By Rabbi Yehoshua Berman
Kesubos 17 – The Ignominious Moments of Greatness
Keitzad merakdin lifnei ha’kallah. Definitely one of the better known sugyos in Kesubos, even if it is only because of the song that made it so popular. If you ever wondered whether or not all the funny, impressive, or sometimes downright-odd things people do when they dance in front of the chassan and kallah are apt or not, this is the sugyah to lay such concerns to rest. Not to say that there may not be some things happening on the dance floor that are perhaps less than fully appropriate; gladdening a chassan and kallah is not a license to give vent to any and every whim to imitate whatever one may have seen wherever. But, one thing is for sure, dance-time at a chasunah is not the time to be all stiff-shirted about one’s respectability.
The Gemara tells us that only one or perhaps two great tzaddikim are zocheh to a pillar of fire coming down from Shamayim when they die. Rav Shmuel bar Rav Yitzchak was one such individual. And what was his great merit? “Amar Rabi Zeira ahanyah lei shotisei l’saba, Said Rabi Zeira it is his myrtle branch that helped the elder.” There’s two other versions of this. One has it the word Rabi Zeira said was not shotisei but shtusei, which literally means his acting like a crazy man, and the other has it that what Rabi Zeira said was shitasei, his view or approach.
Of course, this is referring to Rav Shmuel’s conduct at weddings. He would always make a real lively scene on the dance floor with his hadas-branch-toting antics. Rashi explains that he had a regular technique in which he would dance while juggling three hadas branches. Pretty impressive. Especially for an elderly Rosh Yeshiva.
Until he died, though, this behavior of his was not looked upon so kindly by his contemporaries. Rabi Zeira had initially felt quite unhappy about it. He said that Rav Shmuel’s behavior was an embarrassment not only to himself but to Talmidei Chachamim in general. How could he allow himself to act in a way that is so beneath his station as the generation’s leading Talmid Chacham? Won’t that cause the honor of Torah in general to decrease?!
These were the upsetting questions that Rabi Zeira maintained about the matter.
That is, until Rav Shmuel was niftar and the pillar of fire descended. Tosafos is bothered by a question that we really should have asked ourselves (and if you did, kol ha’kavod!): How did Rabi Zeira know that it was particularly in the zechus of how Rav Shmuel would dance at weddings that he merited the amudah d’nurah? Perhaps it was because of some other zechus? Answers Tosafos, it must be that the pillar of fire came down in the shape of a hadas branch. Shamayim was clearly demonstrating the reason for this singular privilege to which Rav Shmuel was zocheh.
So, what was it? What was so very great about Rav Shmuel’s behavior? After all, as we all well know, there are many, many spirited individuals who divest themselves of any semblance of kavod on the dance floor at weddings, and we do not exactly expect to see a pillar of fire coming down for them after meiah v’esrim.
The answer, I think, is that for Rav Shmuel to do what he did required going against the grain. Particularly so after Rabi Zeira voiced his strong disapproval. Let’s not forget, kavod ha’Torah in the eyes of Chazal is something of the utmost importance. Compromising it is no laughing matter. And Rabi Zeira, who was amongst the greatest of the great, held that Rav Shmuel was doing just that. He felt that Rav Shmuel, acting like a shoteh in front of everyone, was taking this whole business too far. Rav Shmuel, though, knew better, and he stuck to his shotisei, shtusei, and shitasei.
This is a lot like the old adage that if the salmon is swimming downstream, that’s how you know it’s dead. When it is alive, it pushes against the tide, literally, to go where it knows it needs to be. Despite everything around it seeming to indicate otherwise.
Doing what you know is the right thing to do even in the face of the naysayers, peer pressure, and negative public opinion is no small feat. When you manage to do it, you can take that as an indication that you are alive. You are an embodiment of v’chay bahem – of truly living by the Torah’s morals and values.
Of course, this does not mean that one should never reconsider his course of action based on other’s criticism. That would be plain arrogant. And foolish. We are all human, and it is wholly possible that we can be mistaken. That’s why you need Daas Torah. Rav Shmuel, of course, felt crystal clear about his own Daas Torah – not out of arrogance, chalilah, but out of an objective awareness that what he was doing was correct – and that is why he kept up his behavior despite his colleagues’ disfavor therewith. We are not Rav Shmuel, so if someone suggests we are off course, we may well need to check in with a Rav or a Rebbi to make sure we’re not going wrong. Other times, it is just plain obvious that the naysaying around us is not at all coming from the right place.
However you get to it, though, when you arrive at the conclusion that this is what you need to do, because it is just the right thing to do, that’s when, in the words of Rav Yaakov Kaminetzky, you sometimes have to know how to fife af die velt. Those moments of sticking to your guns to do what you know is right are some of the finest and most exalted moments of our lives. It may look on the outside as unglamorous or even ignominious, but you know and Ha’Kadosh baruch Hu knows. And that is what really matters.
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.