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Thursday, 19 November, 2020 - 5:52 pm

 Sometimes you read a piece of Talmud and you scratch your head.  Huh?  What does that mean?  Invariably, with time and energy and digging deeper into the meaning, not only does it make sense but provides a profound lesson.  Here is an example:  In Pirkei Avot (Ethics of Our fathers) chapter 2, Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai is quoted discussing his five greatest students.  Rabbi Yochanan was one of Judaism’s greatest figures.  He was a brilliant scholar (sorry, those are the best words I can find, but do not do justice to his great scholarship), a holy man (ditto), a brilliant leader and teacher, and credited with saving Jewish heritage and learning as the Jews went into Roman exile.  (You can read the story here.) 

In the ninth Mishna of chapter two of Pirkei Avot, Rabbi Yochanan enumerates the merits of his five great students, all scholars, sages, leaders and teachers in their own right.  He says:  “If all the sages of Israel were to be in one cup of a balance-scale, and Eliezer the son of Hurkenus were in the other, he would outweigh them all.” Then the sage Abba Shaul is quoted as stating that Rabbi Yochanan said:  “If all the sages of Israel were to be in one cup of a balance-scale, Eliezer the son of Hurkenus included, and Elazar the son of Arach were in the other, he would outweigh them all.”  Which is it?  Somehow the measurement doesn’t work.  The commentaries say that in fact there is no contradiction here and both are correct.  Here is where the head scratching starts.  As the famous story goes:  Two litigants come before the Rabbi.  One presents his case, the Rabbi says “you’re right.”  The other presents his opposite case, the Rabbi says “you’re right.”  The Rabbi’s wife overhears this and asks her husband how they can both be right.  He says to her “you’re right!”

The solution to the paradox is that each has a quality that outweighs the other in a different area.  The explanation can be found in Rabbi Yochanan’s description of his two great students as he recounts their praises.  Of Rabbi Eliezer he says:  “Rabbi Eliezer the son of Hurkenus is a cemented cistern that loses not a drop,”  Of Rabbi Elazar he says: “Rabbi Elazar ben Arach is as an ever-increasing wellspring.”  What does this mean?  There are two ways that a teacher can teach his or her student.  One way is to share with the student all of the teacher’s wisdom and knowledge.  Another way is to help the student develop tools to come to the understanding of the subject on his or her own.  Which of those methods is greater?  Well it depends on your perspective.  In terms of the knowledge being imparted, the former gets a lot more and greater knowledge.  However in terms of the long term impact on the student, the latter helps the student achieve more.  The disadvantage of the first method is that the student’s mind does not develop as much.  The disadvantage of the latter is that the student on his or her own cannot reach anywhere near the teacher’s understanding of the subject.

The Mishna is teaching us that there is value in both approaches.  Rabbi Eliezer was like “a cemented cistern.”  He grasped and retained all the wisdom and Torah knowledge that was taught by the previous generations in its highest, purest form.  Rabbi Elazar was described as “an ever-increasing wellspring.”  He was able to find deeper, innovative levels of understanding of the Torah he learned.  Rabbi Yochanan taught that each approach, in one way, outweighs the other, because we must have both.  Involving our own minds is crucial to making the Torah “our own” and sustaining it and growing in its learning and observance throughout our lifetime.  Yet this can only be true if we are innovating within the Torah teachings that have been given to us by the sages of the Torah, and we must be sure that we are retaining the purity and sanctity of Torah as it was given to Hashem at Sinai.

What, you may ask, does this have to do with this week’s parsha?  We learn about Yitzchak digging a whole bunch of wells.  It is interesting to note that Avraham also dug wells, but the Philistines filled them all in.  Yitzchak re-dug the wells, plus made a few more, and those are the  wells that lasted.  Avraham, along with his wife Sarah, was the first to bring understanding of Hashem to the world.  They did it by showering the world with kindness, welcoming guests and feeding them, and imparting their knowledge and goodness to the world.  They “dug wells,” they brought fresh, wonderful water to the world, but they did not really change the world itself.  The people they taught drifted away after they passed, and the wells were stopped up.  Yitzchak, with his wife Rivkah, continued their work.  Now that the light had permeated the dark world, they set about to refine the world and have the world itself move toward Hashem.  The wells they dug were permanent because they were created from the ground up as opposed to top down. 

In our own lives, we sometimes clearly feel our connection to Hashem.  I think every Jews feels a spiritual connection on Yom Kippur at Ne’ila when the ark is open and we call out Shema Yisrael.  Perhaps at the Seder, or Shabbat dinner, or whole we are praying or studying Torah.  But there are so many times when we don’t feel the soul connection, and it is a struggle to maintain our Jewish lifestyle.  We should always remember that this is not a bad thing.  When we struggle from a place of spiritual darkness to find the fresh spring water of our soul under the cover of the course materiality, it is this struggle that truly transforms us and it is overcoming this struggle that makes our Judaism last.

This is one explanation of why Yitzchak’s name means “will laugh.”  When Moshiach comes, we will then laugh with great joy, recognizing the positive power of what now seems to be the bitterness of the exile.  We will then see that the entire purpose of the struggle is to transform us “from the bottom up” and to reveal the true essence of everything – the Divine spark from which it was created.

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