Going Against the Tide
Our Gemara on Amud Aleph enumerates various obligations upon a father toward his son, including teaching him to swim. Rav Elyashiv (Divrei Aggadah, Devarim 14:9) asks, “Why did the rabbis specifically choose swimming when there must be many other hazards and skills to learn? Why not Mathematics to avoid being cheated or Self-defense in case of bandits?” Rav Elyashiv suggests that the Gemara chose swimming because of a double entendre. He explains that a piece of wood that floats on water is not called swimming. Swimming connotes the ability to purposefully move in any direction. A father must teach a son how to sometimes “swim against the tide,” that is, not to succumb to peer pressure or mob psychology.
Similar to this idea, there is a comparable Gemara about Rabbi Akiva’s experience being lost at sea (Yevamos 121a):
תַּנְיָא, אָמַר רַבָּן גַּמְלִיאֵל: פַּעַם אַחַת הָיִיתִי מְהַלֵּךְ בִּסְפִינָה, וְרָאִיתִי סְפִינָה אַחַת שֶׁנִּשְׁבְּרָה. וְהָיִיתִי מִצְטַעֵר עַל תַּלְמִיד חָכָם שֶׁבָּהּ, וּמַנּוּ — רַבִּי עֲקִיבָא. וּכְשֶׁעָלִיתִי בַּיַּבָּשָׁה, בָּא וְיָשַׁב וְדָן לְפָנַי בַּהֲלָכָה. אָמַרְתִּי לוֹ: בְּנִי, מִי הֶעֶלְךָ? אָמַר לִי: דַּף שֶׁל סְפִינָה נִזְדַּמֵּן לִי, וְכׇל גַּל וְגַל שֶׁבָּא עָלַי — נִעְנַעְתִּי לוֹ רֹאשִׁי.
Rabban Gamliel said: Once I was traveling on a boat, and from a distance I saw a boat that shattered and sank. And I was grieved over the apparent death of the Torah scholar who was on board. And who was it? Rabbi Akiva. But when I disembarked onto dry land, he came, and sat, and deliberated before me about halakha. I said to him: My son, who brought you up from the water? He said to me: A plank from the boat came to me, and I bent my head before each and every wave that came toward me. The waves did not wash me off the board, and I reached the shore.
One can imagine being lost in a vast ocean, needing to tread water, not knowing for how long, not knowing when or if a rescue will come. Therefore, here too, this Gemara can also be understood metaphorically. Rabbi Akiva, facing an overwhelming situation, found a way to cope minute by minute. He let the waves pass over him and took it one wave at a time.
Sometimes you need to go with the flow, and sometimes you need to swim against the tide. Both of these are necessary survival skills.
Reading Between the Lines
Our Gemara on Amud Aleph discusses the number of letters in the Torah and reports that the letter vav in the word גחון (Vayikra 11:42) is the midpoint of the Torah in terms of letters, and דרש דרש is the midpoint in terms of words (Vayikra 10:16). Since the word גחון has an even number of letters, the Gemara naturally inquires whether the letter vav belongs to the first half or the second half. Unable to resolve the question, the Gemara considers simply bringing a Sefer Torah and counting the letters. To this, the Gemara responds that since we no longer have a precise tradition regarding which words in the script of the Torah are spelled with vowels and which are not, there is no way to know the precise midpoint.
Some have commented on the significance of these words as midpoints, with the former implying bending down or crawling and the latter implying careful searching. The message might be that as you reach the halfway mark in your study of Torah, don’t become arrogant. Instead, bend down (גחון) and keep searching (דרש דרש). Extending the metaphor, I will add that even in the process of study, one must be careful to read between the lines. One might think it’s obvious and written in black and white, yet because we do not have a precise tradition about the spelling of the word, we cannot be sure. We may not simply rely exclusively on what is technically written, but we must be aware that there are subtleties and nuances within the text that cannot be fully understood without the proper tradition.
Our Gemara on Amud Aleph recounts the famous story of Dama Ben Nesina, serving as an object lesson for the extent to which one should go to honor one’s parents. The rabbis visited Dama to purchase precious gems for the Cohen Gadol’s breastplate. Unfortunately, the key to the chest containing the gems was safely tucked under his sleeping father’s head. Despite being offered an exorbitant sum, Dama refused to wake his father, apparently believing that his father did not want to be disturbed, no matter the cost. As a reward, the following year, a rare red heifer was born in his flock, and the rabbis returned to purchase this Parah Adumah. Dama recouped his losses by selling this rare calf.
