Sunday, March 13, 2011


Dr. Abner Weiss, Rabbi



And the Lord spoke unto Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt saying:  This month shall be unto you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year to you. (Ex.12 1-2)

These verses introduce the special reading for Parashat ha-Chodesh, one of the four special readings that precede Passover.  This particular reading is chosen as Passover approaches because it contains the instructions to the Israelites for the celebration of the very first Passover—Pesach Mitzra’im. 

Our text is at the center of a fascinating Talmudic tale that relates to the extraordinarily gifted disciples of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai: 

Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai had five [special] disciples—Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrkanos, Rabbi Yehoshu’a ben Chananya, Rabbi Yossi the Priest, Rabbi Shim’om ben Netan’el, and Rabbi Elazar ben Arakh.  He used to say if all the wise men of Israel were placed in one scale of the balance and Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrkanos in the other, he would outweigh them all.  Abba Sha’ul said [differently] in his name: if all the wise men of Israel were placed in one scale of the balance, and Eliezer ben Hyrkanos were also with them, were Rabbi Elazar ben Arakh in the second scale, he would outweigh them all.  (Avot 2: 10, 12).

His teacher described Rabbi Elazar ben Arakh as a stream that grew stronger and stronger.  This description was a metaphor for his brilliant and apparently inexhaustible interpretive creativity.

The Talmud relates that Rabbi Elazar ben Arakh once took a vacation by the Hot Springs of Deimsit.  His wife so enjoyed the relaxing atmosphere of this famed spa that she persuaded her husband not to return to the Yeshiva. Besides, she argued, since he was greater than his colleagues, their need for him was more urgent than his need for them. If they really wanted to learn with him, let them move to Deimsit.  Accordingly, they remained in Deimsit for many, many long months.  When Rabbi Elazar ben Arakh finally did return to the Yeshiva in Kerem B’Yavne, he was called upon to read the Torah text of this special Shabbat.  To the amazement of his colleagues he totally misread the passage.  Instead of saying Ha-chodesh ha-zeh lakhem [this month shall be unto you], he said Ha-cheresh hayah libam [Did their hearts become deaf?].  (Kohelet Rabbah 7; Avot D’Rabbi Natan 14).

If a very young child had made the same error, his dyslexia might have been forgiven.  The Hebrew letter daled of the word Ha-chodesh resembles the letter resh of the word Ha-cheresh.  The letter zayin of the word ha-zeh somewhat resembles the yud of hayah.  The letter khaf of lakhem is not too unlike the bet of libam.   

However, these simple transpositions are utterly inexplicable when a great scholar of the distinction of Rabbi Elazar ben Arakh makes the error.  Even if he had been away from his Torah studies for a lengthy period, he could not possibly have forgotten the Hebrew alphabet.  What message was he conveying to his colleagues?

Clearly, Rabbi Elazar ben Arakh’s misreading of our text was deliberate.  He meant to apprise his colleagues of the negative effects of a long absence from Torah study. When one is not engaged in sacred discourse, one’s heart becomes numb-- cheresh hayah libam.  The ultimate purpose of Torah study is to enhance sensitivity and to open hearts.  While study is largely a cognitive activity, its purpose is not simple mental acuity.  If it is effective, it will help produce a mindful, sensitive individual, whose heart is open to God and God’s creatures.  The materialism associated with the resort atmosphere of the Hot Springs of Deimsit had oriented the great Rabbi Elazar be Arakh away from the spirit of Torah.  His intellectual prowess may have remained, but he had suffered a painful change of heart-- cheresh hayah libo. He who had valued a good heart above all other virtues (Avot 2:13) had neglected his own.

What was Rabbi Elazar ben Arakh feeling? What was it that made him aware of his change of heart? What was the spiritual change he was experiencing? The change was subtle, and was also implied in his misreading of our text.

My teacher and friend, Rabbi Ya’akov Duschinsky of blessed memory, noted that the three transposed letters were not random. The Hebrew letters resh, yud and bet form the word reev—conflict. Closed hearts produce conflict.  The cause of the blockage is often an overabundance of ego. Rabbi Elazar ben Arakh had permitted his wife to inflate his ego. People with very large egos leave little place in their hearts for others. Self-love becomes selfish love and precludes empathy with others. Because one does not understand where the other person is coming from, one misinterprets his or her motives, becomes paranoid and too easily goes into attack mode.  Positive criticism is mistaken for assault on one’s ego; one becomes defensive and an argument ensues.

People with too much ego also leave no space in their hearts for God, and soon find devotion more and more tedious, soon becoming conflicted about their real relationship with the Divine.

Ultimately, inflated egos are fragile egos. The greater one’s ego is, the more insecure one tends to be—and insecure people are characteristically defensive and conflictual. Perhaps Rabbi Elazar ben Arakh felt insecure about his Torah skills because of his very long absence from the Yeshiva and the challenging, growth producing engagement with his gifted colleagues. Was this why he had lately begun to conflict with his formerly close friends?  Had they grown spiritually whereas he had declined? Perhaps he had himself begun to notice subtle changes in his previously intimate relationship with God.

This awareness and Rabbi Elazar ben Arakh’s very public affirmation of his flaws testify to his greatness. They also reflect the goal to which students of Torah should aspire. Intellectual prowess and theoretical halakhic expertise are worth little if they do not open hearts to God and other human beings. It is little wonder that Torah masters who demonstrate these characteristics are so often involved in reev. Ha-cheresh hayah libam?

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