Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Wisdom from the Past

Art: Alex Levin
In an effort to assert the authority of the Sanhedrin (the high court), Rabban Gamliel, the first Nassi (President; Head of the Sanhedrin) after the destruction of the second Temple, would ensure in the strictest fashion, that his rulings would be followed by all. To this end, he harshly sanctioned and reproached Rabbi Yehoshua publicly on numerous occasions for his opinions which were contrary to the ones of the Nassi.

The following Talmudic passage [Brachot pp27b-28a] recounts the steps taken by the leading rabbis of that time to stop Rabban Gamliel.

"Let us take steps to deprive Rabban Gamliel of his dignity (of being the Nassi). But who shall be his successor? Shall we appoint Rabbi Yehoshua? He is personally involved in this incident (and it would cause Rabban Gamliel too much aggravation - Rashi). Shall we appoint Rabbi Akiva? He has no ancestral merits (and may be disposed to Heavenly punishment through Rabban Gamliel's prayers - Rashi). Let us therefore choose Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah for he is wise, wealthy and the tenth generation from Ezra.

So they came to Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah and said to him: "Is the master willing to become the head of the Academy?" Rabbi Elazar replied "I will go and consult with members of my household." He went and consulted with his wife. She replied "Perhaps you will also be removed from this position."

He responded: "There is a maxim. Use your precious bowl while you have it, even if it be broken the next day." (Meaning, I will be the Nassi for as long as it will last)

"But", she said, "you do not have any white hair (and it is fit for the Nassi to be an elder - Rashi)

At that time he was only 18 years old. Thereupon, miraculously eighteen of his locks turned white. And this is what Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah meant when he said: "Behold! I am as a man of seventy years of age" - but not aged seventy.

The Iyun Yaakov suggests that the rabbis specifically elected Rabbi Elazar for his wisdom despite his young age, to emphasize that knowledge is more important than experience. However, this commentary leaves many questions unanswered.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe commented as follows:
Many points in this story need to be clarified:

1. The quality of old age lies in the years of life experienced by an elder. As written in Navi [Iyov 32:7] "The abundance of years will testify on wisdom". One does not become wise merely by appearing old. So how can Rabbi Elazar's appearance command the respect fit for elders?

2. The Talmud [Brachot 28a] mentions the importance of sincerity, observing that specifically in Rabban Gamliel's time, all scholars had to be as pious inwardly as they appeared to be outwardly. It seems that Rabbi Elazar did not adhere to this principle as he was a young man portraying himself to be a 70 year old man.

It is certain that Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah was an honest and sincere person. His elderly appearance was not a disguise. He really had all the qualities of a 70 year old man. However, until he received a white beard, this fact was hidden from everybody. After the miraculous emergence of his white hair, it became obvious to all that he was as old inwardly as he was outwardly. His new appearance testified to his true spiritual age. (Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn said that the true age of a person is not necessarily the one inscribed on his passport, but rather his inner age, the one that reflects his qualities and knowledge)

But how can a young man have the qualities acquired through old age? He does not have the "abundance of years" required to earn wisdom.

The Arizal explains [Sidur HaArizal] that Rabbi Elazar Ben Azaryah was a reincarnation of the prophet Shmuel. Rabbi Elazar inherited his strength and wisdom. Shmuel died at the age of 52. According to the Talmud, Rabbi Elazar was 18 years old at the time he became the Nassi. Adding the years of Shmuel's life to his own, Rabbi Elazar was effectively 70 years old. Similarly we find that the Rabbis mentioned the fact that he was the tenth generation from Ezra. The Mishnah states [Eduyot 9:2] that a son inherits his father's wisdom. Therefore, Rabbi Elazar inherited the wisdom of Ezra, who was himself a Nassi.

This point can be better understood through a story told about Rabbi Shmuel, fourth Rebbe of Lubavitch - "the Maharash". Once, his elder brother Rabbi Yisrael Noach, sarcastically asked the Maharash how a young man such as him could be so knowledgeable in Talmud. The Maharash answered: "You might be older than me with your own years, however I am older than you, counting my father's years." Since the Maharash was born after Rabbi Yisroel Noach, at the time of his birth, his father the Tzemach Tzedek was older and wiser. Therefore he inherited a greater amount of wisdom and knowledge from his father, albeit vast knowledge can only be acquired with time.

An encouraging message can be taken from this story. Throughout life, we are faced with challenges and tasks that seem to be much too difficult for us to endure. We might wonder if we are up to the challenge. This story demonstrates that with the power of our ancestors and earlier gilgulim (reincarnations) we have all we need to succeed. [see Shaar Hagilgulim, preface 3 and 4]

This is particularly relevant with regards to the imminent redemption. considering the low spiritual level in which we find ourselves, in the global decadence of this era in which "the darkness shall cover the earth", we might skeptically ask ourselves how we can bring Moshiach, considering the fact that the great generations that preceded us did not succeed.

Once again, we learn from the tale of Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah that we are not alone in this struggle. We are only completing a task that was started by our illustrious ancestors. The merit of their good deeds is eternal [see Tanya ch 25] in contrast with evil which is not everlasting (when a person repents for his sins, his transgressions are transformed into meritorious deeds). The light they brought to this world through their Torah and mitzvot has accumulated during all these years and is standing by our side, making it possible to finish the work they started, and finally bring Moshiach.

Based on Likutei Sichos (Lubavitcher Rebbe) vol.1 p246 and vol.7 p.123
Written by the Students of Seminary Beis Menachem, Montreal Canada

No comments: