Accentuate the Positive — A Penitent’s Elegy

Repentance is a prominent and life affirming theme in our tradition.

The Talmud[i] reports G-d created the phenomena of repentance before the world. The Midrash[ii] states, if there were no repentance, then the world would not continue to exist. Amazingly, repentance can be accomplished even one day before passing away and be effective. However, the Talmud[iii] cautions, since no one knows in advance with certainty that precise day, it is, therefore, advisable to make every day an opportunity for repentance. The Talmud[iv] so cherishes repentance that it records a perfect saint can’t stand in the place where a penitent stands.

One of the most evocative tales of repentance, recounted in the Talmud[v], involves Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish, also known as Resh[vi] Lakish. His exploits and philosophy of life are most compelling and the story of his repentance is captivating.

It begins with a description of how Resh Lakish met Rabbi Yochanan, his outreach Rabbi. At the time, Resh Lakish was a bandit leader[vii] and former gladiator[viii]. Besides his robust physical prowess, he also had a powerful intellect and gifted analytical skills, which are compared to uprooting mountains and grinding them together[ix].

The story unfolds with a chance encounter at the Jordan River. Rabbi Yochanan had gone out for a swim. The muscular and vigorous Resh Lakish was also out and about and saw this strikingly beautiful person[x] swimming in the Jordan, who he mistook for a woman. Resh Lakish leapt into the river intending a frolic. Instead, he was confronted with Rabbi Yochanan, who remarked that Resh Lakish should devote his strength to Torah study. His statement was inspirational. He did not reflect on Resh Lakish’s negatives, including his inappropriate life-style and conduct. Instead, he emphasized the positive and, in a complimentary fashion, noted how good Resh Lakish could be, if he applied his obvious powers to Torah.

Resh Lakish didn’t miss a beat and offered that Rabbi Yochanan should devote his beauty to courting women. Rabbi Yochanan’s response focused on Resh Lakish’s fascination with physical beauty to deliver a powerful message. He offered if Resh Lakish repented, then he would have the opportunity to marry his sister, who was even more beautiful. While not as romantic as the tale of Rabbi Akiva and Rachel[xi], it struck a similar theme. Marriage and the sanctity of Jewish home life, as reflected in a loving, respectful and caring relationship between spouses, is the consummate vehicle for personal growth. This exemplar for the integration of the spiritual and material aspects of life represents a quintessential expression of Judaism in practice[xii].

Resh Lakish accepted and agreed to give up his old life and devote himself to the pursuit of Torah study and its practice. The transformational effect was almost immediate and when he tried to go back and collect his weapons he was unable to do so. This was the first practical step in his redemptive process and there was no going back. Much like a former alcoholic, even taking one drink is to be avoided. This is because years of progress can suddenly be undone by giving into temptation; it just takes one drink.

Rabbi Yochanan then mentored Resh Lakish and taught him the written and oral Torah. Resh Lakish was highly motivated and energetically devoted himself to perfecting his newly chosen craft. He studied assiduously, reviewing his lessons at least forty times[xiii]. Rabbi Yochanan’s initial assessment that Resh Lakish’s obvious talent could be developed into outstanding academic prowess was spot on and he developed into a great man.

Resh Lakish was a formidable and charismatic individual. He assumed an exalted position in the pantheon of Amoraim, being cited authoritatively throughout the Jerusalem Talmud and Babylonian Talmud. Rabbi Yochanan even acknowledged that Resh Lakish was his co-equal in authority[xiv]. They both had healthy and well-developed senses of humor[xv], which enabled them artfully to turn a phrase[xvi]. They became brothers-in-law, friends, confidants and study partners. Rabbi Yochanan relished their studies together. Their sometimes contentious, but fully deliberative process of give and take, is how Torah law was best studied and understood. Critical analysis, including challenging assumptions, posing questions, debating provenance, is a fundamental part of the creative process that refined and preserved Jewish law and traditions, so vital to Jewish existence. Resh Lakish also noted[xvii] when two scholars listen[xviii] or amiably defer to one another in their discussions of Jewish Law, G-d listens to them. However, if they don’t listen to each other, then the Divine Presence departs. Interestingly, in his new persona he eschewed violence and pursued peace; declaring[xix] anyone who even raises a hand to strike another is called wicked.

