September 25, 2020

Eruvin 47

Jewish law prohibits a Kohen from having contact with the dead (see Vayikra Ch. 21), and consequently, a Kohen may not enter a בית הקברות – a cemetery – with the exception of burying a close relative.

Significantly, this is a biblical prohibition. However, as we are taught in the Mishna (Ohalot 17:1), if a cemetery has been plowed over such that the bones have been broken and scattered throughout the field, then this area is called a בית הפרס (nb. this is because the word פרס means ‘broken’ and ‘spread out’), and though this space no longer qualifies as a בית הקברות, our Rabbis established a rabbinic prohibition against a Kohen entering a בית הפרס.

With this in mind, we are taught in today’s daf (Eruvin 47a) that if a Kohen needs to find a suitable marriage partner or learn Torah from a particular Torah teacher, and that in order to do so this requires that they travel through an area which is rabbinically forbidden to them such as a בית פרס, then in such a situation the rabbinic prohibition is waived and the Kohen may do so.

Reflecting on this law, I was moved by the fact that the two specific examples are given (nb. whether this applies to other mitzvot, see Tosfot on Avodah Zara 13a), because by doing so, a certain parallelism is being drawn between a love-soulmate (i.e. marriage partner) and a teacher-soulmate (i.e. Torah teacher).

We all know that love is hard to find and that when a person is blessed to find another whom they sense to be their soulmate, they experience a feeling of completion and a sense of personal at-one-ness with the other.

Similarly – yet on a completely different level – when a person is blessed to find a teacher whom they understand, and whom they feel both understands them and can guide them in their journey to discover their intellectual and spiritual potential, they also experience a feeling of personal at-one-ness now that this teacher has helped them discover new parts of themselves.

Many songs and stories have been written about how far people are prepared to go in order to meet their love-soulmate. Yet, what we too easily forget is that our tradition also emphasizes the value of a teacher-soulmate, and that many stories are told in the Tanach, Gemara and later rabbinic traditions about the journeys people were prepared to make in order to learn from their teachers.

As a teacher, I find this both humbling and frightening. Yet, once in a while, while talking to a student or teaching a class, I will say something in a particular way – sometimes consciously and most often not – and within moments I will see a student react – not to me, but to the words I have been gifted to say, because for whatever reason as decreed by G-d I will have said the right words at the right time to the right student.

In that moment something profound occurs, and the student – through absorbing and processing those words – experiences a feeling of personal at-one-ness having now been introduced to a way of thinking that helps them discover new parts of themselves. Just like Moshe when he came down from Mount Sinai, at that moment they radiate a glow of increased personal and spiritual connectivity.

Unlike love which we pursue, such teaching moments cannot be chased; and unlike love which involves body and soul, such moments solely engage the heart and mind. Yet, like love, these moments only occur when the time is right. But when they do – and here I speak as a student who has been blessed with some exceptional teachers, as well as a teacher who has been blessed with many exceptional students – there is a sense that something truly majestic and profoundly spiritual has occurred.

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