Our Gemara on Amud Aleph makes an assertion that a person is much more likely to tell the truth when he is on his deathbed. When faced with imminent death, a person realizes what is truly important. A close colleague who was fighting terminal cancer told me that he was no longer afraid of people’s opinions or bothered by small things. How true that was, and yet such focus and awareness of truth does not come often without such “gifts.”
The Gemara in Shabbos (153a) expands on a Mishna in Avos (2:10):
תְּנַן הָתָם, רַבִּי אֱלִיעֶזֶר אוֹמֵר: שׁוּב יוֹם אֶחָד לִפְנֵי מִיתָתֶךָ. שָׁאֲלוּ תַּלְמִידָיו אֶת רַבִּי אֱלִיעֶזֶר: וְכׇי אָדָם יוֹדֵעַ אֵיזֶהוּ יוֹם יָמוּת? אָמַר לָהֶן: וְכׇל שֶׁכֵּן, יָשׁוּב הַיּוֹם, שֶׁמָּא יָמוּת לְמָחָר, וְנִמְצָא כׇּל יָמָיו בִּתְשׁוּבָה.
We learned there in a mishna that Rabbi Eliezer says: Repent one day before your death. Rabbi Eliezer’s students asked him: But does a person know the day on which he will die? He said to them: All the more so this is a good piece of advice, and one should repent today lest he die tomorrow; and by following this advice one will spend his entire life in a state of repentance.
There is still a textual anomaly that the Gemara does not address fully. Why use the language of, “Repent one day before you die”? Rabbi Eliezer’s point is well taken that you don’t know which day you will die and that is why what you must repent every day, but why did the teaching utilize this wording? Why not just say “Always repent”, or even, “Repent every day”? Rav Tzaddok (Peri Tzaddik Toldos 9:1) answers that one should repent literally “One day before death”, meaning to say, that the repentance shouldn’t be motivated merely by the fear of facing God and his judgment. Rather, it should be a repentance that comes from a wish to do what is right intrinsically. So that one is repenting on the day before one dies, and in a certain sense, an ordinary day, and not a deathbed day.
We like to forget that we will die. Psychologically, we probably need to forget that we will die so as not to be overcome with despair. However, as I get older and feel mortality and resent it, I also know it is a great gift. The more scarce a resource becomes, the more it is valued. So too with time. If we had thousands of years to live, we would be tempted to waste a lot of time. The Gemara in Sotah (46b) tells of a legendary city whose inhabitants were immortal. The only time people would die was when an elder, who became sick and tired of life, would exit past the city walls to allow the Angel of Death to get him. Living forever takes away a sense of living.
The first page of the Talmud, Berachos 2a, discusses how even though one can recite the evening Shema all night long, the rabbis imposed a restriction that it must be recited by midnight. The reason for this is, “In order to distance a person from transgression, as if one believes that he has until dawn to perform the mitzvah, he might be negligent and postpone it until the opportunity to perform the mitzvah has passed.” Isn’t that odd? If we are worried that the person will forget Shema, we give him less time? Shouldn’t we give him MORE time? Rather, it must be a given in human nature; the more time you give a person, the more he procrastinates and delays.
I don’t think it is an accident that this idea appears on the first page of the Talmud. The message is, if not now, when?
Nothing and Everything
Our Gemara on Amud Aleph uses an interesting idiom to describe Rav Yehuda’s uncertainty about a halakha: “אִין וְלָא וְרַפְיָא בִּידֵיהּ” “Yes and no, and the matter was weak in his hands.”
The idiom indicates a sense of flux, yes, no, back and forth. The choice of the Aramaic word “אין” “Iyn,” which means “Yes,” instead of the Aramaic word “Hen,” which also means “yes,” may just be a matter of dialect. However, Arvei Nachal (Nitzavim 2) sees it as a deliberately ambiguous word, which actually itself means both yes and no. In Aramaic, “Ayin” (naught) is spelled the exact same way. In that choice of word, an idea about the essence of knowing is being conveyed. To realize something new, is to let go of preconceptions and anchors, and to enter into confusion (even nothingness and void) until the newer conception falls into place.
The verses in Yechezkel about the Maase Merkava (1:14 and 22) describe a form of angels who “go to and fro” and have “the firmament above them,” alluding to where the upper limits of the physical world meet up with the lower limits of the spiritual world. Specifically, the righteous person’s soul can momentarily have enlightenment, piercing a certain veil of reality, but then hitting the limit and returning back to a lower state.
