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Sunday, 13 December 2015

Getting to Yes

Daf Yomi Sotah 47

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Perachia was once travelling with a student of his when they arrived at an inn.   
The rabbi praised the hostess, but the student misunderstood his words and responded, “Her eyes are a little too round, don’t you think?”
The rabbi was taken aback and exclaimed, “Wicked one, is that what you’re thinking about?” and with that, he excommunicated him with four hundred horns.

Each day, the student would come begging for forgiveness, but Rabbi Yehoshua refused to see him.  One day, the rabbi was reciting the Shema when the student entered.  As it happens, he had intended to finally forgive him, but since he was in the middle of the Shema, he motioned to him with his hand.  The student took it as a further rejection and ran off to worship idols in protest. 

Rabbi Yehoshua later approached him and tried to reach out to him. 
The student responded, “I learned from you that anyone who sins and causes others to sin is not given the opportunity to repent.”  And indeed, they say that this student practiced sorcery and incited others, leading them astray and causing many in Israel to sin.

The Rabbis taught: The left hand should always push away, while the right hand should draw near, unlike Elisha who pushed away Gehazi with both hands.   And unlike Yehoshua ben Perachia who pushed away one of his students with both hands.

Practically speaking, how do you push away with one hand and draw near with the other hand?  It seems almost contradictory.   And yet, that is the Talmudic formula for proper Torah leadership.

When it comes to leading people in the ways of Torah, a delicate balance must be struck.   We need love, but we also need discipline and rules.   We need to maintain and grow our community, but we also need to maintain the integrity of the halachic system.  

Here’s how the two hands work: On the one hand, our Sages teach that “the power of permission is better” than the power of prohibition.   When a rabbi is faced with a halachic query, it’s much simpler to err on the side of caution and tell someone not to do something.  In other words, the easiest answer is no.  The expert rabbi, however, is so well-grounded in halacha that he is able and comfortable to issue a permissive ruling. 

On the other hand, for some people, the answer is always yes.  The question is just how to get there.   The Gemara in Tractate Eruvin tells of a certain erudite student who could demonstrate the purity of an insect using one hundred and fifty different approaches.  While the aim should always be ‘yes,’ if it is always ‘yes,’ something is wrong with the halachic process.    The concept of a halachic framework becomes meaningless when anything goes. 

We are facing a tidal wave of assimilation today and we must do whatever we can to reach out to our brothers and sisters.  But that is only so long as we are not compromising the integrity of Torah.  The overriding principle must be our commitment to tradition.  That’s why the Gemara’s dictum first mentions the left that pushes away and only then the right that draws near – it would sound better the other way around, but the Gemara wants us to know the right order of priorities.

The message is clear: First and foremost, guard the sanctity of the Torah.  But having said that, if you are sitting in a frum neighbourhood doing nothing to reach out to your brother, your service of Heaven is wanting.   You have a duty to use your primary power – your right hand – to reach out with love to your fellow Jew.

It’s not easy to strike the balance between your two hands.  If you are neglecting either hand, you are not doing your Divine job properly.  May you always push away with your left hand and draw near with your right!