Can you imagine a taunted sage glaring at an opponent and the opponent miraculously turning into a heap of bones? The Talmud relates three such cases, the first of which appears in our tractate (B. Brachot 58a).
The blind sage Rav Sheishet went to witness a king's procession. A certain troublemaker taunted the sage: "Whole pitchers go to the river; where do broken ones go?" The reference was clear: Whole pitchers are able to draw water from the river; broken pitchers are of no use when water is to be drawn. Likewise, there is no point in the blind attending a royal procession for they are unable to see the king.
Rav Sheishet demonstrated his ability to perceive the procession and even to discern between the king's retinue and the presence of the sovereign himself. The Talmud relates two versions of this irreverent agitator's fate. According to one version the blind Rav Sheishet set his eyes upon him and he became a heap of bones.
The second reference to the talmudic glare of death appears in the famous story of Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai (B. Shabbat 33b-34a). After voicing disparaging remarks about the Romans that reached the ears of the authorities, Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai was sentenced to death. Forced to flee, he first hid in the beit midrash. When that hiding place became unsafe, he fled to a cave. With only his son for company, they subsisted for years on water, carobs and Torah study.
When the danger passed and Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai was able to return to civilization, he chanced upon the very person whose words had brought about the Roman decree that had forced him into hiding. Meeting this person in the marketplace, Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai exclaimed: "Is this one still in this world?" Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai set his eyes upon this wretched fellow and he became a heap of bones.
In the third such incident related in the Talmud (B. Bava Batra 75a; B. Sanhedrin 100a), Rabbi Yohanan taught that the Almighty will one day bring precious stones and pearls that are 30 cubits by 30 cubits. From these colossal rocks, God will cut openings of 10 cubits by 20 cubits and He will place them at the gates of Jerusalem.
One of the students present laughed at this fanciful suggestion: "Nowadays we cannot find precious stones and pearls that are even the size of an egg or of a small dove; can stones of such immense proportions ever be found!" Time passed and that student was aboard a ship when he saw ministering angels hewing such stones just as described by his teacher Rabbi Yohanan. He turned to the angels: "For who are these?" The angels responded confirming Rabbi Yohanan's teaching.
The student returned to his teacher and declared: "My master, lecture! You are worthy to lecture, for just as you described, so I saw!" Rabbi Yohanan was unimpressed by his disciple's outpouring: "You empty person! Had you not seen it yourself would you not have believed it? You are one who mocks the words of the sages." Rabbi Yohanan set his eyes upon the student and the student became a pile of bones.
Reading these three accounts, it seems rather strange that the venerable sages should wantonly cause the demise of their opponents. Moreover, if the sages were so powerful that they could cause death with one fatal glare, surely they could have inspired repentance with a sympathetic look in the direction of the antagonist. This puzzle led some hassidic masters to suggest an alternative explanation for the deathly glance of the talmudic sages. In truth the phrase "he became a heap of bones" calls out to be interpreted, for there are many ways to describe death by the divine hand, and the Talmud normally uses the phrase "his soul rested" when describing death. What then is the meaning of the glance of death that turns a person into a pile of bones?
Rabbi Nahman of Breslov (1772-1810) offered an interpretation for the sage who sets his eyes upon the sinner turning him into a gal atzamot, a pile of bones. He explained that when people sin they cannot see the extent of the damage of their actions. The tzaddik, the righteous leader with a pure soul, is able to perceive the harm wrought. When a person sins, the tzaddik does not look upon the sinner, rather he gives his eyes to the sinner so that the sinner himself can fathom the destruction he has caused.
Once the sinner takes in what he has done, the damage is revealed (gal) before him. In disgust at his own actions, the sinner closes his eyes (otzem) so that he will not have to look upon his own foul handiwork.
Rabbi Nahman concluded: "And there is no greater punishment than this - when a person perceives the damage he has wrought."
A later hassidic master - Rabbi Yehoshua Heschel Rabinowitz of Monastyriska (Zinkov, 1860 - New York, 1938) - offered an interpretation that was closer to the original meaning of the phrase. He noted that the talmudic fatal glare is mentioned in cases where the evil protagonist has sneered at the sages. Such mockery comes from haughtiness, where the evildoer belittles the greatness of our talmudic heroes, assuming that he knows more than the venerable sage.
When the sage "gives his eyes" to the misguided offender, he shows him the extent of his mistaken ways. At that moment the sinner's conceit is burst as he realizes how worthless he is. In his own eyes, the self-important protagonist suddenly feels no more than a pile of bones. Such is the extent of the realization of his erroneous course.
There are times when we are so belittled by the damage that we have caused by our own mistakes that we feel nothing more than a heap of dry bones with no vitality pulsating through our being. Fortunately, we have the opportunity to revive ourselves and to reembark upon the lifelong challenge of being more than flesh that will rot off our bones, the quest of fulfilling our potential as human beings.
The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.