October 23, 2022

Ketubot 77

Towards the end of today’s daf (Ketubot 77b) is a line that sent shivers down my spine – especially given the fact that we are just a few days from Rosh Hashanah.
The line comes amidst the story of Rabbi Chanina Bar Pappa who, at the end of his life, was taken by the מלאך המות (the angel of death), at which time Rabbi Chanina asked him: אייתי ספר תורה וחזי מי איבא מידי דכתיב ביה דלא קיימתיה – ‘bring a Sefer Torah and see if there is anything that is written in it that I did not fufil?’
When I read these words I asked myself how I would fare if someone were to ‘bring a Sefer Torah and see if there is anything that is written in it that I did not fufil’. Immediately my heart sank when I intuited the true answer to this question – and then I realized that this question powerfully expresses the judgement that we are soon to face on Rosh Hashanah.
However, what is interesting is how the angel replied: מי איכרכת בבעלי ראתן ואיעסקת בתורה? – ‘Did you stick close to people afflicted with ra’atan (a serious malady discussed earlier in the daf) while involving yourself in Torah?’
The problem with this question is that while the Torah speaks about visiting the sick and helping others, the Torah never explicitly states that one must ‘stick close to people afflicted with ra’atan’. Moreover, just prior to this story we are told that Rabbi Chanina asked for, and received, a 30-day reprieve to study more torah before he died – so we already know that he involved himself in Torah!
Given all this, we must endeavour to understand what is being asked here – and what I would humbly like to suggest is that what Rabbi Chanina was being challenged about was not whether he did חסד (acts of kindness), or whether he studied תורה, but rather, whether he fused both and achieved the ideal level – referenced in Eishet Chayil – of תורת חסד, as reflected by the question ‘Did you stick close to people afflicted with ra’atan while involving yourself in Torah?’
Naturally, it would seem from here that there were people in Rabbi Chanina’s community who suffered from ra’atan. And clearly Rabbi Chanina was a formidable Torah scholar. Given this, the question that he was seemingly asked was whether he was able to concern himself with the needs of others while, at the same time, remaining committed to his Torah learning and living; not whether he did חסד, or whether he learnt תורה, but whether he fulfilled the calling of תורת חסד.
We are taught (Sotah 14a) that the Torah begins with acts of חסד and ends with acts of חסד, so it seems that when challenged to ‘bring a Sefer Torah and see if there is anything that is written in it that I did not fufil’, the מלאך המות – meeting Rabbi Chanina at the end of his life in this world and the beginning of his life in the next world – asked him about both the end and the beginning of the Torah which speaks of חסד, and therefore made the point that Torah study without the performance of חסד is incomplete, and that the ultimate goal for us all should be to live a life that is captured in those two beautiful words that we recite every Friday night – a life of תורת חסד.
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