June 21, 2020

Shabbat 32

Much of today’s daf (Shabbat 32b) is very hard to digest since its discussion attempts to attribute specific spiritual transgressions for untimely deaths. For example we read that ‘for three transgressions women die in childbirth’, and ‘for the sin of unfulfilled vows, a man’s wife or children dies’. We are told that parents who ‘neglect Torah study’ or who commit ‘the sin of not affixing a mezuzah’, or ‘the sin for failing to wear tzitzit’ may be a reason for their children’s deaths. And it is also stated that as a result of ‘neglecting Terumah and Ma’aser tithes’, dew and rain are withheld.

Of course, a fundamental principle of our faith requires our acknowledgement of divine reward and punishment. However, many of the cases listed here involve the apparent punishment of the innocent, and on first glance, such remarks may appear shallow or callous. However, I believe that a closer look at these discussions reveals a very different tone to this discussion.

We are told that these debates were initiated by four leading Tana’im (Rabbis from the time of the Mishna): Rabbi Elazar the son of Rabbi Shimon (Bar Yochai) & Rabbi Yehuda HaNassi, and Rabbi Meir & Rabbi Yehuda, and a brief study of each pair reveals something profoud. Rabbi Elazar the son of Rabbi Shimon (Bar Yochai) and Rabbi Yehuda HaNassi were close friends and each experienced much suffering. In fact, we are told (Bava Metziah 85a) that ‘during all the years of the suffering of Rabbi Elazar son of Rabbi Shimon, no one died prematurely, as his afflictions atoned for the entire generation’ and ‘during all the years of the suffering of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, the world did not require any rain, as the moisture of the dew was sufficient’. Similarly, Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Yehuda (Bar Ilai) – who often disagree in the Mishna – both experienced great suffering. Rabbi Meir with the death of his sons, and Rabbi Yehuda with his extreme poverty. Aside from all this, all of these teachers lived during a time of violent persecution, and each saw the murder of close friends and teachers.

Understanding this our daf takes on a very different character. Here we have four leading teachers trying to make sense of the suffering that they have experienced or witnessed in their life. In fact, since the sins that these Rabbis debate include those they attribute to parents, it would appear that Rabbi Meir – whose children did die young – actually blamed himself for their death. What this means is that rather than being shallow or callous, our daf is painfully tragic.

It is of note that unlike a classic halachic debate where a resolution is often reached, these theological discussions remain unresolved which means is that while we often attempt to answer the למה (Lamah) ‘why’ question, we must never forget that ‘it is not in our hands to understand either the tranquil lives of the wicked or the suffering of the righteous’ (Avot 4:15). Still, it is important to address the למה (L’mah) question, i.e. ‘what’ can we do in a world where suffering exists.

Significantly, the answer to this is also found on our daf (Shabbat 32a) with two statements each beginning with the word לעולם – always, as if to stress that whatever your situation, whatever you think you understand about the world and the workings of God, these two things should be done. These are: 1) Always avoid standing in a dangerous place, and 2) Always pray for mercy from God that they do not become ill.

We too are living in difficult times. Many have suffered tragedy, and like the sages of the Mishna, we too have many more questions than answers. Still, there are things we can do, we should do, and we must do: 1) Avoid danger, and, 2) Pray for God’s mercy.
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