Resh Lakish was also heroic and willing to put himself at risk to save others[xx]. Circumspect about judging another, he advised a person should first judge his or her own self before judging others[xxi]. He similarly counseled self-examination before offering advice to anyone else[xxii]. He championed the presumption of innocence, adjuring a person not to suspect good people of sinning[xxiii].

His forgiving and generous spirit extended to those who erred. He posited that transgressions of commandments are the result of being entranced by the spirit of folly[xxiv]. Rav Issac Arama[xxv] explained Resh Lakish’s dictum more bluntly; asserting a person doesn’t sin unless he or she has temporarily taken leave of their senses.

Resh Lakish’s optimistic disposition was manifest in his belief that G-d didn’t strike Israel without first creating the cure[xxvi]. He was Strong and tough[xxvii] physically and mentally. It is hard to reconcile his outward appearance and apparent swagger, with the fragile individual portrayed in the climactic incident with Rabbi Yochanan.

The Talmud reports Rabbi Yochanan and Resh Lakish were learning together in the Beit Midrash when a hapless contretemps erupted between the two that led to unintended and catastrophic consequences. The matter under scrutiny was the law of ritual purity applicable to a sword, knife, spear, hand sickle and harvesting sickle. Ostensibly, the issue presented was when did the completion of the manufacturing process occur, whereby the raw iron ore was transformed into a utensil and thus rendered susceptible to ritual impurity[xxviii]. Rabbi Yochanan argued it was when the blade was formed upon being fired in the furnace. Resh Lakish disagreed and asserted it was not until it was thereafter hardened in water and sharpened through polishing. Was this then just an argument about form versus functionality or is there more to the discussion than meets the eye?

Consider, if it was purely a legal discussion, then Resh Lakish could have done a much better job of arguing his position[xxix]. As he characteristically did[xxx], he could have argued legal precedent in opposition to Rabbi Yochanan’s position. His brief might have included the Mishna in Kelim[xxxi] directly on point, which supported his position and contradicted the one asserted by Rabbi Yochanan. Indeed, Resh Lakish could even have confronted Rabbi Yochanan[xxxii] with one of his own rulings that militated against the argument he was making that day. It is, therefore, difficult to accept that this was just another argument about law. There appears to be more to it and what happened next is supportive of that conclusion.

The usual playful banter of friends and colleagues and their typical vigorous exchange of ideas degraded into a clash of personalities. What triggered the fateful confrontation and how did it erupt into such an explosive situation?

It began when Rabbi Yochanan, unfortunately, made a gratuitous comment that was not well received by Resh Lakish. It might have been meant as a backhanded compliment; but it appears to have been interpreted by Resh Lakish as a sarcastic slight. Instead of gracefully acknowledging the cogent reasoning of Resh Lakish’s position[xxxiii], Rabbi Yochanan remarked that a bandit knows about the tools of banditry. He might have presumed Resh Lakish was immune to this kind of trash talking. Who would have believed that he would take a reference to his former profession so hard? Indeed, while unkind, it did confirm his expertise in the particular area under discussion. He could just as well have reveled in the notoriety and strutted his stuff; and yet, he didn’t. His reaction to this deeply personal remark was emotionally charged.

Resh Lakish painfully demanded why was Rabbi Yochanan verbally abusing him[xxxiv]. It appears that Rabbi Yochanan misunderstood what he was saying and believed he was asking how had Rabbi Yochanan benefited him[xxxv]. It is suggested this was only one of the misunderstandings, which occurred that day.

Resh Lakish goes on to say, he was called Rabbi before and he is called Rabbi now. There is a disagreement between Rashi and his grandson, Rabbeinu Tam, as to what exactly Resh Lakish meant. The term ‘Rabbi’ may be defined as my master[xxxvi] or teacher.

Rashi[xxxvii] interprets the retort to mean he was a master when he was a gladiator or bandit leader before and master of Torah now. From this perspective, the response was a clever play on words.

Rabbeinu Tam[xxxviii], views Resh Lakish’s statement as harking back to an earlier time, before Resh Lakish became a gladiator and bandit leader. He asserts that Resh Lakish had studied Torah in his earlier life and even become a Rabbi. He then lost his way and became the disreputable person Rabbi Yochanan encountered at the Jordan River. Under Rabbi Yochanan’s tutelage, he became a Rabbi once again. From this point of view, the comeback takes on a more ominous and even taunting tone.

