Earlier on in Massechet Yevamot (14b-15a) we learnt a Beraita where we were informed of Rav Yochanan ben Nuri’s attempt to overcome the halachic problems arising from the fact that Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai had different approaches about who could perform yibbum – to the extent that the children born from relationships permitted by Beit Shammai were forbidden by Beit Hillel and could lead to the birth of Mamzerim, while relationships permitted by Beit Hillel were forbidden according to the position of Beit Shammai.
Yet, as we were told there (Yevamot 15a) and as is repeated in today’s daf (Yevamot 27a), לא הספיקו לגמרו את הדבר עד שנטרפה השעה – ‘they did not manage to finalize the matter before time was snatched away’ – meaning that Rav Yochanan ben Nuri died before his enactment could be ratified in Yavne and it remained unratified for some time. However, our Gemara then goes on to inform us that in the generations that followed, once the Sanhedrin was reestablished in Usha, חזרו ותיקנו – ‘they returned [to this issue] and enacted [his proposal into law]’.
Reflecting on this legal journey – especially given the fact that it is referenced in Massechet Yevamot – makes me think about life journeys, about what we plan, about what we are unable to realise, and about how future generations can complete the work that we started.
In terms of the classic model of Yibum, the situation is that a man and woman marry, they likely hope to have children but they do not, and then the husband dies. At this point there is only misery; the kind of misery captured in Megillat Rut when both Rut and Orpah have buried their husbands. Yet the model of yibum comes to teach us that sometimes others can complete the work that we cannot – such as the brother of the deceased husband who is able to marry and support his sister-in-law and maintain the memory of his brother.
But while yibum is a specific model for a particular situation, and while the ruling of Rabbi Yochanan ben Nuri addresses a technical problem arising from this question, the fact is that there are many areas in life where future generations can complete the work that we started, and many areas where we get to complete the work that our ancestors began.
To take one simple example, our ancestors dreamt and prayed to return to Israel. Yet while many of them were unable to fulfil this dream, we have been able to live the realization of their hopes and dreams in our lifetime, and by doing so, we show honour to them and their legacy.
Overall, we don’t just live for ourselves. Instead, each choice we make should seek to honour those who came before us, and assist those who follow. And though, as Rabbi Tarfon teaches (Avot 2:16), ‘it is not your responsibility to finish the work’, he then adds, ‘but you are not free to desist from it either.’