By Rabbi Yehoshua Berman
Yevamos 100 – Who Am I, What Am I, Why Am I?
It isn’t easy. He doesn’t know who his father is, and his whole life is governed by halachos of safeik. Since his mother’s first husband was a Yisrael and her second husband was a Kohein, he is limited by the restrictions of the latter but barred from the privileges that are meant to accompany those restrictions. He can only marry a woman that a Kohein is allowed to marry, because it is possible that he is a Kohein. He can’t eat terumah, though, because he might be a Yisrael. He cannot attend funerals in a regular manner, because Kohanim must be careful not to become tamei by a deceased body, and that is true even for his own father, because he does not know who that is. Oh, and he has no yerusha.
And the list goes on.
From one perspective, this individual, who is a safeik if he is a nine-month term baby to his mother’s first husband or a seven-month term baby to her second husband, has it rough. On the other hand, one cannot help but be struck by the realization that every single person in Klal Yisrael – no matter how compromised his situation may be – has a clear-cut set of guidelines and protocols that afford him a sound and secure structure to his life, despite the otherwise strong insecurity of his circumstances.
It is true that it is no easy test to have to constantly explain to people why it is that on the one hand he does not have to give terumah to other Kohanim, yet he is still not allowed to receive others’ terumah. Or any of the other many idiosyncrasies that comprise the variegated mosaic of his life. And yet, he also has a clearly defined role and place within the Jewish People. Unique? Yes. Challenging? Definitely. But any less worthy or meaningful than anyone else? Certainly not!
If there is one thing that the Torah makes abundantly clear, it is that rules and regulations are the stuff of importance and purpose. As we see from the famous mashal about the two ill people – one to whom the doctor gives a strict regimen of diet and treatments, while the other is allowed to do basically whatever he pleases – it is the lack of rubrics that is the greatest indication of emptiness and worthlessness. If anything, then, the abundance of detailed halachos attendant to this individual of uncertain lineage is suggestive of even a higher purpose and goal than usual.
There is a fascinating comment by Rabbeinu Yonah (who lived in a time when watches were not even a havah aminah) in Maseches Brachos (1b in the Rif) about the halacha pertaining to how long one must wait after Shabbos before being allowed to do melacha and from what point on Erev Shabbos one must stop doing melacha.
“One must be careful to not do melacha until three small stars are visible. And if it is a cloudy day, he must wait until all doubt leaves his heart. Likewise on Erev Shabbos, if it is a cloudy day, he must accept Shabbos upon himself while it is still (definitely) day because of the doubt. And this is the primary expression of yiras Shamayim, to be careful from doubts, and to not just do mitzvos as a course of habit, for the punishment over a doubtful sin is greater than that of a definite sin. For we have found that for a definite sin one brings a chatas…even if the value of the sheep…is only a maah…but if he is bringing an asham for a doubtful sin…he must bring an animal (that’s value is at least) two selaim which is forty eight times the value of a maah.”
Rabbeinu Yonah is saying that how a person deals with situations of uncertainty is the real litmus test of his conscious devotion and dedication to Hashem and his Torah. It stands to reason, then, that circumstances of doubt and lack of clarity are singular opportunities to achieving real greatness in avodas Hashem! There is a relative ease of comfort and familiarity with the expected and usual that is totally absent in the face of doubt and uncertainty. It has a tendency to throw us off kilter and thrust one into an “Uh, oh – what do I do now?” mode.
And that is the real test of a man’s mettle (or woman for that matter). How one deals with and negotiates situations where he is bereft of the security of familiarity and routine is what really proves his inner worth and morality. And it is the most fertile ground for personal growth to reach that lofty inner worthiness and morality.
So, is it challenging to be like this person who is unsure about the identity of his father? Is it a difficult challenge and trying test to have to forever negotiate doubt and uncertainty? Most definitely. But at least one thing he must have clear. Feelings of “Who am I? What am I? Why am I?”, although justifiably understandable, are ultimately out of place. Because, on the contrary, it is precisely those individuals whose life situations are made more challenging by upheaval, insecurity, and uncertainty that have the greatest potential for the most significant achievement of purpose and meaning. The more detailed and rigorous structure and rubric that Hashem has assigned to them is the most powerful indication of this fact.
Rabbi Yehoshua Berman serves as the Rosh Kollel of Kollel Reshet HaDaf in Ramat Beit Shemesh, Israel. In addition to having authored Reflections on the Parsha, Rabbi Berman regularly delivers shiurim on Halacha and Hashkafa, writes comprehensive chazara questions (in Hebrew) for the advanced Daf Yomi learner, and weekly words of inspiration from the Parsha. Rabbi Berman can be contacted at email@example.com.