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  • Writer's pictureEd Rapoport

Repeating History

Parshat Beshellach

Feb 4, 2023 י״ג שבט תשפ״ג

Today I bring to you an interpretation of a passage of history in the Talmud that shows great perspective about strengths and weaknesses of Judaism and the Jewish people throughout Jewish History that are especially relevant today.

Leah Rosenthal, Senior faculty at Pardes Institute, Jerusalem writes,

“A short passage in Masechet Sukkah of the Babylonian Talmud cites Reish Lakish, one of the dominant and outstanding rabbinic figures in Eretz Yisrael Of the second generation of Amoraim. He was active alongside his colleague and havruta, Rabbi Yohanan, and both their teachings fill the pages of the Talmud Yerushalmi and the Talmud Bavli. In this passage, Reish Lakish teaches us something about Jewish history, framing a time period of 600 years of historic events and learning. Reish Lakish said: May I be the atonement for Rabbi Hiyya and his sons, as initially, when the Torah was forgotten by the Jewish people in Eretz Yisrael, Ezra ascended from Babylonia and reestablished it. The Torah was again forgotten in Eretz Yisrael, and Hillel the Babylonian ascended and reestablished it. When the Torah was again forgotten in Eretz Yisrael, Rabbi Hiyya and his sons ascended and reestablished it.

What does Reish Lakish want us to know, and why is it so important that we understand what he is conveying?

This text has been on my mind for quite a while. It's clear that Reish Lakish is drawing a historical narrative with a recurring theme. Time and again, the Torah is nishtaka, forgotten. And time and again, a heroic figure arrives, reestablishes Torah, and saves it from being forgotten. In particular, Reish Lakish is emphasizing that Torah is forgotten in Eretz Yisrael and it is saved by figures from Bavel, Babylonia. He cites three occurrences.

The first takes place near the end of biblical times. Ezra the Scribe leads his people back to Eretz Yisrael after years of exile in Babylonia and finds the First Temple destroyed and the land desolate as a result of the Babylonian conquest led by Nebuchadnezzar. The once vibrant Jewish community had been dispersed, and Ezra, slowly and with difficulty, revives both the Jewish presence in the Land of Israel and the Jewish commitment to Torah and its commandments. He sets in motion the process of rebuilding what we now call the Second Temple.

400 years later, during the final decades of the Second Temple, Torah is again in danger. The Hasmonean kingdom is in decline, the Roman conquest of Eretz Yisrael is on, and Herod is appointed as king and sovereign. There is great factionalism. Perushim and Tzadukim, Pharisees and Sadducees, and others contend both with each other and external challenges. The world of Torah is dramatically weakened to the point of being nearly forgotten.

This time, Hilel HaBavli comes up from Bavel and finds the community in crisis. According to the rabbinic historical narrative, he revives the world of Torah study and Torah commitment in Eretz Yisrael, is appointed to be the patriarch, and establishes a dynasty of patriarchs who preside for 400 years. Under Hillel's leadership, this generation will mark the beginning of what we now call the classic: Tannatic period, which will last until the completion of the Mishna six generations later. Again, at a critical moment in Jewish history, a man of stature comes forth from Bavel and revives a broken community in Eretz Yisrael.

The third occurrence cited by Reish Lakish takes place about 200 years later, just a generation or two before his own time. Rabbi Hiyya and his sons come from Bavel to Eretz Yisrael and they too find a community desolate of Torah study. Again, saviors emerge to revive Torah in Eretz Yisrael.

What is astonishing here is that Rabbi Hiya is an associate, colleague, and disciple of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, who at this time is redacting the Mishna. In other words, Torah study is flourishing in Eretz Yisrael at this time. How could Reish Lakish possibly suggest that, had Rabbi Hiyya not arrived in Eretz Yisrael, Torah might have been forgotten?

This question puzzled me for a long time until it occurred to me that there are, perhaps, two ways that Torah can be forgotten. Torah can be forgotten under weak leaders whose communities are likewise weak. But Torah can also be forgotten under strong leadership because a charismatic and authoritative leader's voice in the world of Torah can ultimately exclude the voices of others.

Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, by redacting the Mishna and establishing it as a central text, by definition marginalizes other texts. Rabbi Hiyya, as a counterbalance, emerges a master of Baraitos, the excluded texts. Rabbi Hiyya insists on collecting and preserving these texts, attributing to him according to Talmudic traditions what we call the Tosefta. Rabbi Hiyra reincludes the voices marginalized by a powerful, charismatic, and authoritative figure.

In our passage of Talmud, Reish Lakish says, "May I be the atonement for Rabbi Hiya and his sons." According to Rashi, this is an expression of honor and respect reserved for one's parents or revered teachers. Reish Lakish invokes the honored legacy of Rabbi Hiya and his sons in order to emphasize the importance of preserving Torah in ways that do not marginalize voices. He is insisting that no voice in the Beit Midrash should be muted, because even under strong leaders and within strong centers of Torah--maybe even precisely in these circumstances--Torah can, in fact, be forgotten. And, if we perceive this to be the case, we are obligated to reintroduce these voices back into the Beit Midrash.

It may be that Reish Lakish has a personal investment idea as well. The Talmud Bavli describes him as a gladiator and criminal in his youth, making him an anomaly amongst the rabbis. This perhaps contributes to the value he places on outsider perspectives. In this way, he is similar to Rabbi Hiyya, who comes from Bavel also understanding the reality of multiple perspectives. Moreover, Reish Lakish’s partner is Rabbi Yochanan, who is authoritative like Yehudah HaNasi, perhaps gving Reish Lakish a first hand sense of how Torah can be forgotten under powerful leaders.”

Even though Eretz Yisrael was regarded as the rightful center of Judaism by the Babylonian diaspora, they also considered it to be a sort of “wild west” where ideas and movements sprang up and ran out of control. Reish Lakish’s recalling of generations of corrective injections from the Babylonian academies back into Eretz Yisrael is still relevant.

Today the Jewish people’s presence in Eretz Yisrael is the strongest it has been in 2500 years. Jewish learning is thriving there. Israel has had strong leaders, but as Reish Lakish suggested in his story of Rav Hiyya and his sons, sometimes strong leaders both political and in Torah learning strive to put forward their personal vision to the exclusion of other valid voices. Power can blind.

In Parashat Beshallach the Torah says

וּבְנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל יֹצְאִ֖ים בְּיָ֥ד רָמָֽה׃

the Jews left Egypt with a “high hand”. At great moments in our history, we can become arrogant.

Matti Friedman, Yossi Klein HaLevi and Daniel Gordis, all North American olim and strong defenders of the state of Israel wrote an open letter in the Times of Israel this week. They said:

“The North American Jewish community has steadfastly come to the aid of Israel at moments of crisis. Israel belongs first of all to its citizens, and they have the final word. But Israel also matters to the entire Jewish people. When an Israeli government strays beyond what your commitments to liberal democracy can abide, you have both the right and the responsibility to speak up.”

Dissenting voices from the current diaspora need to be heard again in Eretz Yisrael.

Shabbat Shalom

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