Hesitating before expressing our earned opinions (Shabbos 80)

A Galilean once arrived in Babylonia.  The Babylonians said to him, “Arise and teach us Kabbalah.”

He replied, “I will expound it to you just like Rabbi Nechemia expounded it to his colleagues.” Suddenly, a hornet emerged from the wall and stung him upon his forehead and he died.

They said about him: His undoing was his own doing.

הָהוּא בַּר גָּלִיל [דְּאִיקְּלַע לְבָבֶל], דַּאֲמַרוּ לֵיהּ: קוּם דְּרוֹשׁ לַנָא בְּ״מַעֲשֵׂה מֶרְכָּבָה״. אֲמַר לְהוּ: אֶדְרוֹשׁ לְכוּ כְּדִדְרַשׁ רַבִּי נְחֶמְיָה לְחַבְרֵיהּ. וּנְפַקָא עָרָעִיתָא מִן כּוּתְלָא וּמְחָתֵיהּ בְּאַנְדִּיפֵי וּמִית. וַאֲמַרוּ לֵיהּ: מִן דִּילֵיהּ דָּא לֵיהּ

The Galilee has always had an aura of mystique about it.  Even in recent centuries, the Kabbalah capital was Safed, and they themselves ascribe their esoteric expertise to the region’s association with the element of air.  So when the Babylonians encountered a Galilean, you can imagine their wide-eyed wonder.  They implored him to share some of the secrets of the Torah with them and he readily agreed.

The Ein Eliyahu explains the significance of the hornet that emerged from the wall.  We’re taught that anytime a person is feeling a little haughty, he should remember that even the tiniest insect preceded him in the order of creation.  In addition, the Midrash teaches that in the messianic era, the walls will cry out in protest against injustice.

The problem with expounding Kabbalah to the masses is that they don’t have the foundations to plumb the depths of the hidden part of the Torah.  Unless one has the basics, the esoteric explanation risks sounding absurd.

Here’s a weak analogy: Imagine you taught a kindergarten child their alphabet.  Once they’d mastered their ABCs, in the next lesson, you taught them that E = mc2.   Without any scientific background, that statement sounds ridiculous.  E is E, m is m, and c is c.  How can they equal one another?  And if that’s true of the distance between learning the alphabet and relativity, it is certainly true of the distance between reading Hebrew and comprehending the secrets of the Torah.  Already much of the Tanach and Talmud run the risk of error and misinterpretation without sufficient background knowledge and proper guidance, let alone Kabbalah.

Kabbalah has always been the domain of a select few individuals in each generation.  It was an act of arrogance for this Galilean to attempt to expound it publicly.  If the accepted norm was to guard the Torah’s secrets from public consumption and potential misinterpretation, what gave him the right to cross the line?  Apparently, the adulation and honour he received upon arrival in Babylonia went to his head, and he felt the need to fulfil their desires and meet their expectations.

At that moment, God demonstrated that, as great as we human beings believe we may be, as much as we believe that we have mastered the secrets of the universe, we are ultimately powerless.  The tiniest insect has the ability to overcome us.

The last few months have been a humbling experience for global humankind.  It’s the twenty-first century, and we felt on top of the world.  We had flown to the moon and back.  We had decoded the human genome.  Each of us carries the secrets of the universe in – the smartphones of – our back-pockets.

And then, all of a sudden, coronavirus struck.  We were overpowered by a microorganism that wreaked havoc, disrupting our lives and causing death and destruction around the world.  We have lost loved ones and the effects of the crisis will reverberate for decades.  We are living in tragic times.

We will all emerge from this terrible disaster a little humbler.  Instead of immediately preaching and demonstrating how much we know, all of us Galileans might start listening to one another and seeking to understand one other.  None of us has all the answers.  We should all have questions for each other, and be prepared to hear out the other person’s responses.

Rabbi Yisroel Salanter is reported to have taught: Not everything you think must you say.  Not everything you say must you write down.  And not everything you write must you publish.

We’re living in a time when many people publish their thoughts and make them immediately accessible to the entire world via social media.  With such instantaneous results, it becomes very difficult to retract a position one has taken.  Our thoughts run the risk of taking on a life of their own that we are then left to defend, defensible or otherwise.  It’s time to commit to more thought, more discussion, and more seeking feedback and reassessment of our positions and viewpoints.

We all need to acknowledge our personal areas of expertise, and conversely, those areas where we are not experts.  Most of us are not military intelligence and international relations specialists, nor are we epidemiologists or meteorologists.  We all believe in democracy, but in most fields, it takes years to earn the right to an opinion.  Until such time, we need humility and we need to listen to those with greater wisdom and knowledge.

Let us all strive to listen and learn a little better than we have in the past.  May we all do our part to make this world a humbler, kinder, and smarter place.

About the Author
Rabbi of Hampstead Garden Suburb Synagogue, London, UK.
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