WORLD OF THE SAGES: If you can be good, do not be called bad

Our prayers have various sources; some date back to our forefathers, others to the Second Temple period.

Our prayers have various sources; some date back to our forefathers, others to the Second Temple period. The Talmud tells us that the wayfarer's prayer recited when embarking upon a journey is based on an instruction given by the timeless Elijah to one of the talmudic sages: "Do not become angry and you will not sin; do not become intoxicated and you will not sin; and when you depart on a journey, beg leave of your Creator and then set out." Our sages explain that begging leave of God refers to the wayfarer's prayer (B. Berachot 29b-30a). The Talmud then explores the details of this prayer. First, the text is presented: "May it be Your will, God my Lord, that You lead me toward peace, and You emplace my footsteps toward peace and You uphold me in peace. And may You rescue me from the hand of every foe and ambush along the way. And may You send blessing in my handiwork and grant me grace, kindness and mercy in Your eyes and in the eyes of all who see me. Blessed are You, God, who hears prayer." To this form, one emendation is offered based on the rule that prayers should be recited as congregational requests. Thus the plural should be used rather than the singular: "...that You lead us towards peace..." Next, the appropriate juncture for the recitation is considered, and we are told that as soon as travelers embark upon the road, they should say the prayer. Codifiers explain that this is only once the traveler has left the city limits (Mishna Berura 110:29). Among later scholars there is some discussion as to whether the prayer must be said within a certain distance so that it fulfills the requirement of "begging leave" from the Almighty. Finally, the appropriate posture for the recitation of this supplication is sought and the Talmud offers two views: Rav Hisda suggests that the prayer must be said while stationary, while his colleague Rav Sheshet felt that it could be recited even while traveling. The passage continues relating an incident that occurred while these two scholars were on the road together. Rav Hisda - as per his own opinion - stopped walking and began to pray the wayfarer's prayer. Rav Sheshet, who was blind but could obviously sense that something was amiss, turned to his attendant: "What is Rav Hisda doing?" he enquired. "He is standing still and praying," replied the attendant. Rav Sheshet then turned to his attendant, "Help me stand up too, and I will pray." And then, as if to explain his behavior which contradicted his own ruling regarding the required posture for the wayfarer's prayer, he added: "If you can be good, do not be called bad," meaning that when you can benefit others with no cost to you, do not incur their resentment by refusing to do so. While Rav Sheshet's concluding epigram has a biblical ring to it, elsewhere the Talmud tells us that it is in fact distilled from the biblical verse (Proverbs 3:27): "Withhold not good from those to whom it is due, when it is in the power of your hand to do it" (B. Bava Kama 81b). As we have seen, Rav Sheshet was of the opinion that there was no requirement to stand still for the wayfarer's prayer. Since the party with whom he was traveling had halted anyway - as per Rav Hisda's view - he felt that there was no need for a blatant exhibit of his opinion. Rav Sheshet was willing to avoid a confrontation, since pausing did not involve any inconvenience and was not contrary to his own ruling; he merely deemed such a standstill unnecessary. We should recall that these scholarly travelers were no strangers to disagreement; elsewhere the Talmud describes the awesome trepidation they felt in each other's presence when they came together to study (B. Eruvin 67a and Rashi): Rav Hisda's lips would tremble from Rav Sheshet's vast bank of knowledge of the sages' dicta. He feared that Rav Sheshet would challenge him to resolve apparent contradictions between various statements of the sages. At the same time, Rav Sheshet's entire body would shudder when he considered his colleague's analytical skills that could give rise to complex questions. Lively discussion was likely a central part of their daily study routine and their disagreements are often recorded in the Talmud. In light of this passage, Rav Sheshet's conduct while journeying with Rav Hisda is fascinating: He chose to sidestep an opportunity to demonstrate his opinion, and publicly acted in accordance with Rav Hisda's view. Did the fear of Rav Hisda's razor-sharp mind lead Rav Sheshet to dodge this clash? This is an unlikely prospect, for despite the report that Rav Hisda's keen intellect made him tremble with fear, he nevertheless did not hesitate to argue with his colleague on countless occasions. If Rav Sheshet's dread of Rav Hisda was so obsessive that he subverted his own opinion, we most likely would encounter other occasions where he refrained from disagreeing. Yet this passage stands out on the talmudic landscape. Perhaps we can explain that Rav Sheshet was driven by an entirely different feeling: A sense of confidence permeated his actions such that he did not feel a need to wave the flag of his opinion at every opportunity. His opinion was known, and momentarily halting his journey for the wayfarer's prayer did not constitute yielding his principles. In this light, we can reread Rav Sheshet's final words of explanation: "If you can be good, do not be called bad." Avoiding confrontation is laudable and when it can be done without conceding opinions, beliefs or standards, it is most certainly the preferred course that may reflect a healthy relationship. The challenge, therefore, is to identify those situations where evading a dispute constitutes a blurring of one's own principles. When must we not yield an inch of our views despite shaking in apprehension of possible responses or objections? And when do we concede ground under the banner "if you can be good, do not be called bad"? The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.