Doing the right thing (Eruvin 19)

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“Those who pass through the valley of weeping turn it into a water spring; moreover, the early rain covers it with blessings.”

Yesterday’s Daf Yomi portion considered man’s original sin and the creation story. Today the text discusses the pain a righteous sinner experiences who has goodness within him but transgresses. Unlike the truly wicked, his punishment is to live with the knowledge that he has lapsed from what might have been positive intentions. And then just like that, someone changed the channel without warning, and we return in the text to the discussion of eruvs. We are back in the world of posts and boards and beam.  The two seemingly unrelated topics, however, come together through a common passageway.

Today’s Daf Yomi opens with the horrific image of someone on death row who has been muzzled with a hook or iron placed in his mouth. This is to prevent him from cursing his executioner when he is being prepared for death. The troubling message is to “keep silent.” We are told that silence is a form of praise to the omnipresent one through the acceptance of one’s guilt.  But what if this man is innocent and he is prevented from having his last say? What if Rabbi Akiva was silenced in such a way when he was martyred and unable to mutter his last and final word: one.

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi leads an analysis of the passage that illuminates the pain of a miserable afterlife: “Those who pass through the valley of weeping turn it into a water spring; moreover, the early rain covers it with blessings”  We are told that “Those who pass through” are people who have transgressed. “Valley” refers to Gehenna which is a hellish type of place, although not exactly hell, and  “Of weeping ” and “turn it into a water spring” indicates that one weeps and “make tears flow like a spring of the foundations,” meaning their pain is as deep as the depths of the earth. “Moreover, the early rain covers it with blessings,”  indicates that they accept their punishment and prostrate themselves and say: “You have condemned properly, and it is befitting that You have prepared Gehenna for the wicked and the Garden of Eden for the righteous.”

The voice of the Gemara challenges the previous passage because it is predicated on the belief that the wicked are the ones that have been condemned. The wicked are in fact wicked and they do not repent, not ‘even at the entrance to Gehenna.” We are told that the valley of weeping is reserved for the Jewish people, who have the capacity to repent and accept their punishment. These pure souls have good deeds within them, and we are told that even the sinners among them are “full of mitzvot like a pomegranate.”

There are three passageways to Gehenna: one in the wildness, one in the sea and one in Jerusalem. The entrance in the wildness is through a pit in the ground where the earth closes in and engulfs the righteous sinner. The entrance by sea is through a whale’s belly as told in the tale of Jonah where one will cry out for help without being heard. The path to Gehenna in Jerusalem is perhaps the most gruesome of all because it is through the gates of a burning furnace.

Earth, water, and fire comprise doorways to Gehenna. Today’s reading presents the image of a righteous sinner who sometimes fails miserably in his actions. There may be some perfect people out there who never transgress. And then there are the others who intend to do the right thing but often fall short of expectations. The gates to Gehenna for them are through the pain and hurt they carry on their shoulders as they come up short in their expectations for themselves. Maybe they had a bad day and said something to someone that caused great hurt or refused to do something for someone in need because they felt overwhelmed in life or never visit someone who is lonely. They know they should do better, and they intend to try the next day to be a better person, but the demands of their daily life get in the way. The passage to Gehenna for them is not through earth, or water or fire, but through disappointment that cuts deep into their souls. But through all that pain comes personal awareness and growth and the hope that maybe tomorrow they will do the right thing.

About the Author
Penny Cagan was born in New Jersey and has lived in New York City since 1980. She has published two books of poems called “City Poems “ and “And Today I am Happy." She is employed as a risk manager and continues to write poetry. More information on Penny can be found at
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