Perhaps, this is how Rabbi Yochanan understood it, as opposed to how (consistent with Rashi’s interpretation) Resh Lakish may have meant it. The difference in perspectives and the possible misunderstanding it entailed might help explain why Rabbi Yochanan reacted the way he did.

The term Rabbi was a title of no small distinction conferred on those who were masters and teachers of Jewish Law. Rabbi Yochanan seems to have been particularly fastidious about the use of the title[xxxix] and protective of the dignity of the position[xl]. Thus, the response by Resh Lakish may have been perceived as extremely demeaning to the elevated title and status of Rabbi that Rabbi Yochanan sought to establish as the norm.

The personal nature of the dispute deepened even further with Rabbi Yochanan’s reply that he benefitted Resh Lakish by bringing him under the wings of the Divine Presence. The insensitive riposte further struck at Resh Lakish’s vulnerability, as a penitent. It also demeaned Resh Lakish’s own role in transforming himself. Resh Lakish had made extraordinary efforts and demonstrated iron will in overcoming his sordid origin to become a wonderful and revered Sage. Moreover, there was no mistaking the intent of this remark. Rabbi Yochanan was reminding Resh Lakish, the penitent, of his past life. While the original comment he made may have been excusable as an ill-advised compliment gone awry, this one clearly and inexplicably alluded to Resh Lakish’s prior sinful conduct.

It is wrong to remind a penitent of his or her past life. This ethic is ancient in origin and it traces back to the Bible. The Mishna[xli] reports the Bible’s prohibition[xlii] against exploiting someone else applies not only to monetary matters, but also to verbal mistreatment[xliii]. This includes reminding a penitent of his or her earlier deeds[xliv]. It even extends to telling someone suffering from an illness or affliction that it is a result of his or her own folly or misdeeds[xlv].

Imagine, the hurt Resh Lakish must have felt. He was first referred to as a bandit, even if only in jest or as a back-handed compliment. He was then further abused by being reminded that his repentance was only due to Rabbi Yochanan’s intervention. The dialogue is evocative of how exceedingly easy it is to violate the rules against verbal abuse. It doesn’t have to be meant as an insult to inflict harm. Inadvertently uttering an insensitive or regrettable comment can also cause pain and suffering. It is well nigh impossible to anticipate the impact a remark might have on any particular individual. Some people are more vulnerable than others and might silently take umbrage at a statement perceived to be callous or judgmental.

Who doesn’t remember their school days and how cruel classmates might be to each other? How about the way a teacher could make a student suffer by insulting his or her intelligence, demeanor or devotion to learning? Never mind that the teacher’s angry riposte was often a predictable response to a student’s willful or inappropriate challenge[xlvi]. Other times, it might just be a sarcastic remark or caustic expression of disappointment. It was rarely subtle. Some students put on a brave face, but it was, nevertheless, a painful experience.

Then again, there were also inspirational teachers, who rarely raised their voices. Their approach was not to demean a student by focusing on the negative[xlvii]. Instead, they spoke about how much better we could be if we applied ourselves and used our G-d given skills to excel. The implied message about our foibles or misbehavior was clear. However, rather than feeling defeated, we were inspired. We were emboldened to try harder, because of their trust in us that we could do better. We wanted to earn their unqualified praise and the effect was ennobling.

Both Resh Lakish and Rabbi Yochanan were devastated by this unfortunate exchange of harsh words. As a result of the experience, Resh Lakish became deathly ill[xlviii]. After Resh Lakish passed away, Rabbi Yochanan also lost his zest for life. He bemoaned the loss of Resh Lakish and become deeply depressed. He too passed away, a broken man.

It is a truly unfortunate tale of two great and wonderful people needlessly causing each other incredible pain and suffering. It begs the question of what motivated them to act and react the way they did? Moreover, why did the Talmud record the incident and provide such detail? It is presumed the Talmud intended to teach us something; but just what was the lesson?