Ben Yehoyada quotes his son, who makes an interesting observation about the significance of the Red Heifer in the story. The mitzvah of honoring parents does not require any esoteric explanation for its purpose. On the other hand, the mitzvah of Parah Adumah is a mystery cloaked within mystery, especially considering that it renders the impure pure but then confers tumah (impurity) on those who perform the ritual. The message to the sages (and possibly even Dama) is that we honor every mitzvah the same, whether we see a logical reason for it or not.
I also wonder if the Parah Adumah, which must never have been used to perform any labor (Bamidbar 19:2), might hint at Dama’s guileless sincerity. Perhaps he did not even consider that his father might have wanted to be woken up. Like the Parah Adumah, Dama was unburdened with complexities and followed his morals with simple faith. Or perhaps the lesson was that Dama honored his father not out of the apparent logic of the mitzvah but for the mitzvah itself, as evidenced by him not making any logical calculations and choosing not to wake his father. In essence, he performed the mitzvah of honoring parents in the same vein as the sages would perform the Parah Adumah, and this was his reward.
I have a side question, and if any of the readers have a good answer, please email me. The sages needed new gems for the breastplate. Exactly what happened to the original gems? Did they get lost? That seems unlikely. Did they burn out like LED bulbs? That’s absurd. Could they crack with age? Also, not likely for high-quality gems. So what was the reason they needed replacing? It is hard to understand why or under what circumstances purchasing new stones became necessary. One possibility that occurs to me is that perhaps they heard of or saw that Dama had a higher quality gem of the same kind in the breastplate. The rabbis did not want to spare any expense and sought to purchase an upgrade.
Things Are Not What They “Seam”
Our Gemara on Amud Aleph tells us an interesting story about Rav Huna, who wanted to test his son and see how patient and respectful he could be, even when provoked. Rav Huna tore silk garments in front of his son to see if he would get angry. The Gemara asks a number of questions regarding the propriety of this challenge, but we will focus on one particular question and answer.
The Gemara asks how it is permitted to tear a garment. Is this not a violation of Bal Tashchis, destroying and wasting functional objects? The Gemara answers that he tore it on the seams. Then the Gemara asks, does this not defeat the whole purpose of the test? If Rav Huna tore it on the seams, why would it be a provocation, since it could be easily repaired? The Gemara answers that he already was tense about some other matter, so he would not notice that the tear was merely on the seams.
This highlights a key lesson in relationships and anger management. Often, if one takes an extra moment to check assumptions and clarify, an angry outburst can be avoided. This is true for several reasons. The obvious one is that perhaps there is a misunderstanding, and the entire offense is not what it seems. Secondly, even if the matter is as offensive as it seems, by promising and asking the person for clarification, you give the other person a way to back down and save face. They can at least pretend that they didn’t mean to say something that offensive and try to reframe what they meant. Finally, the very act of pausing and inquiring engages the neo-cortex and reduces reactivity because there is now a more intellectual empathic operation instead of raw animal rage. (See psychology of the Daf Kiddushin 24 for more about brain functioning, instinctive reaction, and intellectual processing.)
Generally, a good formula to follow when something happens that angers you is to follow these steps:
- Try to describe to the person what you saw, heard, experienced, etc., in the most neutral terms. So, for example, do not say, “you came late,” instead say, “you came at 10:25 am.” This way, you describe what occurred without yet attacking it or criticizing it.
- In the most respectful and calm way, explain how you perceived it or what it seemed to you to be saying.
- Ask if there is some misperception or anything else you should know in case you are misjudging.
For extra credit, before step 2, you can offer a suggested rationale or limud zechus about what the person meant to say or do in a more benign manner.
One of my favorite Gemaras that illustrates this is from Nedarim (66b). There was this simple but devout woman who had difficulty comprehending the difference between her husband’s dialect and hers, leading to numerous frustrating encounters. Perhaps she was what we would call today, “On the spectrum,” in that she might have been too literal. As the story goes, one time her husband asked for botzina (melon), and she gave him lamps, which is what botzina meant in her Palestinian dialect of Aramaic. Her husband became furious and declared that she should smash the lamps on the bava (doorpost). As fate would have it, a prominent sage was passing through town who was named Bava the son of Buta. She promptly smashed the lamps on his head.
You can imagine the scene. A great sage, publicly humiliated with oil and ash from the lamp dripping down his head and clothes in front of his entourage of students and followers. Bava ben Buta calmly inquires, “What’s this about?” The woman proceeds to tell him her story, and Bava ben Buta, realized she was a simple, devout woman merely trying to follow her husband’s bidding. He then blesses her and sends her on her way. The Talmud tells us that as a result of this blessing she merited to have two sons who became great sages and tzaddikim. Bava ben Buta had every right to be furious, but instead he was curious.