchas Leiser, editor of Shabbat Shalom, is a psychologist.