One of the other debates between Resh Lakish and Rabbi Yochanan, about human nature and the essence of how repentance functions, might provide a clue as to why Resh Lakish had such a profoundly negative reaction and Rabbi Yochanan missed the cues. The Talmud[xlix] records that Resh Lakish believed a single regret or pang of guilt in a person’s heart was more painful than a hundred lashes. While, Rabbi Yochanan appears to express a somewhat similar sentiment, he views the dimension of hurt suffered to be far less than that stated by Resh Lakish. He limits the pain inflicted to something worse than a few lashes.

The difference of opinion may appear to be just one of degree, but it is suggested it extends beyond that to the very nature of remorse. Resh Lakish cites a verse in Proverbs[l], which is directly on point. It describes how an intelligent person’s reaction to meaningful words of rebuke is more effective than physically hitting a fool a hundred times. Words can hurt and the pain can be virtually immeasurable. They also can leave an indelible imprint on the person[li]. Perhaps, this is a part of why Resh Lakish reacted so painfully to the reminder of his past misdeeds.

Rabbi Yochanan bases his view on a more abstruse verse in Hosea[lii], which facially seems to have only peripheral relevance to his position[liii]. The context though may provide a clue as to why Rabbi Yochanan reacted so harshly to Resh Lakish’s riposte. The verse describes a form of ostensible repentance[liv] that is not heartfelt. Rather, desperation and the feeling that it is merely better than nothing are the motivation; a sentiment hardly calculated to result in real and permanent change. Indeed, it would suggest a transitory condition. Thus, if circumstances changed and there were other prospects then the individual might just pack up and leave again.

Hearing Resh Lakish cavalierly brag about being a Rabbi one day[lv], gladiator and bandit leader the next and then Rabbi again might have triggered this very concern. After all, no one was immune to impure influences. Perhaps, he was worried that Resh Lakish’s bravado and trust in himself was misplaced. Anyone might be tempted to backslide and revert back to a prior unsavory habit and life-style; why was Resh Lakish any different, even after all the years of sincere repentance? Moreover, Rabbi Yochanan may also have been concerned others might be seduced by the charming story of Resh Lakish’s transformation into believing it was easy to be a villain one day and a saint the next. However, by the same token the opposite might occur. This more pessimistic appreciation of the nature of repentance may help explain Rabbi Yochanan’s reaction that day.

In striking contrast, Resh Lakish had an entirely more optimistic perspective on the nature of repentance. He focused on the transformative effect it could have on the penitent. While, he notes repentance, even if inspired by fear of punishment, converts a person’s intentional sins into unwitting errors, he then goes on to posit that there is yet a higher level of repentance. It requires the purer motivation of love of G-d, which amazingly results in intentional sins being transformed into merits. These are wonderful sentiments[lvi], but how does it all work in practice? How does this extraordinary transformation occur?

The Maharsha[lvii] describes repentance arising out of fear as the recognition by a person that he or she should not have sinned. In essence, had the person realized the consequences of sin, he or she would have not committed the sinful conduct. The sin is, therefore, retrospectively deemed to arise out of a moment of folly, not willful intent or rebelliousness[lviii]. However, repenting because of a love of G-d means doing more than just regretting and correcting the prior sinful behavior. It requires doing many more good deeds, which far outweigh the sin committed. The penitent actively seeks out opportunities to do good deeds. Thus, in effect, the original sinful conduct generates exceedingly more good deeds than might otherwise have naturally occurred. This is why it may be said that the sin, which caused this new meritorious behavior, is accounted as a merit. In a sense, it establishes a new pattern of good behavior that supplants the prior sinful one.

Rabbi Joseph D. Soloveitchik[lix] delves into the psychological and spiritual underpinnings of Resh Lakish’s thesis> He explains the notions of repentance motivated by fear versus love as the difference between blotting out sin and elevating it. The base level of repentance arising out of fear allows a person, figuratively, to be transported back to the time before the person embarked on the path of sinning. The intervening period of sin is wiped out as if it never occurred.

The higher lever of repentance out of love of G-d, though, is not a clean break with the past and obliteration of memories. It permits the person to identify with the past and still return to G-d, with a strength and power that he or she did not have previously. The intensity of sin, the drive that impels it and the sense of guilt and shame that overwhelms a person are strong forces that are redirected by the penitent towards doing good deeds. This is how the penitent, effectively, comes closer to G-d.

