June 7, 2020

Brachot 47

Today’s daf (Brachot 47b) describes an encounter between Rami bar Chama and Rav Menashya bar Tachlifa that led to a tragic outcome.

Rami bar Chama was a highly capable and sharp Torah scholar who, like many of his contemporaries at that time was of the opinion that it was unbecoming for a Torah scholar to share their meal with an ‘Am Ha’aretz’. Significantly, our daf records a debate about the meaning of this term, but it is generally understood either to refer to those who do not fulfil some normative Jewish practice, or those who have studied Torah but have not sought spiritual mentorship from Torah scholars greater than themselves.

In terms of our story, Rami bar Chama believed that Rav Menashya bar Tachlifa was in the latter category, and he therefore refrained from joining a zimum with him. Nevertheless, and setting aside the rationale or wisdom of the prevalent rabbinic policy we are taught – at least according to one explanation – that Rami bar Chama was completely wrong. He had judged Rav Menashya bar Tachlifa on what he thought he knew of him, but as a result of this, he had drawn an erroneous conclusion. Significantly, when Rami bar Chama passed away, Rava (his study partner who was then to go on and marry his widow) attributed his death to the way in which he treated Rav Menashya bar Tachlifa.

Clearly this is a sad ending to this story, but it is also important to note that this story also contains a profound irony. Rami bar Chama considered those who thought they knew all the answers – as expressed by their choice not to seek spiritual mentorship – as Amei Ha’aretz, yet in this instance he himself came to the wrong conclusion because he thought he knew all the answers and didn’t feel it was necessary for him to learn anything more about Rav Menashya bar Tachlifa. Understood this way, I believe that this story has much relevance for us today.

Our generation, more than any other, places huge value on first impressions often decided by shallow online profiles or brief professional resumes. But the problem is that first impressions are almost always incomplete impressions, and it is therefore up to us whether we fill those gaps generously (l’kaf zechut) or harshly (l’kaf chova). Moreover, even when we are thinking or talking about people who do have evident faults, all too often we focus on their faults and not on their virtues, and it is in response to these kinds of challenges that Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk encouraged us to offer a prayer to God to ‘let our hearts see the virtues of our friends, and not their faults’.

There is much to learn from Brachot Page 47 but undoubtedly a simple lesson is that we should avoid being like Rami bar Chama, we shouldn’t think we know the sum total of the people we encounter, and when we are not sure about the qualities of a specific person, we should train our eyes and our heart to see their virtues, not their faults.

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