By Rabbi Yehoshua Berman
Yevamos 114 – Beware of Your Runaway Imagination
Generally, a woman is believed if she says that her husband died. Beis Din allows her to remarry even on her own say-so. There are exceptions to this rule, though. If they were in an area which was embroiled in war, then, says the Mishna, we cannot accept her testimony that her husband died. The reason for this, explains the Gemara, is that we have to be concerned that perhaps she saw something that she figures would for sure cause her husband to die, despite not actually having seen his death. An example of this is if she saw her husband get hit by a spear or arrow (or bullet for nowadays). Because of the great danger, she had to run and escape. She could not stick around until she actually saw her husband dead. “However,” she imagines to herself, “there’s no way anyone could live through that!”
In fact, the Gemara recounts a real-life case where something like this actually happened. A woman came to Rava from a place that was suffering terrible famine and said, “My husband died.” Intending to extract an admission that she did not actually witness his death, Rava responded with, “You know, it’s a good thing you ran away to save yourself even though your husband wasn’t dead yet; because who could possibly survive off of the infinitesimally miniscule amount of food that he had left?!” To that the woman said, “You see! Even the Rav agrees that there is no way someone could survive such a situation!”
The point, in a nutshell, is that in certain circumstances of extreme danger the imagination may have her convinced that something happened when it really may not have. She imagines that her husband “for sure died”, but it may really not have happened. A mistaken imagination, if not for the incredible wisdom and insight of Chazal, could have gotten her into a whole lot of trouble.
This idea about imagination running wild reminds me of a story (I think it was actually a mashal and not a true story) that a speaker related at one my sheva brachos meals.
One fine day, a nice Yerushalmi guy was walking down Meah Shearim Street when he noticed a person who looked a bit lost. “Can I help you?” the Yerushalmi offered. “Well, I am looking for a place to buy a bite to eat. Can you tell me of a kosher establishment in the area?”
This was a long time ago when restaurants were still a very rare breed in Yerushalayim. That in addition to the fact that a Yerushalmi is, after all, a Yerushalmi, prompted the nice Yerushalmi guy to say, “Come to my house! There’s plenty to eat!” And he did.
Once there, they got to talking and it emerged that the diner was a tourist from America. When the American mentioned that he was staying in a nearby hotel, the Yerushalmi put himself into full, Yerushalmi gear and said, “Whatever for?! Why waste so much money on such a thing when you could stay right here?!”
Looking around at the seemingly tiny surroundings and even more austere “furnishings”, the American could not help but wonder what exactly “right here” was supposed to mean. The look of confusion-bordering-on-bewilderment registering on the American’s face was not lost on the Yerushalmi. “I mean, you could stay right here in my home. My children absolutely love it when we have guests and actually vie for the privilege of giving up their room. Please, you’ll be doing us a favor! Stay for as long as you’d like.”
The American was awed by his host’s seemingly infinite graciousness and generosity. He indeed took him up on the offer and stayed on at the Yerushalmi’s house for a few weeks.
When his trip came to its end and he bade his goodbyes, the American handed his Yerushalmi host an envelope filled with cash. A sizable amount of bona fide American greenbacks. “What is this?!” exclaimed the baffled Yerushalmi. “Well,” answered the American, “you cannot possibly expect me to not pay you anything for all the hospitality and food that you’ve given me over these past few weeks. It’s far less than I would have spent had I stayed at that hotel and eaten at restaurants, so it is more than my pleasure to give it to you.”
Well, if the American thought this would please his obviously-poor Yerushalmi host, he was sorely mistaken. “What?!” thundered the Yerushalmi. “I should sell my mitzvah?! Chas v’Shalom! Here take your money. I don’t want even one shekel from you. You were my guest and gave me the tremendous opportunity to fulfill the great mitzvah of hachnasas orchim. If anything, I should have to pay you!”
By this point, the American realized that there was so much more to the inhabitants of Yerushalayim than he had ever imagined. “Well, I don’t know what to say;” stammered the American, “thank you so very much from the bottom of my heart. At least take my address so that if for whatever reason you ever find yourself in America you can look me up and we can get together again. And, who knows, perhaps I’ll even be able to return the favor.” With that, the American left.
Fast forward ten years. The Yerushalmi is marrying off a child and grimly realizes that he has no funds with which to do so. Without any other alternative, he decides to pick up the wandering staff and journey to far off America. He hopes that his brethren there will have pity on him and help him in his time of need.
He’s very anxious, though. “I don’t know a single soul in America. Where will I even begin?” These are thoughts plaguing him when, suddenly, a long-buried memory of an American guest resurfaces. “Right! Certainly he will be happy to help me find my way around! Perhaps I can even stay in his home for the duration of my stay there. Yes, yes, definitely he will be delighted to help me.” There’s only one problem. He doesn’t remember the American’s name and has no idea how to contact him. He rummages around until he finally finds it. A yellowing piece of scrap paper, but the lettering no less legible than when the words were written ten years prior.
With no other information, the Yerushalmi sets out on his first excursion outside of the Holy Land. While on the airplane – his first ever flight – he starts to worry. “Maybe he will not remember me? Oh come on! If so, you’ll just remind him and then he’ll happily bring you in and help you out.” A few hours later, though, his worries return; this time with greater force. “Maybe he’ll be upset with you for just showing up at his door without any advance notice?” This time, he doesn’t really succeed in quelling his anxious, runaway thoughts.
By the time he is exiting the airplane at JFK, he is already starting to picture a very upsetting scenario. And by the time he is on the bus, riding towards the destination scribbled on his ten-year-old scrap of paper, his imagination is already going wild. “Maybe he’ll yell and scream at me that he doesn’t know me and say ‘who are you trying to scam me’ and things like that?! He’s probably going to slam the door in my face or even worse.”
By the time he arrives at the appointed address, he is already writhing internally in anger and anguish at what his imagination has led him to believe is going to happen. As soon as the American opens the door in response to the Yerushalmi’s embarrassed and restrained knocking, the latter immediately launches into a tirade. “How could you?!! How could you be so sickeningly ungrateful?!! After all I did for you…”
Everyone at that sheva brachos really enjoyed this cute little anecdote. After the laughter subsided, though, the speaker drove home his point. “In life, our imaginations can sometimes get us into trouble. Your wife said this or did that, and you start imagining all sorts of terrible things. Why she said it, or what’s going to happen now that she did that. And the same thing goes for a wife about her husband. We sometimes make entire court cases in the theater of our imaginations, when in reality it is all a bunch of nonsense! So, take this piece of wisdom into your marriage. Don’t rely on the testimony of your imagination. Take a deep breath, rethink the whole situation, and you’ll see that it wasn’t anywhere near as bad as what you thought.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.