Even the Greatest Sages Need Story-time (Eruvin 67)

Rav Sheshes was blind. Everyone was going to greet the king and Rav Sheshes stood up and went along with them. A heretic found him there and said to him: The intact jugs go to the river, where do the broken jugs go? Why is a blind person going to see the king? Rav Sheshes said to him: Come see that I perceive more than you do.

As the first troop passed, and the noise grew louder, the heretic said to him: The king is coming. Rav Sheshes said to him: The king is not coming. As the second troop passed and the noise grew louder, the heretic said to him: Now the king is coming. Rav Sheshes said to him: The king is not coming. The third troop passed, and there was silence. Rav Sheshes said to him: Certainly now the king is coming.

The heretic said to him: How do you know this? Rav Sheshes said to him: Royalty on earth is like royalty in the heavens (Brachos 58a).

רַב חִסְדָּא וְרַב שֵׁשֶׁת כִּי פָּגְעִי בַּהֲדֵי הֲדָדֵי — רַב חִסְדָּא מִרַתְעָן שִׂיפְווֹתֵיהּ מִמַּתְנְיָיתָא דְּרַב שֵׁשֶׁת, וְרַב שֵׁשֶׁת מִרְתַע כּוּלֵּיהּ גּוּפֵיהּ מִפִּלְפּוּלֵיהּ דְּרַב חִסְדָּא.

When Rav Chisda and Rav Sheshes would meet each other, Rav Chisda’s lips would tremble from the teachings of Rav Sheshes.  Rav Sheshes’s entire body would shake from Rav Chisda’s sharpness.

The Nofes Tzufim explains that Rav Sheshes’s encyclopaedic knowledge was a consequence of his blindness.  Since he could not see well, he reviewed his entire learning every month, and so he was completely fluent in his Torah.  Rav Chisda’s lips would tremble in the presence of Rav Sheshes, knowing how rapidly his lips were moving to review his material constantly.

Rabbi Feuerman quotes the Chida (P”E BK 30a) who suggests that Rav Sheshes would occasionally switch learning mode to keep things fresh.  Constantly going over the same material runs the risk of becoming stale.  And so when he would meet up with Rav Chisda, his entire being was jolted out of its monotonous state and injected with a new and deeper way of examining the material.

We all have our natural and optimal methods of learning.  Some will approach Torah analytically.  Others will enjoy the breadth of Torah.  But no matter your ideal learning method, from time to time, you must shake things up a little.  Hence, the shaking of Rav Sheshes’s body.

For Rav Sheshes that meant a little deeper analysis.  For others, suggests the Chida, switching to Agadic mode may be helpful.  Traditionally, Torah learning combined halacha (law) and agada (narrative).  Think about the Torah, and indeed the entire Tanach.  It’s filled with stories!

But it’s not a storybook.  It’s a guide to life.  The narrative is there merely as a pedagogical technique to imbue values within us.  Likewise, the Midrash is replete with stories.  And even the Talmud weaves stories of our Sages into deep, highly technical, legal discussions.

Agada is an essential element of our tradition.  Unfortunately, for many centuries we minimized its significance, focusing instead on pure legal codes, stemming from the desire by ‘halachically-minded’ Jews to skip to the bottom line of how to conduct oneself.  Sadly, such legal tomes lack the richness of our agadic legacy.  There is no shame in taking time to read agada, particularly if one finds one’s dedication and concentration in deep, legal learning flagging.

Every individual has an area of relative Torah excellence.  But that doesn’t imply exclusivity.  From time to time, everyone needs a break from their area of primary focus.  When you feel your concentration drifting, try picking up a book of Midrash or stories of our Sages.  Often, those are the seforim (books) that lead to the greatest yiras shomayim (fear of Heaven).

May you learn to appreciate every aspect of our rich heritage!

About the Author
Rabbi Daniel Friedman is the senior rabbi of the 1200-family Hampstead Garden Suburb Synagogue, the United Synagogue's flagship congregation.
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