The power of sublimation is enormous. It channels energy into positive behavior, rather than fighting urges. This positive aspect of sublimation creates a zest and vigor for leading a virtuous life, with greater intensity, than might otherwise have been the case. Amazingly, the springboard for this awesome effect is the sinful conduct. It motivates channeling the previously antagonistic forces, divided between pushing forward to do good and the pull of wicked urges, into a cohered force now overwhelmingly directed in the positive direction of seeking out and doing good deeds.

Rabbi Soloveitchik also posits that with sin comes a sense of loneliness caused by G-d receding from the sinner. The spiritual vacuum created can be filled by, in effect, chasing after G-d’s presence, through doing good deeds. Thus, he asserts there is a compound effect that is veritably palpable of not only pushing forward, but also of being pulled in that positive direction.

These profound concepts help explain the source of the power that animated the transformation of Resh Lakish. All of his seemingly toxic character traits of aggression, physical strength, agility and mental acuity, previously harnessed in the pursuit of an evil profession, were miraculously transformed. They became the tools of a wise Sage, pursuing the noble cause of studying, teaching and performing the Torah.

Resh Lakish’s response to Rabbi Yochanan about being a Rabbi before and a Rabbi now, according to Rashi’s interpretation, takes on a whole other dimension of meaning, from this perspective. He indeed possessed of all the qualities of a great Rabbi before; but he used his innate character traits and skills to become a gladiator and bandit leader, instead. Then, triggered by his encounter with Rabbi Yochanan, he propelled himself forward, by sublimating those same traits and skills to serve a higher purpose. He succeeded magnificently in transforming himself into the extraordinary person he became. Resh Lakish’s motto that a person should always incite his or her good inclination to overcome the wicked one[lx] is consistent with this theme. In essence, it’s about positive motivation to do good and not just reining in baser instincts.

Rebuke doesn’t often work to effect positive change. Moreover, it can cause more serious problems of rebellion and depression. Indeed, no matter how well intentioned this kind of approach may be, sadly and regrettably, Resh Lakish was crushed by it[lxi]. Why should a person try if he or she no longer believes in his or her own self-worth? Preserving self-respect is critical, so that it can be a valuable ally in the internal struggle to be better. Remember, in their initial encounter at the Jordan River, Rabbi Yochanan did not berate Resh Lakish about his tawdry circumstances and deride his weaknesses; he appealed to his strengths. As Resh Lakish lived it, his transformative experience was about engaging his positive impulses; not just denying wicked urges. Resh Lakish’s positive attitude is inspiring. Perhaps, this is why Resh Lakish’s wife rejected her brother Rabbi Yochanan’s approach to tutor her children[lxii]? While the goal of refinement may be the same, nevertheless, each person’s path may be as different as humanity is diverse[lxiii].

Playing to a person’s strength, rather than decrying his or her weaknesses, can inspire a person to be better. Modern psychology[lxiv] shares the Talmud’s view about the effectiveness of stressing the positive and avoiding the ill effects of outright negative rebuke. I am reminded of a song[lxv] that I often heard in my own youth, in the fifties on the radio and record player, about accentuating the positive. The Talmud’s view might be summarized along the lines of the original song, with some adaptation, as follows:

Accentuate the positive;

Don’t rebuke the negative;

Be kind and encouraging;

No reminding of past sins.

Pursuing enlightenment and endeavoring to achieve genuine nobility is a life-long process. No one is perfect and, as G-d intended, it’s all about genuinely striving to reach our full potential, through study and performance of good deeds and all the other commandments. The goal is to achieve the life of balance so aptly described by Maimonides[lxvi].

Blessed be the journey from strength to strength and best wishes for a happy and healthy new year.

[i] Babylonian Talmud, Tractates Nedarim at page 39b and Pesachim, at page 54a, See also Genesis Rabbah 1:4.

[ii] Pirke D’Rabbi Eliezer 43:1.

[iii] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbos, at page 153a.

[iv] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Brachot, at page 34b.

[v] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Bava Metzia, at page 84a. See also Pirke D’Rabbi Eliezer 43:5.

[vi] An acronym of the title Rabbi and his first name.

[vii] See Rashi commentary on Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Bava Metzia, page 84a. He was also a security guard in an orchard as noted in Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Moed Katan 3:1 (page 12b of Artscroll edition).

