By Rabbi Yehoshua Berman
Yevamos 69 – The Ironies of Life
It is possible, says the Mishna, for a descendant who is a Kohein Gadol to disqualify his ancestress from being able to eat terumah. How’s that? A Bas Kohein married a Yisrael and bore him a daughter. That daughter got married to a Kohein. They have a son. That son is a 100% kosher Kohein and eventually goes on to become Kohein Gadol! Even if this Kohein Gadol’s mother dies, such that he is the only remaining progeny to his grandmother, she cannot eat terumah even if she has long since been widowed or divorced from her husband.
Generally, the rule is that if a Bas Kohein was married to a Yisrael (or Levi for that matter) she is only barred from eating terumah so long as she is still married to him, or she has children or grandchildren (etc.) from him. Otherwise, she returns to her father’s household and reverts back to her original status of being able to eat terumah. That is why, in the aforementioned scenario, the only thing holding this Bas Kohein back from eating terumah is her grandson the Kohein Gadol! Although he himself stands at the pinnacle of kedusha, the fact remains that he is a descendant of hers from her husband the Yisrael, and he therefore disqualifies her from eating terumah.
Ironic, isn’t it?
Irony is an interesting thing. Merriam-Webster.com defines irony as follows: “a situation that is strange or funny because things happen in a way that seems to be the opposite of what you expected.” That perfectly captures this situation of the Kohein Gadol disqualifying his grandmother who herself is a Bas Kohein from eating terumah; who would’ve thought such a thing could happen!
Particularly fascinating about irony is that it does not have to be illogical. Not at all. Once you have learned and understood the halachos that govern when a woman who was married etc. can or cannot eat terumah, from a logical standpoint this scenario of the grandson Kohein Gadol disqualifying his Bas Kohein grandmother makes perfect sense.
But it is ironic nonetheless, isn’t it?
This observation gives us pause to wonder what the role of irony is in our lives. What purpose is it meant to serve? Remember, irony can go both ways, it can be tragic irony or happy irony. In the situation of the Bas Kohein grandmother who is disqualified by her Kohein Gadol grandson, it is the unhappy form of irony, albeit certainly not tragic. Nonetheless, it belongs on that side of the spectrum. The Gemara makes it clear that it is an annoying and frustrating reality for her to make peace with.
What about the case, though, that is practically the opposite? Also from today’s daf. A Bas Yisrael marries a Kohein and bears a daughter. That daughter marries a Goy and has a child who is a mamzer (according to that opinion). Subsequently, the Kohein husband and the daughter die. The Bas Yisrael is still allowed to eat terumah. Why? Only because of her mamzer grandson! Although certainly possessing a very unhappy facet to it, the irony component of this situation is essentially happy. She retains her illustrious status of being able to eat terumah.
The thought, or perhaps feeling, that comes to mind in cogitating this funny phenomenon called irony is this: we think that we’ve got it all figured out, but really we don’t. At least not necessarily. Not all the time.
Irony directly impacts the forcefulness with which we experience a given emotion. Imagine a high-level official in the CIA on his way to a summit about modern terrorist threats and the intelligence and defense communities’ most cutting edge strategies how to counter those threats. He never makes it to the summit, though. His flight is taken over by home-grown, newly-recruited terrorists of the Islamic State. The irony of the situation makes his demise that much more poignant to his loved ones. No matter what, a tragedy like that arouses a traumatic sense of pain, angst, and suffering. But the ironic twist somehow makes the pain that much more acute.
So too in the other direction. Imagine a juggling instructor who is presenting a tutorial to his students on how to avoid the common mistakes that lead to dropping the item being juggled. As he is demonstrating the technique of how to keep them in the air, something goes wrong and one of the raw eggs he is juggling lands right on his bald head. Now, seeing an egg cracking onto someone’s bald head is funny in any setting. But the irony of this scenario just causes an absolute uproar of laughter.
The manifestation of just what we would not have expected greatly sharpens and amplifies our emotional reaction to whatever it is that occurred. There is something about it that hits us with a powerful force. It is almost as if the irony of the situation is loudly broadcasting how there is so much that we just don’t understand and cannot figure out.
Yosheiv ba’Shamyim yischak, Hashem yilag lamo, The one who dwells in Heaven will laugh, Hashem will make a mockery of them forever. Dovid Ha’Melech said these words in reference to reshaim who attempt to rebel and overthrow Hashem’s kingship and that of His representatives in this world. They think that they can gather together massive armies and put together infallible schemes that will assure them the victory they seek. In the end, the bitter irony that will befall them will speak volumes. The expression of cosmic laughter drives home this point that humanity loves to dupe itself into thinking that they’ve got everything worked out and under control. But the reality is so far from that illusion that it is downright hilarious.
The irony that we face in various twists and turns of life – whether joyous or chas v’shalom otherwise – teach us a phenomenal lesson. We like to feel larger than life, but in reality life is larger than us. Much larger. There is a great Conductor up there who is pulling all the strings. Although it is at first difficult to accept that we are not really in the driver’s seat; ultimately, we only gain from incorporating this awareness into our conscious thinking. For no matter how much one may want to think and feel that he is in control of what happens in life, he is not, and there will inevitably arise situations and outcomes that are not in accordance with what he would have expected or wanted. In his controlling mindset, that can be a bitter pill to swallow; sometimes even impossible. Letting go and accepting the fact that one is but a component part of this grand entity called life – run and directed by He who dwells in Heaven – it becomes much easier to handle all the twists and turns that life inevitably casts our way. Easy? No. But easier? Definitely. Much easier.
Rabbi Yehoshua Berman serves as the Rosh Kollel of Kollel Reshet HaDaf in Ramat Beit Shemesh, Israel. Driven by a passion to generate true kinyan Torah, both for himself and others, Rabbi Berman develops innovative tools to getting the most out of what we learn. In addition to having authored the warmly acclaimed Reflections on the Parsha, Rabbi Berman regularly delivers shiurim whose topics range from Halacha to Hashkafa, sends out daily emails of comprehensive chazara questions for the advanced Daf Yomi learner who really wants to retain his learning, and weekly emails of words of inspiration based on the Parsha. For more information on Reflections, to subscribe to receive these emails, or request a speaking engagement, Rabbi Berman can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.