February 14, 2023

Nedarim 50

In my commentary to today’s daf (Nedarim 50a), I would like to reference some of the ideas that I previously mentioned in my remarks on Yevamot 62b (https://rabbijohnnysolomon.com/yevamot-62/) while adding some further insights based on additional details mentioned in our daf.
As I explained there, Rabbi Akiva had a very broad admissions policy to his yeshiva. Unfortunately, what this meant was that some of his students didn’t naturally possess the middot (positive character traits – especially in terms of the way in which we treat others) that one might expect of students of Rabbi Akiva. Nevertheless, Rabbi Akiva was renowned for being a hopeful scholar, and he believed that just as he changed his ways, so too could they. Consequently, he instituted that his students learn in pairs which not only would be academically beneficial for them, but it would also help improve their people skills.
Unfortunately, these pairs did not bond. In fact, as we were told in Nedarim 40a, when one student became gravely sick, his peers did not even come to visit him! In response to this, Rabbi Akiva regularly delivered lectures to his students on the mitzvah of ואהבת לרעך כמוך – ‘love your neighbour like yourself’. However, it seems that this message fell on deaf ears.
Rabbi Akiva was clearly worried about his students’ relations with others, and in particular, he was gravely concerned about how this may affect his students’ current or future marital relationships. This is why Rabbi Akiva taught his students that while all of the books of the Torah are holy, the book of שיר השירים, which speaks about the bond of a husband and wife reflecting the bond of God with the Jewish people, is the holy of holies. Still, this lesson didn’t seem to get through to his students.
Yet notwithstanding all his efforts, Rabbi Akiva still didn’t give up. Instead, he decided to take his students on a field trip to his house to meet his wife Rachel. In so doing, he hoped to demonstrate to his students how to show respect and affection towards others, and especially towards a spouse.
But when Rabbi Akiva and his many students neared his house, what Rabbi Akiva couldn’t see – due to the many students surrounding him – was that Rachel was nearing him. And we are then told קא מדחן לה רבנן – meaning that these students, apparently unaware of who she was, pushed Rachel away.
Let me say that again! Rabbi Akiva’s students pushed his wife away from him!!! In response, Rabbi Akiva sharply retorted הניחו לה – ‘leave her alone!’, and he then continued to say שלי ושלכם שלה הוא – ‘my (Torah accomplishments) and your (Torah accomplishments) are hers’.
To my mind, this was the last straw for Rabbi Akiva! Yes, Rabbi Akiva was a hopeful scholar who believed in the power of change. But when his wife was shoved and pushed aside by some of his students, he no longer believed that they could be changed, and I imagine that it was soon after this when the events surrounding the demise of his students took place.
Our Sages teach that while the generations between Adam and Noach had serious moral flaws, the tipping point that led to the decree of the mabul (flood) was the way in which those in the generation of the flood treated one another. Here too, I believe that the physical abuse suffered by Rachel was the tipping point for Rabbi Akiva, and I hear in the words of שלי ושלכם שלה הוא a final statement which both credits Rachel and makes it clear to his students that ‘we’re done!’.
For various reasons, we often tolerate certain bad behaviours of others – oftentimes because we believe that people can learn, grow and change. At the same time, we all need to have non-negotiables, i.e. red lines, which cannot be crossed whatever the justification. It is in these moments we need to know alongside whom we will stand, and to my mind, it was in this moment that Rabbi Akiva stood alongside his wife Rachel, and in so doing, he taught his students the greatest lesson of all, namely that abuse can never be tolerated.
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