[viii] See Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Gittin, at page 47a. It refers to the fact that he sold himself to the Ludi, which Jastro interprets to mean gladiators. In Latin the word ‘Ludi’ may be translated as games (i.e. gladiatorial games of combat in the Roman arena). See also the use of the term Ludin in the Jerusalem Talmud, Tractates Terumot 8:3 and Avodah Zara 2:3. Cf. Rashi.

[ix] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Ta’anit, at page 8a.

[x] See Babylonian Talmud, Tractates, Bava Metzia (84a) and Brachot (15b) describing Rav Yochanan’s extraordinary beauty.

[xi] Who can forget the story of Rabbi Akiva and his journey to greatness? It was so inspirational to us when we were young and ever since. An ignorant shepherd when he met Rachel, the love of his life, she agrees to marry him on the condition he devote himself to studying Torah (BT Kesubot 62b-63a and Nedarim 50a-b). Her father Kalba Savua was aghast at her life choice and disowned her. Rabbi Akiva honored his commitment and, at the age of forty (Avot D’Rabbi Natan 6:2), he first began to study Torah. He eventually became one of the greatest of our Sages. Kalba Savua ultimately relented and honored his son-in-law. It is a wonderful romantic tale and our teachers advised we didn’t have to waste the first forty years of our lives. Indeed, if we started right away, then we too could be on the path to greatness.

[xii] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sota, at page 17a.

[xiii] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Ta’anis, at page 8a.

[xiv] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Ketubot, at page 84b.

[xv] Interestingly, it was Rabbi Yochanan (Babylonian Talmud, Tracate Brachot, at page 31a), who taught, in the name of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, that it was forbidden to fill the mouth with levity in this world. The Ritva, in his commentary on this Talmudic text, explains this is because it allows the evil inclination to take over in the midst of the self-satisfying humor of the moment. The Talmud goes on to record that Resh Lakish took this lesson of his teacher, Rabbi Yochanan to heart and never filled his mouth with levity in this world. How ironic that this illustrious pair of Sages, so committed to avoiding the evils of humor, appear to have fallen prey to it.

[xvi] As to both Rabbi Yochanan and Resh Lakish, see the discussion of Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Bava Metzia, at page 84a above. As to Rabbi Yochanan, see, for example, Babylonian Talmud, Tractates Bechorot, at page 18a; Bava Batra, at page 107a; Megillah, at page 11a; and Pesachim, at page 62b. As to Resh Lakish, see, for example, Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Megillah, at page 28b and Bereishit Rabbah 80:1.

[xvii] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat, at page 63a.

[xviii] The martial like metaphors used in the Talmud (BT Brachot 27b and Kiddushin 30b) to describe the debating process did not mean those figuratively sparring about a subject did not listen with acuity to each other’s positions. Indeed, as the Talmud (BT Eruvin 13b) declares, Beit Hillel would study its own, as well as, Beit Shammai’s opinions and always presented Beit Shammai’s position first, before arguing their own point of view.

[xix] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Bava Metzia, at page 58b.

[xx] Resh Lakish’s character and attitude is evidenced by the actions he takes in response to a frightful incident reported in the Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Terumot 8:4 (page 84b of Artscroll edition). Rabbi Issi had been kidnapped. While some urged restraint to avoid others being captured and killed, Resh Lakish could not abide doing nothing. Instead he set out to save him, at the risk of his own life. He was prepared to fight and this was no mean threat given his superb martial skills. (See Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Moed Katan 3:7, at page 21a of Artscroll edition, describing how Resh Lakish was able to handle himself well in a fight and throw a decisive punch, when necessary and to good effect.) He managed to persuade the captors to free Rav Issi, without having to resort to the use of force.

[xxi] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin, at page 19a.

[xxii] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Bava Metzia, at page 107b, as interpreted by the Maharsha on this text.

[xxiii] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbos, at page 97a.

[xxiv] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sota, at page 3a.

[xxv] Akeidat Yitzchak 73:14.

[xxvi] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Megillah, at page 13b.

[xxvii] See Rabbi Yochanan’s appreciation of his physical prowess noted above, as well as, Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Gittin, at page 47a, where he sat on the ground and said his belly was his pillow.

[xxviii] The Hebrew term is Tumah.

