“Is the material you study like the lyrics of a song that you do not understand?”
In the middle of a debate on courtyards Abaye asks Rav Yosef in today’s Daf Yomi reading if the material he is studying is so difficult that it is like the lyrics of a song that he does not understand. The comment is made when Abaye inquires if the source of a ruling by another Rabbi is based on guidance passed down to him through the oral traditional or his own logic. Rav challenges Abaye by stating that it makes no “practical difference.” Abaye issues a retort which in essence says “what, are you crazy?”
There are days I think I have gone totally mad when I try to make sense of the daily portion of the Daf Yomi. It can indeed be like popular song lyrics where the words are so garbled that you have no idea what they are actually saying. You think you know the lyrics, but when you look them up online you discover that for 20 years you have been repeating the incorrect words in your head. You thought the lyrics were about “hope” but instead they were about smoking “dope.” The Gemara provides us with good advice today when it tells us to “investigate all aspects of the statements of the Sages, regardless of the practical ramifications.” This is especially prescient as we deal with the pandemic and our leaders are politicizing the response rather than following the science.
The analysis of every imaginable aspect of an eruv continues on and I struggle each day through the reading, knowing that most probably I am getting the lyrics of the song wrong. Today’s analysis considers balconies, which I know quite well, because during the worse days of the pandemic lock-up in New York, my balcony was my primary view of the world. Back in March when every piece of mail and every amazon package appeared to be a threat through contamination with the virus, my balcony became my “set aside” place where I would place items for 24 hours in order to decontaminate them with the city air. This coincided with the set aside rules that were discussed in the Daf Yomi readings at the time.
When the demonstrations happened in New York City in May and June and bicyclists rampaged through the streets of Chelsea setting items on fire in their wake, I was able to watch everything from my balcony. I am supportive of the cause, but not of the hooligans who appeared to latch on to it in order to create a sense of chaos in a city that was already suffering from the pandemic and a prolonged shut-down. I joined a peaceful demonstration in Washington Square Park but did not stay very long, as I was more afraid of infection from the virus than any threat of violence erupting.
Abaye says in today’s Daf Yomi that for homes that are excluded from a joined eruv because of their location, he would “create windows for them between the courtyards of their houses and the rest of the city.” He retracts this statement two times in a portion of the text that demonstrates how even the Rabbis struggled with understanding the lyrics of the mysterious Talmudic song. But his original suggestion to construct a window offers, whether real or symbolic, a way for the residents of a city to establish a view into their communal lives.
My world was confined during the months of March through June to the rear windows of all the people who were working to their apartments. We were connected through our common purpose to struggle through this time and our rear windows were our eruv. I know we have been asked to simply stay home while other generations have been asked to sacrifice so much more during difficult times. But staying home for someone who lives alone, felt like a form of confinement that has left deep scars within me.
I wonder if my generation (dare I say the slightly older among us) will ever recover from this experience and if our view of the world will be changed forever. Will we ever feel safe again to move about as we once had.? Will we carry within us wounds from how close we came to death during this period? If we do not know people who died from the disease, we can imagine what it would be like if we ourselves succumbed. It is as though we have all been touched in one way or another by a dark angel.