By Yochanan Gordon
It’s a great time to be learning Gemara with my boys. Not that there is essentially a better or worse time, as Torah is eternal and unchanging. However, from their perspective as students and my perspective as the one reviewing it with them, having seen the great display of kavod HaTorah with the numerous siyumei haShas and the seemingly endless amount of media attention the Siyum received both in the Jewish world and beyond, I believe it makes a strong imprint on the minds of these kids and goes a long way in cementing the great regard that the world has for Torah.
With my oldest in seventh grade learning Makkos, and one a couple of years younger, in fifth grade, having just embarked upon his journey through the sea of the Talmud, these are the formative years, before mesivta, where it’s crucial that they be given a healthy foundation in reading the Gemara and understanding the conversations that ensue on every page. But it goes even further than that.
Torah is the word of the Aibershter, which was spoken vicariously through the Tannaim and Amoraim through whom the Talmud was formed. As such, beyond the laws that emerge through these discussions, whether referring to the laws of yiush or situations where someone who kills inadvertently is sent to exile, these ideas, in their precontracted origin, represent a Divine reality that corresponds to the soul of the Torah as opposed to the body of the Torah that manifests itself on the legal level of these discussions.
Ironically, there has always been a feeling of contention between those more focused on the legalities of Talmud study and those who seek to access the metaphysical realm through it. Rav Zusha of Anipoli once sat down to learn with Reb Shmuel Shmelke of Nikolsburg. Now, notwithstanding the fact that the two of them were students of the Maggid of Mezeritch, Reb Shmelke was the brother of the Hafla’ah, whose stress was more in the legal, classic Talmudic realm, whereas Reb Zusha was on fire with only one reality — the Aibershter in His essence.
When the two tzaddikim sat down to learn Masechta Berachos, Reb Shmelke opted to read first. He began, “M’eimasai korin es shema b’arvin…” and he translated it into Yiddish, “Foon ven hoibt zich leinin krias shema ba nacht,” at which point he saw that his study partner, Reb Zusha, was noticeably perturbed.
“What did I say wrong?” Reb Shmelke asked.
“M’eimasai meint nisht foon ven. M’eimasai meint foon eimah,” Reb Zusha answered. “M’eimasai” doesn’t mean from when. It means out of feelings of awe of G-d we read the Krias Shema at night. That was where the study session began and ended.
It seems like a cute story, but it is a real story with an important lesson. The Torah, which is a giluy of the Ein Sof, exists on a multiplicity of realms that need to be studied and expressed in their entirety. The Chida writes that the mnemonic that comprises the four levels in Torah is pardes, which stands for pshat, remez, derush, and sod. The Chida goes on to explain that the two types of people who engage in Torah study are alluded to in the word pardes. There are those who focus their time on pshat, remez, and derush, and that, he says, are the roshei teivos of “fered,” which means a mule. There is another type of person characterized as “sod v’rak sod” — he who engages in the study of the metaphysical realm in Torah exclusively — and the roshei teivos of those words comprise the word sus, which means a horse. He says, amusingly, that this is an interpretation of the verse in Tehillim (32) where King David writes, “Be not like a horse, like a mule that does not discern whose mouth must be held with bit and bridle, so that when he is being groomed he does not come near you.” The Chida is emphasizing that Torah must be learned in its entirety. Further, the Baal Hatanya writes in his Shulchan Aruch that souls need to be reincarnated to complete the various realms of Torah.
When we speak of a body and soul in Torah, the difference between the two is only noticeable to us, the mekablim. G-d is Ein Sof, and whether we are discussing G-d on the precontracted level or following the Tzimtzum, no change occurred in G-d, chas v’shalom. The only distinction is in the way we perceive Him. However, because on some level it seems to us that an autonomous world exists outside the realm of Divinity, it’s possible to be engaged in Torah and forget about the Giver of Torah. As such it is crucial that with every word there is a keen awareness as to the origin of the words and the objective in studying them — namely, to become one with the Ein Sof.
Having spent significant time learning with my kids, I see that it could be hard for the immature mind to come to grips with many of the cases laid out in the Gemara. One in particular was the case of a person who drops a kav of pomegranates in an area of four amos, and the Gemara questions whether the pomegranates can be kept or if they need to be announced, and so on and so forth. The question was not posed just with regard to pomegranates, but to dates as well. It’s not that it’s a difficult case to comprehend as much as it seems somewhat technical and a little obscure.
I have explained to my son that studying these matters are the ratzon Hashem, which makes it eternally significant and timeless regardless of whether or not he will ever drop a kav of pomegranates in a four-amos surface area or anything similar to that.
However, I prefer training them with the knowledge that the cases represent the contracted reality of G-d, which, in its origin, is manifested on a more sublime level and corresponds to a much more profound reality.
A Satmar chassid who had recently attended a tish of the late Satmar Rebbe, Reb Yoel, had shortly thereafter entered into yechidus with the Lubavitcher Rebbe. The Rebbe had asked him if he could retell an idea that he heard from Reb Yoel. The chassid said that Reb Yoel quoted the Gemara that said that a Jew is compared to a pomegranate, as the verse states, “K’pelach ha’rimon rakaseich,” which means, “Your temple is like a split pomegranate.” The Gemara continues, “Do not read the word as ‘rakaseich,’ rather ‘reikanin she’bach’ — meaning that even the empty ones among the Jews, or the sinners, according to a variant version, are full of mitzvos like a pomegranate.”
The Satmar Rebbe asked, “I don’t understand how they could be sinners and at the same time be full of mitzvos?”
The Rebbe, hearing this, grew serious and said, “I had a similar question but from a different angle. My question is: ‘How could they be full of mitzvos and at the same time be characterized as sinners or empty ones?’”
Furthermore, the Gemara in Sukkah states, “Just as a date palm possesses only one heart, so, too, the Jews who are likened to date palms possess only one heart directed towards their Father in heaven.”
I believe that these cases of pomegranates and dates falling in the public thoroughfare have a lot more to do with Jews who inherently are full of mitzvos and faithful to their Father in heaven but at times it may seem as if they have fallen and have given up hope on Yiddishkeit, Torah, and mitzvos. Our responsibility in such a situation is to show them that, although it may seem like they have fallen and are fully culpable for the damage done to their souls as a result of their negligence, at the end of the day they were placed there — derech hinuach — by the Aibershter. To this, the Gemara rules “teiku” — that it will remain a mystery until the coming of Eliyahu HaNavi, who will clarify all the variables. May it happen today.