[xxix] See Chida’s Petach Enayim commentary on this Talmudic text.

[xxx] See Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Gittin 3:1 (page 13b of the Artscroll edition), which notes that Resh Lakish does not typically disagree with Rabbi Yochanan on the basis of his own reasoning. Rather, he cites a Baraisa that contradicts Rabbi Yochanan and bases his opposing opinion on it. If it were just a difference of opinion, then he would typically yield and relinquish his own view in deference to Rabbi Yochanan. However, this does not always appear to be the case. For example, earlier in the Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Gittin (1:4 at page 7b of the Artscroll edition), a debate between the two is reported regarding whether a Shtar witnessed by non-Jews is enforceable to collect a loan. Resh Lakish argues in favor of this relaxed standard and asserts the Shtar is valid and enforceable, so as not to shut off the flow of loans to borrowers. Rabbi Yochanan disagrees and argues the Shtar is invalid. There are also the other disagreements between the two noted above.

[xxxi] Mishna, Tractate Kelim 14:5.

[xxxii] See Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Chulin, at page 25b, as well as, Rashi commentary thereon.

[xxxiii] Rabbi Chananel, on this Talmudic text, notes that Rabbi Yochanan bows to Resh Lakish’s expertise.

[xxxiv] See Chochmat Shlomo commentary on this Talmudic text.

[xxxv] The word used was “Ahanat”, which might refer to Hona’ah, meaning oppress or abuse, as in Ona’at Devarim below, or Hana’ah, meaning benefit.

[xxxvi] One of the definitions of the term Rabbi. See also Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Avodah Zara, at page 17a, where the term is also used to denote a master, this time of weaving.

[xxxvii] See his commentary on this Talmudic text in Bava Metzia, on page 84a.

[xxxviii] As noted in the Tosafot commentary on this Talmudic text in Bava Metzia, on page 84a.

[xxxix] See, for example, how he initially treated Shmuel, when he was elevated to be the successor to Rav, as the head of the Academy in Bavel (BT Chulin 95b) . When Rabbi Yochanan first corresponded with Shmuel, he did not address him as Rav, as he had done with Shmuel’s predecessor Abba Arichta, who was typically referred to as Rav in the Talmud. Shmuel had to work hard to convince Rabbi Yochanan of his bona fides and only then were his efforts rewarded by Rabbi Yochanan finally addressing him as Rav Shmuel.

[xl] See, for example, Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Moed Katan 3:7 (page 22a of Artscroll edition) and Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Bava Kamma, at pages 117a-b.

[xli] Mishna, Tractate Bava Metzia 4:10 and Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Bava Metzia, at page 58b.

[xlii] Leviticus 25:17.

[xliii] Among other things, this also includes intentionally embarrassing someone by using a nickname (BT Bava Metzia 58b and see also Tur, Choshen Mishpat 228).

[xliv] Preserving human dignity is so important that it even overrides a Rabbinic decree (BT BRachot 19b). Indeed, the Talmud (BT Bava Metzia 59a) excoriates any person who publically embarrasses another and describes all sorts of dire consequences for violating the prohibition. The Talmud (BT Bava Metzia 59b)[xliv] stresses how sensitive a person must be to avoid violating these strictures. Thus, even using the word ‘hang’, in an instruction to hang a fish is inappropriate, when the directive is issued to a member of a family that experienced the hanging of an ancestor for a crime. This is because it might be perceived as demeaning. See also See also Shnei Luchot HaBrit (Shelah), Torah Shebichtav, Sefer VaYikra, Torah Ohr, Kedoshim 57.

[xlv] Sifra, Behar, Chapter 42.

[xlvi] Students must be respected by the teacher and, of course, vice versa (Avot 4:12) and each can learn from the other (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Ta’anit, at page 7a). Patience and silence are attitudes to be cultivated. As Avot (2:5) notes, a person who is impatient or a stickler cannot teach.

[xlvii] The entire matter of rebuke is an extremely touchy subject in the Talmud (BT Yevamot 65b). While, the Bible (Leviticus 19:17) requires a person to reprove another, upon reflection as to its efficacy, the Talmud takes a different tack. Thus, it notes there is a duty to withhold reproof when it’s likely not to be heeded. The Sifra (89a-b, as well as, Kedoshim 4:9) and Talmud (BT Arakhin 16b) report, even in Talmudic times, no one was genuinely capable of properly rebuking another nor was anyone truly able to accept rebuke. It was just not effective and even the skill to word it properly was lacking.

