Why Would Ran Recycle a Whole Drasha?

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

In the seventh Drasha, Ran repeats much material; indeed, almost the whole Drasha has appeared before (mostly in the alternate version of the fifth Drasha, as discussed here). By paying careful attention to what is different, I think we can discover his true message in this Drasha.

Is Touchiness a Flaw in Torah Scholars?

Prior essays in this series

The Drasha opens with a story in Chagigah 3a, R. Yochanan b. Baroka and R. Elazar b. Chisma visiting R. Yehoshua. He asks them what was said in the Beit Midrash that day and they demur, saying they are his students.  He encourages them to share anyway, since houses of study always produce new ideas, and they tell him three ideas R. Elazar b. Azaryah had said.

It is the third of R. Elazar b. Azaryah’s inferences that will launch Ran on the true topic of the drasha. He has discussed that third inference both in the third Drasha and, at greater length, in the second version of the fifth Drasha.  Here, he starts from the beginning of the story, with the interaction between the rabbis and then a discussion of each of R. Elazar b. Azaryah’s insights.

1) The first is that the mitzvah of הקהל, the entire nation gathering in Jerusalem after each shmittah year to hear words of Torah, included children in order to give reward to those who brought them. R. Yehoshua praised the idea, saying, “You had a precious jewel in your hands and wanted to deny it to me?”

Ran relates their original reluctance to accept a story told on the other side of that page in Chagigah, where R. Elazar took umbrage at R. Yose b. Dormsekit responding to his inquiry about what happened in the Beit Midrash.  Ran seems comfortable with great scholars objecting to lesser scholars sharing Torah ideas without first asking permission, even in reply to a direct question.

What Yaakovs Family Realized Before Hashem Commanded It

2)The second of R. Elazar b. Azaryah’s ideas comes from an analysis of Devarim 26:17-18.  The verse says the Jewish people have affirmed that Hashem is their God, and Hashem has affirmed that the Jews are His treasured people. R. Elazar b. Azaryah read that as Hashem saying, “you have made me One in the world,” proving it from the first line of Shema. In response, Hashem will make the Jews unique.

Ran notes that Shema is a commandment, so why should that earn people credit for making Hashem One in the world? Further, if observing a commandment to recognize Hashem qualifies as declaring Oneness, why not point to אנכי ה’ אלוקיך, I am the Lord Your God?

Ran argues that the Shema referenced here is the one in a story in Pesachim 56a.  R. Shimon b. Pazi understands Ya’akov Avinu to have wanted to reveal the end of history to his sons, only to find that the Divine Spirit had left him (because we aren’t supposed to know the future, we have to live our way to it). Ya’akov worried it was because one of his sons was unworthy; to reassure him, they all said Shema (reading “Hear O Israel” as a reference to the Patriarch, not the people).

[This story is the source for our custom to add the line ברוך שם כבוד מלכותו לעולם ועד to Shema, what the Gemara reports as Ya’akov’s response to his sons’ words.  Rambam reports this story in Laws of Keriyat Shema 1:4, meaning he saw this story as halachically significant.]

Why Take the Long Route?

3) The third of R. Elazar b. Azaryah’s inferences is one we have seen before, as will be much of the material in the rest of the Drasha. If it’s that third one that mattered to Ran, why include the first two, when he has not done so the other times he quoted this one?

We can’t say he did it to be complete—citing a whole piece of the Gemara, once he was citing one part of it– because he did not do that the other times he quoted this.  We might argue that he did it to spice up the speech, to give listeners some new material, to hide how much was repeat.  But since we’ve seen that this work seems to have been carefully gathered, that would raise the question of why it was included here.

I think a better answer is that all three of R. Elazar b. Azaryah’s statements are relevant to this Drasha.   Even though Ran is repeating much if not most of it, I hope to show that it takes him to a different place than before. Ran is emphasizing Chazal’s centrality to our religious and spiritual welfare. Without their guidance, without following their wisdom and their paths, we cannot truly understand the Torah, Hashem’s revealed will.

If I’m right, that explains everything we’ve seen: the students’ hesitance to speak before someone greater than them, the right of great scholars to react sharply to disrespect, the sons of Ya’akov reciting Shema long before Hashem commanded it. These all combine to remind us of the powers of our great leaders.

That focus is made explicit in R. Elazar b. Azaryah’s reading of Kohelet 12:11, the statement we’ve seen before.  I will review that and the rest of the repeated material briefly, paving the way, next time, to see the closing of this Drasha, which adds new insight. I think this will let us see Ran’s powerful message in this Drasha as a whole.

