כ״א באייר ה׳תשע״ג (May 1, 2013)

Eiruvin 54a-b: Learning a Lesson From Travels in the Wilderness

A fairly common occurrence in the Babylonian Talmud is a segue from the discussion of halakha to aggada. This daf in its entirety, is made up of a collection of homilies based on passages in Tanakh. As an example, the Gemara brings Rav Mattana’s drasha (=exposition) on the passage (Bamidbar 21:18) U’mi-midbar Mattana – describing the Jewish People’s travels through the desert to a place called Mattana on their way to the Land of Canaan. Rav Mattana explains this to mean that if a person behaves in a humble manner, that he allows himself to be like a wilderness which is open for all to walk through, he will be rewarded with success in his studies.

To illustrate this homily further, the Gemara tells the story of Rava the son of Rav Yosef bar Hama who was estranged from his friend and teacher, Rav Yosef. The day before Yom Kippur he went to Rav Yosef to try and come to some reconciliation. As he arrived, he found Rav Yosef’s servant preparing a drink for his master, and Rava offered to prepare the drink in his stead and bring it to Rav Yosef. Rav Yosef – who was blind – tasted the drink and immediately commented that it was diluted more than usual, just like Rava the son of Rav Yosef bar Hama used to prepare it. This allowed Rava the son of Rav Yosef bar Hama to introduce himself. Rav Yosef asked him to interpret the passage in Bamidbar (21:18) that listed the stops of the Children of Israel on their way to Israel. Based on word-play, making use of the root of each place-name, Rava the son of Rav Yosef bar Hama presented the following explanation:

Rava said to him: If a person makes himself humble like this wilderness, which is open to all and upon which everyone treads, the Torah will be given to him as a gift [mattana]. And once it is given to him as a gift, he inherits it [nehalo] and God [El] makes it His inheritance, as it is stated: “And from Mattanah to Nahaliel.” And once God has made it His inheritance, he rises to greatness, as it is stated: “And from Nahaliel to Bamoth,” which means heights.

And if he becomes haughty, the Holy One, Blessed be He, lowers him, as it is stated: “And from Bamoth to the valley.” And if he repents, the Holy One, Blessed be He, raises him back up, as it is stated: “Every valley shall be exalted” (Isaiah 40:4).

In effect, Rav Yosef’s request to interpret the passage offered an opening for Rava the son of Rav Yosef bar Hama to apologize.

The disagreement that led to their estrangement is described in the Gemara Nedarim 55a, when Rava sent a question to Rav Yosef. Unhappy with the answer that he received in response, he said that it was useless to him, as the original question still remained. Rav Yosef took offense, saying “if you don’t need me, don’t send me any more questions.” From the apology that appears in our Gemara, clearly Rava came to recognize the folly of his arrogant behavior.

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