[xlviii] The Talmud records Resh Lakish’s wife reached out to her brother, Rabbi Yochanan, to reconcile with Resh Lakish and pray for his recovery. However, despite her tearful and extremely personal and heartfelt entreaties, Rabbi Yochanan stubbornly refused to do so. The emotionally charged dialogue is discomfiting. She begs him and he not only demurs, he offers instead to replace Resh Lakish’s role in supporting her and bringing up her children. She refuses her brother’s insensitive offer.

[xlix] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Brachot, at page 7a.

[l] Proverbs 17:10.

[li] See Rav Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenberg’s HaKtav VeHaKabalah commentary on Exodus 6:6.

[lii] Hosea 2:9. The verse speaks of an errant wife, abandoned by her erstwhile lovers, who must perforce return to her first husband. The allusion is to the ills of idol worship, which is compared to flirting with others and the first husband is the one true G-d.

[liii] The literary device employed in the verse is the image of an errant spouse, desperately having to return home alone to an original spouse, after being abandoned by erstwhile interim companions, because of no place else to go. It is certainly a distressing situation, which accounts for Rabbi Yochanan’s use of the verse to support his contention. However, as Resh Lakish posits, it does not compare to the level of pain experienced by someone, who has genuinely repented a life of debauchery, being chided about his or her sordid origins.

[liv] See Malbim commentary on Hosea 2:9.

[lv] Per Rabbeinu Tam’s interpretation, as noted above.

[lvi] Resh Lakish also has an interesting perspective about the nature and purpose of sin. In a somewhat humorous remark, he notes that had our ancestors not sinned we all would never have been born into this world. This is because, as Psalms (8:2-6) notes, everyone would have been immortal, but for sin. What an interesting way of expressing the fact that no one is perfect. It’s not about looking back; it’s about moving forward with the proper positive motivation. In this regard, Resh Lakish also cautions against looking back and regretting earlier good actions (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Kiddushin, at page 40b). He also notes that even suffering has its place, because it cleanses a person’s transgressions (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Brachot, at page 5a).

[lvii] Rabbi Shmuel Eidels in his Maharsha commentary on Tractate Yoma, page 86b.

[lviii] As an aside, Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbos (at page 89b) notes that those below the age of twenty are excused from Divine punishment, because they are not fully responsible for their actions. Interestingly, scientific studies have confirmed that the portion of the brain said to contain a person’s judgment capacity is not fully developed until, on average, the mid-twenties.

[lix] See Soloveitchik On Repentance, The Thought and Oral Discourses of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, by Pinchas H. Peli, the Chapter entitled, Blotting Out Sin or Elevating Sin (including pages 248-265 thereof).

[lx] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Berachot, at page 5a.

[lxi] So was Rabbi Kahana (See Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Bava Kamma, at pages 117a-b).

[lxii] As Proverbs (22:6) counsels, educate a child according to his or her way and then even when the child grows up, he or she will not depart it. The Midrash Rabbah thereon notes it is also important to do so while the person is young and before his or her character is hardened. As the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Kiddushin (at page 30a) notes this certainly means before their mid-twenties and it’s best to begin between the ages of six and seven (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Bava Batra, at page 21a).

[lxiii] See Babylonian Talmud, Tractates Brachot, at page 58a and Eruvin, at page 13b. See also Bamidbar Rabbah 21:2 and 13:16.

[lxiv] See, for example, Accentuate the Positive, Eliminate the Negative, by Dona Mathews, PHD, dated 11/29/17, in Psychology Today.

[lxv] Johnny Mercer wrote the lyrics and the song was recorded, in 1944, by Bing Crosby and the Barry Sisters.

[lxvi] Maimonides, Shemonah Perakim, Chapter 4.

About the Author
Leonard Grunstein, a retired attorney and banker, founded and served as Chairman of Metropolitan National Bank and then Israel Discount Bank of NY. He also founded Project Ezrah and serves on the Board of Revel at Yeshiva University and the AIPAC National Council. He has published articles in the Banking Law Journal, Real Estate Finance Journal and other fine publications.
Related Topics
Related Posts