Into the Land of Repetition: The Importance of Chazals Words

Ran proceeds to quote passages that highlight humanity’s decisive role in the interpretation of Torah. The verse declares: “The sayings of the wise are like goads, like nails fixed in prodding sticks. They are given by one Shepherd.” (Kohelet 12:11) This tells us that the words of Torah, including those of the wise Sages, push us to eternal life. As twice before, Ran adds that the cleverness Torah gives us is not damaging nor does it teach us wrong ideas (implying that he knew of other kinds of cleverness that do both).

R. Elazar b. Azaryah also focuses on how two sides of a debate could be from one mouth, leading Ran to repeat his view that Hashem prefers our following the majority to finding the original intended Truth.   From there, he moves into a recapitulation of stories of the human intellect confronting the Divine, with the upshot being the value of the former.

Ran then reviews the story of R. Eliezer taking on all the Sages, Bava Metzia 59b, culminating in R. Yehoshua declaring that the Torah is no longer in Heaven, and Hashem being quoted as saying that His children have defeated him.  From there, Ran moves into the story of Rabbah bar Nachmani (Baba Metzia 86a) being called to rule on a heavenly debate about a tsaraat issue, leading to a repeat of Ran’s views about the importance of Chazal’s definitions of Torah law as well as their additional and protective decrees; all are included in the Biblical commandment of לא תסור, not straying from what our Sages tell us. This continuing emphasis on the importance of human views, combined with the prior emphasis on respect for the Sages, leads to a demand for respect and fealty to the Sages’ Torah views.

The Centrality of Chazal to Experiencing the Torah

Ran continues with Gittin 60b, that the principle part of Torah (and the reward we earn for observance) comes from following the Sages when they make decrees or ordinances that have no direct basis in the Torah. That means those decrees become like Torah law, since we have a general principle that those who are commanded are greater than those who act voluntarily.

Ran again offers his three explanations for why being commanded creates greater reward. First, reward depends on the level of resistance one feels towards doing an act, and it’s being commanded that sparks resistance.  Since Rabbinic ordinances also spark rebelliousness, those who follow their ordinances get that level of reward.

Second, Hashem might direct mitzvot to certain groups because they apply more to them, in which case someone else’s doing it wouldn’t be as valuable.  There too, once Chazal obligate an act, it’s equivalent to the Torah having done so.  Third, since Hashem commands mitzvot to improve us, those who weren’t commanded don’t necessarily need that form of self-improvement, a reasoning that again would not exclude Chazal’s commands.

The Importance of יראת שמים, Fear of Heaven

Ran then (again) cites Rabbenu Yonah, Shaarei Teshuvah 3:7, who takes for granted that fear of Heaven is the foundation of all the commandments (that’s an arguable assumption—there are other candidates for “the foundation of all the commandments– but Ran supports the idea with several Talmudic statements, including Shabbat 31b, where R. Yehudah says Hashem only created the world for humans to fear Him, with a supporting verse from Kohelet).  The Sages must be followed out of piety, because their ordinances is that they train us in fear of Heaven.

Ran adds that that is why observing Rabbinic commandments both earns greater reward than other mitzvot and is punished more harshly.  Eruvin 21b says that anyone who willfully violates a Rabbinic commandment deserves the death penalty.  For Ran, that is because most of Rabbinic law extends the Torah; anyone who keeps the Torah faithfully but violates Rabbinic law shows disrespect, since Ran cannot see how there would be a temptation to violate an extension but not the original law.  It is the sinner’s attitude that deserves the death penalty (this seems to imply that any time any of us violate halachah out of disregard, we deserve death).

As in the earlier drasha, this again leads Ran to question Sotah 22b’s including those who serve out of fear in a list of people who look pious but actually aren’t. As before, he differentiates between fear of punishment and fear (or, better, awe) of Hashem; the former is a lesser form, whereas fear of Hashem is the goal.

Other than the opening, this Drasha has hit many themes we have seen earlier, particularly the role of the human intellect in service of Hashem, Chazal’s right and responsibility to use that intellect in formulating halachah, the rules they thus enact being key to our fear of Hashem, and that fear—the highest version of it—being the central focus of observance.  The next, brief, closing piece of the Drasha offers new material, which casts what we’ve seen in a new light.

As we’ll see next time.

About Gidon Rothstein

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