Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said,
If you are walking alone on a journey, you should occupy yourself with Torah.
If you have a headache, you should occupy yourself with Torah.
If you have a sore throat, you should occupy yourself with Torah.
If you bones ache, you should occupy yourself with Torah.
If your entire body is in pain, you should occupy yourself with Torah.
(Eruvin 54a, Proverbs 1:9, 4:22)
WHAT TO DO WITH THIS TEXT
The first thing is to be completely aware of and absorb the gap between A (illness) and B (Torah study), grasping the logical short circuit. It may even cause an intellectual jolt. Something doesn’t make sense at all. On the surface, they might seem like two totally different categories of things, and your reaction may be: (1) This sounds a bit like the line in the movie Field of Dreams, “If you build it, they will come”, and (2) I think the better approach — it’s like when you meet or know somebody, and you sense that there is a lot more to that person than you have understood until now.
“If you build it” is cinematic fantasy. Rabbi Yehoshua’s Teaching is not about Hollywood’s scriptwriters, nor “standard” Kabbalah-mysticism, nor magic, voodoo, or the phenomenon of the irrational overriding the rational.
Nor is our struggling with the text like: (1) In 1799 with the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, the archeologists and Egyptologists, finally able to read hieroglyphics; (2) In 1929, H.L. Ginsberg and other Biblical scholars deciphering the cuneiform of Ugaritic; (3) It is not like Freud uncovering and explaining the subconscious; (4) It is not like Alan Turing and the assembled team of mathematicians, linguists, and puzzle-solvers at Bletchley Park breaking the Nazi code; (5) Not even like the torturous route a Miami cop has to go through to catch the murderer on South Beach; (6) Not like tracking down who created the myth of George Washington chopping down the cherry tree (simple research for an 8-year-old — 3 minutes on Google), and (7) — for “regular” — people like me, what in Heaven’s name is The Cloud, or how can someone stand outside her car, unlock it and start the engine, without a key.
Finding meaning or occasional profundity in a Talmudic text is a less arduous process, relatively manageable, and common enough for students of the ancient text.
For good reason, in these trying days, you are stuck at home. You have developed a fragmented plan for how to cope. Several solutions, for example might include: (1) electronically staying in touch with people who are important to you to see if they are healthy and managing well; (2) weather permitting, taking walks; (3) finally straightening up the house or apartment; (4) reading through the accumulated pile of magazines and department store and tchatchka catalogues; (5) binge-watching Ken Burns’ nine-part history of baseball; (6) aimlessly surfing the Web for anything that will hold your attention for more than 15 minutes; and (7) Zoom-learning tai chi or honing your skills in tying knots — you failed at in Boy Scouts. And Early on you realized this is definitely not the right time atmosphere for finishing your dissertation on medieval French feminist poetry.
ONE MORE DIVERSION
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi’s words – to study Torah — is definitely a diversion, and certainly one on a higher level than furiously baking and cooking all the recipes filed in a box on your kitchen counter. However, following the Rabbi’s words, you should not expect to be 100% psychologically cured of your distress, disorientation, feeling of powerlessness, or depression.
But you may find an easing of the daily, even hourly, growing oppressive weight in your mind. I believe that you will not discover the Meaning of Life, the absolute Nature of Reality, or a better theology of why God allows this to happen to human beings.
But the significant thing is that this — Torah — is ours, us, a centuries-long connection of a different kind than what Zoom — marvelous as it is — provides. And, that, I believe is no small thing.
I offer a recent historical story to illustrate: Nobel Laureate physicist Isidor Rabi was born in Europe and raised on the Lower East Side of New York in a traditional Jewish household. J. Robert Oppenheimer – director of the Los Alamos project to develop the atomic bomb — grew up in on the Upper West Side in an assimilated Jewish family.
While Rabi was not part of the team of pre-eminent physicists in residence in New Mexico, he was present on July 16, 1945, for the detonation of the first bomb. When the flash and the unique cloud filled the sky, Oppenheimer said, “I am become death” – quoting the Hindu Bhagavad Gita. Rabi’s reaction was, “Why not the Talmud?”
While we are experiencing this universal, and yet very personal crisis, this might well be an appropriate time to turn to our Jewish sources, and, if we find some insight, relief or comfort, it will have served a meaningful purpose. But the essence of Torah-study-in-the-time-of-physical-or-psychological-malaise is that we belong, and are being true to ourselves. And this is surely much more than “just something”. I believe it is an important complement to the various and varied electronic connections.
A PERSONAL CONCLUSION
I have worked with this text for many years, and still, I haven’t been able to go deeper into what is in Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi’s words. From my years of Talmud study, I just know there is more, but I have reached an impasse. So I look now to others to be more insightful and articulate to help me penetrate more deeply into the meaning of his words.
Perhaps, this is the reason why I had to write this Dvar Torah.