Having made reference to the exceptional wine that was produced in Phrygia (a small kingdom in Asia Minor), along with the unique therapeutic powers of the waters of the river Deyomset (found near the Judean city of Emmaus), today’s daf (Shabbat 147b) informs us that Rabbi Elazar ben Arakh travelled [alone] to Phrygia where he was drawn to the wine of that region, and to Deyomset (which, as Kohelet Rabbah 7:7 points out, was the hometown of his wife) where he was drawn to the therapeutic waters of that region. However, we are told that having done so, he forgot the Torah that he had previously learned.
As the Gemara proceeds to explain on the basis of Avot 4:14 (which, according to one opinion was actually authored by Rabbi Elazar ben Arakh), this story comes to teach us about the spiritual danger of spending time alone in places that are not a ‘Makom Torah’ (a place of Torah) and not to presume that wherever you go, ‘the Torah will come after you’.
However, we are then told that when Rabbi Elazar ben Arakh did return from his travels [to Yavne] and came to read from the Torah, he incorrectly read the verse החודש הזה לכם – ‘this month shall be for you [the first month]’ (Shemot 12:2) as החרש הזה לבם – which translates as ‘have their hearts become silent?’.
While some explain that this error demonstrated that Rabbi Elazar ben Arakh ‘had forgotten so much that he could barely remember how to read the Hebrew letters’ (as per Koren explanation), I read this as an example of parapraxis (otherwise known as ‘a Freudian slip’), meaning that Rabbi Elazar ben Arakh had not forgotten how to read the letters, but instead, by reading these words as החרש הזה לבם – ‘have their hearts become silent?’, he revealed his unconcious fear of what had occurred to him as a result of his recent disconnect from rigorous Torah study.
Yet, as Rabbi Yitzchak Landau (1801-1876) explains in his book לשמוע בלמודים, there is also a deeper lesson being taught in this story through the metaphor of water, and this is based on the teaching in Avot 2:8 stating that Rabbi Elazar ben Arakh was such an industrious Torah scholar that he was compared to a מעין המתגבר – a spring flowing with ever-sustained vigour.
As Rabbi Landau explains, a מעין המתגבר grows stronger every day through the new water that flows through it every day. However, if no new water enters the spring, it can diminish and eventually dry up.
With this in mind, Rabbi Landau then connects this concept to the verse that Rabbi Elazar ben Arakh was reading, and this is because the key message of החודש הזה לכם – ‘this month shall be for you [the first month]’ is the concept of התחדשות – renewal, and by incorrectly reading this verse, Rabbi Elazar ben Arakh revealed how, by spending excess time in places where he could not learn Torah, he had failed to renew himself as a מעין המתגבר and as a result he had spiritually dried up to the point that his spiritual heart had, in some way, become silent. What we learn from here is that those who fail to invest in the continual growth and renewal of their Torah knowledge can, like a spring, unfortunately dry up.
Sadly, I have seen this time after time, where men and women – at times even very learned men and women – become distracted by other pursuits, fail to invest and renew their Jewish learning, and subsequently spiritually dry out to the point that while they can perfectly well read Torah texts in hebrew, when they do so all they can hear is their silent heart that struggles to be moved by what they are learning.
Ultimately, we learn from this story is that nobody can presume that their past Torah knowledge can sustain their current or future Torah connectivity; that each of us should have or should find a friend or mentor whose task it is to coach, coax and spiritually encourage us, and that if we want a vibrant emotional relationship with Torah, we must make sure that we are perpetually renewing and refreshing our heart, our mind and our soul.