Much of today’s daf (Megillah 29a) explores the concept that, even absent of the Temple, God’s presence (Shechina) remains with us in exile and that, as the prophet relates: ‘though I have placed them far away among the nations, and though I have scattered them over the lands, I am a minor sanctuary for them (וָאֱהִי לָהֶם לְמִקְדָּשׁ מְעַט) in whichever lands they come to’ (Yechezkel 11:16).
Reflecting on this teaching, Rabbi Yitzchak explains that the מִקְדָּשׁ מְעַט mentioned here refers to ‘the synagogues and houses of study’ in Babylon, and what this means is that when outside the land of Israel, the divine presence is most palpably experienced in places of collective prayer and Torah study. Yet, seemingly adopting a contrary view, Rabbi Elazar then states that the term מִקְדָּשׁ מְעַט refers to ‘the house of our teacher [Rav]’ in Babylon.
Admittedly, there are those who suggest that Rabbi Elazar is just being more specific than Rav Yitzchak, and rather than referring to all houses of study as a מִקְדָּשׁ מְעַט, he refers to the house [of study] of the Amora Rav.
However, Rabbi Moshe Katz (in his אשי משה) takes a different view, and he asserts that what we have here is a clear disagreement between Rabbi Yitzchak and Rabbi Elazar. As he explains: ‘And it would appear that they disagree, for Rav [Yitzchak] is of the opinion that the Shechina dwells in a place of Torah and prayer, while Rabbi Elazar is of the opinion that ‘from the day when the Temple was destroyed, the Holy One, Blessed Be He, only has the 4 amot of halacha’, and this is therefore why ‘the house of our teacher in Babylon’ is mentioned, for it was from there that [halachic] rulings [for the people] were determined, and it was there that the Shechina resided’.
Obviously, there are those who encounter and who experience the divine when engaged in prayer and Torah study. But while this is certainly true, I am personally drawn to the teaching of Rabbi Elazar who emphasizes the spirituality of halachic rulings.
Admittedly, those who have never been in the proximity of poskim – whose decision-making is authentically rooted in Torah and whose rulings are determined with a deep sensitivity to the needs of the people they are serving – may think that it is absurd to compare the spirituality of prayer and Torah study with that of halachic decision-making. Yet, perhaps a way to understand this concept is by reflecting on what Rav Zvi Pesach Frank zt’l penned (as noted in the introduction to Sh’ut Har Tzvi on Even HaEzer) as a header of his volume of teshuvot providing solutions to be מתיר עגונות, where he quoted the words of the Yerushalmi (Bava Kamma 8:7) which states בזמן שאתה רחמן המקום ירחם עליך – ‘when you are merciful, the Holy One is merciful upon you’ – which was explained to mean that ‘if a halachic decisor is merciful and is prepared to toil and endeavour with every ounce of energy, and to give up sleep and rest, and to put at risk their ‘world to come’ and to give up aspects of ‘this world’….and they dedicate all their time to search and investigate every hole and crack [to find solutions] amongst the works of the greats of the generations, to the point that they can produce a coherent and clear ruling, then the Holy One will be merciful upon them and will help them to find a path…’
Today, there is a growing interest in the study of chassidic and mystical teachings, and of course, each individual should pursue whichever realm of religious study and experience where they feel that they can encounter the divine. Yet while this is understandable, I believe that it is essential that we also appreciate this teaching of Rabbi Elazar – which comes to tell us that while prayer and Torah study are essential spiritual activities, God’s presence is also – and perhaps most powerfully – experienced among those who labour night and day to apply Torah to the needs of our time, and who work tirelessly to conceive halachic rulings and solutions that sensitively address the needs of the Jewish people.