“Do not rely on your understanding alone.”
The discussion of bathhouses and carrying of towels in today’s Daf Yomi reminded me of all my wonderful spa experiences in places like Sonoma, California where I had a wine-infused massage, Taos, New Mexico where I had a body scrub with sage, and Thailand where I was treated by ayurvedic doctors from India who dribbled hot oil on my forehead. There is a spa in downtown New York that features a collection of hot mineral pools and after I bathed in each one and had a hot stone massage, I barely remembered my name, let alone how I could find my way home.
In today’s reading we are told about a region with towns called Phrygia and Deyomse which were known for their wine and bathhouses. Perhaps they served wine at the bathhouse so that people could soak in the hot waters and drink at the same time, like the spa I visited in Sonoma. We are told that “the wine of Phrygia [Perugaita] and the water of the Deyomset deprived Israel of the ten lost tribes.” This is because so many observant people were taken in by the pleasures of this town and as result occupied their spare time with bathing and drinking wine and forgot their Torah learning. This reading reminded me of the perfect day I once had when I spent a weekend at that spa in Sonoma and relaxed after a massage in the Northern California sunshine with a cool breeze in the air and a glass of wine. It is something about the freshness of Northern California sunshine that always makes the wine taste better and each day seem nearly perfect.
As I was attracted to Northern California, Rabbi Elazar ben Arakh in today’s Daf Yomi was drawn to Deyomset. He was so taken by the wine and bathhouses in the town that we are told he forgot his Torah learning. He must have given into that blissful feeling that comes after a hot bath and a good glass of wine. We are told that after he returned home, he attempted to read from the Torah and instead of reading “This month shall be for you,” he read “Have their hearts become deaf.” This misreading caused quite a scandal and his fellow sages prayed to God to restore the young Rabbi’s knowledge of Torah.
Rabbi Nehorai, who may have been Rabbi Neḥemya, who may have been Rabbi Elazar ben Arakh using a pseudo name, relates the story of the Rabbi (perhaps himself?) who was so taken with the pleasures of the bathhouse that he forgot his Torah learning. And he tells the story to remind his students of the importance of studying in a community and relying on each other, for it was the prayers of the group of sages who rescued Rabbi Elazar from being subsumed from so many earthly pleasures. We are told that one should not rely on his understanding alone, because it will always be limited to his perspective, and learning expands through sharing of knowledge.
But what about the misstated words that Rabbi Elazar said: “Have their hearts become deaf.” Surely, there is meaning in those words as well. They are far more interesting than what he intended to say. Sometimes, when words inadvertently slip out they have meaning. We are living in such difficult times when there are so many people suffering from illness, fear and isolation. There are presidents who sit behind in their official desks who deny we are facing the crisis of a lifetime. I cannot help but ask the question: Have their hearts become deaf?