World of the Sages: Broadminded activism

What did you do on your wedding day? Rushing around, last minute preparations, hairdresser, make-up. A quick moment for personal prayer, perhaps. Then to the hall for family photos, and the guests begin to arrive.

What did you do on your wedding day? Rushing around, last minute preparations, hairdresser, make-up. A quick moment for personal prayer, perhaps. Then to the hall for family photos, and the guests begin to arrive. The Talmud describes the remarkable wedding day conduct of Rabbi Elazar (B. Berachot 16a). Two of the groom's junior colleagues - Rabbis Ami and Assi - were fastening the canopy for their friend's wedding. With preparations for the big night underway, the groom turned to his busy peers and said: "In the meantime, I will go and hear something in the study hall, and I will come back and relate it to you." With that, Rabbi Elazar made his way to the beit midrash (study hall) where the head of the academy was teaching. When he reached the beit midrash, a reciter was standing before the famed Rabbi Yohanan, transmitting an earlier source verbatim, perhaps without fully understanding its meaning and import (Rashi, Sotah 22a). The lesson was about mistakes during the Shema prayer, and four scenarios were discussed: First, if one erred by forgetting a word or sentence in Shema, but did not know precisely where the mistake occurred - the reader must return to the very beginning of Shema. Second, if the reader knows in which of the Shema passages the mistake occurred - he need only return to the beginning of that passage. Third, if the reader knew that he was in-between paragraphs, but could not recall whether it was in between the first and second or whether he had in fact completed the second paragraph and needed to begin the third - he must assume that the blunder was in the first break and hence continue from the second paragraph (Rashi, cf. Rambam). The fourth case refers to the verse containing the commandment to write mezuzot to be placed on doorposts. This instruction appears with identical wording in the first and second paragraphs of Shema (Deuteronomy 6:9 and 11:20). If a reader, having intoned this verse, could not recall whether he was in the first or second paragraph - he should return to the verse's first occurrence and continue from there. Hearing this account of the law, Rabbi Yohanan responded, qualifying the last scenario: The fourth case applies where the reader had not begun the verse that follows the mezuza commandment in the second paragraph. Had the reader continued with this verse, we may assume that he continued in his habit of reciting Shema without getting muddled, and any uncertainties are dismissed. In this case, we assume the reader has completed the second paragraph and he is permitted to continue reading (Rashba, 13th century, Barcelona, cf. Rashi). Having heard this lecture, Rabbi Elazar returned to the wedding hall. Rabbi Elazar's unique character is immediately apparent: On his own wedding day, amid the panic and excitement, Rabbi Elazar had the strength of conviction to put all aside and journey to the beit midrash. The material discussed in the beit midrash provides us with a stark comparison and perhaps a hidden critique: a reader who is unable to focus and errs while reciting Shema, while a sage applies his faculties of concentration on his very own wedding day, the eve of a time when a groom is released from his obligation to recite Shema (M. Berachot 2:5). It is no wonder that commentators laud this behavior, seeing Rabbi Elazar's conduct as paradigmatic. Never again can a person proffer an excuse for not learning. Whether it be troublesome times or joyful occasions, there is no justification for losing even one moment of Torah study, for indeed each learning session holds some inestimable nuance (Rabbi Yehuda Aryeh da Modena, 16th-17th centuries, Venice). Commenting on this passage, the first chief rabbi of the Land of Israel, Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak HaKohen Kook (1865-1935), highlights a second dimension of the groom's behavior. Indeed, Rabbi Elazar demonstrated the value of Torah even when otherwise occupied. Yet a greater lesson can be learned: The trip to the beit midrash did not reap key laws or wondrous tales. Rules about mishaps when reading Shema were recounted and clarified; not the most stimulating material. Rabbi Elazar, nevertheless, saw value in his sojourn, and returning to his two colleagues he excitedly recounted what he had learned. Thus, at this hectic moment, Rabbi Elazar was so rapt with what he had gleaned that he wished to share his experience with his friends. Rabbi Kook adds a third dimension to this story. Turning from the groom, Rabbi Kook focuses on Rabbis Ami and Assi, who were industriously erecting the wedding canopy when their colleague left. When Rabbi Elazar returned, he relayed what he had just learned during his short excursion to the beit midrash. Rabbi Ami and Rabbi Assi exclaimed: "If we had only come to hear this matter, it would have sufficed us!" Despite the fact that these two sages were occupied with the grand mitzva of doing kindness for another, and its particular application in taking part in wedding preparations, they nonetheless responded with genuine excitement at the laws to which they were now party. It takes broadmindedness to be able to acknowledge and appreciate a valuable cause, even while you are diligently involved in a different worthy enterprise. Rabbi Kook describes such a person as having an expansive heart that is filled with love of God and His Torah. Small-minded people cannot see beyond the cause they have adopted. Activists should be lauded for their committed work; alas, dedication and devotion to one worthwhile cause should not preclude recognition of other commendable endeavors. It is a sorry state when a person claims: 'I support this charity and therefore need not recognize other causes.' Though one need not champion every valid venture, donning blinkers and waving the flag of a sole mission, oblivious and uncaring about any other issue, reflects an insular approach that may be more concerned with self-fulfillment than with the betterment of society. Though we may not undertake every project, we strive for broadmindedness as we validate multiple causes. The writer is director of Advanced Programs at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, teaches at Midreshet Lindenbaum and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.