The structure of the morning prayer is deliberate. We first meditate on the heavenly bodies, including a recitation of the Kedusha performed by the angels of the Merkava to induce this fleeting awareness of a vast spiritiual Pleroma. This prepares us to properly accept the Yoke of Heaven in Shema with due dense of majesty and awe. This, in turn, sets the stage for a spiritual connection during shemoneh esre that Shulkan Arukh (OC 98:1) describes as possible to bring one to a “divestment of physicality” and “close to prophecy.”
He says the understanding of what is real leads to a realization of the nothingness of the material world, and at that moment, everything dissolves in the face of the spiritual reality, which is not physical. Seeing into the nothingness (Ayin) brings a glimpse of the true everything (Iyn), which cannot be maintained in consciousness for but a moment. Yes and no, no and yes, back and forth.
Self-Deception and the Slippery Slope
Our Gemara on Amud Aleph tells us an interesting story about King Yannai, a Hasmonean Jewish king:
An incident occurred with King Yannai, who went to the region of Koḥalit in the desert and conquered sixty cities there. And upon his return, he rejoiced with great happiness over his victory. He subsequently summoned all the Sages of the Jewish people and said to them: Our ancestors, in their poverty, would eat salty foods when they were busy with the building of the Temple; we too shall eat salty foods in memory of our ancestors. And they brought salty food on tables of gold and ate.
At the goading of a certain scoffer who knew that this would provoke enmity, King Yannai also decided to wear the Tzitz, the Golden headband of the high priest. Now there was a certain elder present called Yehuda ben Gedidya, and Yehuda ben Gedidya said to King Yannai: King Yannai, the crown of the monarchy suffices for you, i.e., you should be satisfied that you are king. Leave the crown of the priesthood for the descendants of Aaron. The Gemara explains this last comment: As they would say that Yannai’s mother was taken captive in Modi’in, and she was therefore disqualified from marrying into the priesthood, which meant that Yannai was a ḥalal.
King Yannai, hesitant to annihilate the sages, since then, who would be left to preserve the Torah? The scoffer also succeeded in convincing King Yannai about this as well, by arguing that the written Torah was available for anyone to read. What about the Oral Torah, wonders Yannai momentarily? The Gemara says, “נִזְרְקָה בּוֹ מִינוּת” “Thoughts of Heresy were thrown into him,” meaning that he doubted the existence of the Oral Torah, allowing himself to execute the sages without qualms.
Yannai seems to start out with good intentions, showing gratitude and commemorating the poverty of his ancestors. How did everything end up so badly? And, how did he go so quickly from humility, to the arrogance of wearing the Tzitz, to heresy? We must conclude that his original modesty was false. He deluded himself into thinking he was humble when his sincerity was only one centimeter deep. And when slighted, he quickly rationalized murder, abrogated rabbinic authority and the oral tradition.
The idiom “נִזְרְקָה בּוֹ מִינוּת” “Thoughts of Heresy were thrown into him” is evocative and linguistically pleasing. It seems to be saying that heretical thoughts are not core to the human mind; rather, it is an external demon of sorts that is thrown into him, and possesses him. Siach Sarfei Kodesh (2:232) also reacts to this idiom; however, he says that it refers to the slippery slope of heresy. First, it is a small drop that enters, and it is easy to let it slide, but it can eventually erupt into full-blown blasphemy. His interpretation of this phrase fits well into the way we described King Yannai’s spiritual downfall. At first, some insincerity and arrogance, but eventually full-blown self-worship.
Our Gemara on Amud Aleph discusses the status of an Egyptian, who may not intermarry with a Jew, even if converted, until the third generation post-conversion. As the verses (Devarim 23:8) state:
לֹֽא־תְתַעֵ֣ב אֲדֹמִ֔י כִּ֥י אָחִ֖יךָ ה֑וּא לֹא־תְתַעֵ֣ב מִצְרִ֔י כִּי־גֵ֖ר הָיִ֥יתָ בְאַרְצֽוֹ׃
You shall not abhor an Edomite, for such is your kin. You shall not abhor an Egyptian, for you were a stranger in that land.
בָּנִ֛ים אֲשֶׁר־יִוָּלְד֥וּ לָהֶ֖ם דּ֣וֹר שְׁלִישִׁ֑י יָבֹ֥א לָהֶ֖ם בִּקְהַ֥ל ה׳
The third generation shall be permitted to enter the congregation of Hashem.
The Riva and Rosh (Bereishis 25:1) ask how Avraham could have married Hagar, as she was an Egyptian. They answer that since Avraham himself had the status of a convert, we hold that while converts are Jewish, they are not fully “of the congregation” (Kiddushin 69). Therefore, a convert is not under the restriction against allowing an Egyptian to enter the “congregation of Hashem.”
I would like to offer a different answer. The Biblical ban against marrying Egyptians might have been a reaction to their cruelty in enslaving the Jews. Therefore, even though we have a tradition that Avraham kept the entire Torah, this aspect of the Torah was not any more relevant than a ban on eating from the Gid Hanashe, since Yaakov was yet to be born and did not yet injure his leg wrestling with the angel (see Bereishis 32:33).
But my answer is too good. Why didn’t it occur to the Rosh or the Riva? I believe it depends on how you read the verses above. Is the Torah saying that Egyptians are to be distanced because of their cruelty, but after all, since they still hosted us and we dwelled in their land, we will allow them to join the Tribe after three generations? Or, perhaps, Egyptians were always to be despised just like the other seven nations, even prior to the slavery. However, out of consideration that we lived in their land and they hosted us, we allow entry for the third generation? Apparently, Rosh and Riva held the second way, and my answer would rely on the first interpretation. Or, perhaps we might say that Rosh and Riva agree with my interpretation of the reason for rejecting Egyptians, but they held that indeed Avraham followed these prohibitions in advance. If we go with that logic, Avraham also didn’t eat Gid Hanashe. How does that make sense? It is possible to argue that in every Mitzvah, there is a teleological and/or logical human reason for a mitzvah, but also a deeper spiritual reason. The historical event is merely a manifested reality at a certain point in time. As the Zohar in the beginning of Toldos states, Hashem looked at the Torah and created the world. The Torah shapes reality and history, and not the reverse.
There is strong proof for this position, as we have a Midrashic tradition (see Rashi Bereishis 19:3) that Avraham ate Matzah on Pesach. We eat Matzah on Pesach either to commemorate that we left Egypt suddenly, and the dough did not have time to rise, or to remember the simple rations we ate as slaves (see Shemos 12:39 and Rashi Devarim 16:2-3). If so, why would Avraham eat Matzah when slavery, nor the exodus, even happened? We must say that the innermost reason for Matzah is deeper than any physical and historical manifestation. The historical occurrences that surround Matzah, Gid Hanashe, and the Egyptian marriage ban are only physical manifestations that represent an “is-ness”, so to speak, the Platonic Universal form of Matzah, and its spiritual essence, and the same with God Hanashe or the Egyptian marriage ban. Ironically, the Exodus commemorates Matzah, and Yaakov’s injury commemorates Gid Hanashe, instead of the opposite.
Plato, and most Rishonim, hold that there are separate, immortal non-physical ideas, that are imposed on physical matter. This is like the software that dictates reality’s form, which is the hardware. Consider that there is a concept of a perfect triangle or square, which in reality can never exist, as it will never be perfectly proportionate, yet it guides your thinking when you make a triangle or square. (For Rishonim who discuss Chomer and Tzurah, Form and Substance, see Ramban Bereishis 1:1, Seforno ibid 1:2, Moreh I:35, and Kuzari 1:83).
Avraham’s level of understanding of the Torah made it incumbent upon him to observe the mitzvos in these universal and timeless dimensions.
If we accept this idea, it allows us to understand a famous Ramban regarding the rainbow, When he encountered the clearly demonstrable scientific fact, that a rainbow comes from the light spectrum and can be created at will via refracting light through a glass of water, he does not deny it. However, the simple reading of the Biblical text indicates that God created the rainbow only after the Flood, and as a sign and reminder of His covenant. The verse says, “My rainbow I therefore have placed”, which sounds like it’s being made now for the occasion. Ramban reinterprets the verses to mean, “The pre-existing phenomenon of the rainbow shall NOW serve (and be placed) as a reminder of the covenant.” Or to accurately use the past tense of the verse, “The pre-existing phenomenon of the rainbow, which I have already placed in the sky, as a result of creation, shall NOW serve as a reminder of the covenant.”
We can be satisfied with the Ramban’s answer and interpretation of the verse. However, we can deepen our appreciation for what he is saying by utilizing the concept we discussed. That is, the historical manifestation of the rainbow after the flood is only the tip of the iceberg. There is a universal rainbow which represents gods capacity to make a covenant and forgive, and no longer bring a flood which existed even before creation, just as a Torah existed before creation. The fact of the rainbow may or may not have happened at a particular time is not particularly significant in the universal realm of God’s ideas and timeless existence.