By Rabbi Yehoshua Berman
Yevamos 72 – The Real Me
The halacha requiring nosar (leftover meat of korbanos) to be burned specifically during the daylight hours is only applicable if the burning is taking place on the appointed day for burning. However, if, for some reason, the burning was pushed off to the next day or later, then it can be burned even during the night time hours. That is how Rabi Yochanan expounded the halacha. However, Rabi Elazar ben P’das pointed out that there are two seemingly extra letters in the pasuk that describes the obligation to burn nosar: a vav and a hei. Therefore, even those tannaim who would otherwise not darshen an extra vav by itself, agree that here we must darshen the vav and hei together such that it is coming to include even nosar being burned not on the appointed day in the halacha that said burning must be executed only during the daylight hours.
Upon hearing this cogent argument, Rabi Yochanan fell silent, thus indicating that he concedes the point. Now, had this been one of Rabi Yochanan’s contemporaries, it would be difficult enough. It is never easy to be bested. But in this instance it was compounded by the fact that this Rabi Elazar ben P’das was Rabi Yochanan’s talmid!
As if that was not enough, listen to what happened next. Rabi Elazar exited the Beis Medrash, and Rabi Yochanan exclaimed to his chevrusah Reish Lakish, “I saw the son of P’das sitting and darshening like Moshe from the mouth of Might.” Rashi explains that what he meant to say is that he was amazed at Rabi Elazar’s ability to darshen like the tannaim. Upon hearing this, Reish Lakish retorted, “Is it his derasha? It’s a B’raisah!”
Now, not only was Rabi Yochanan bested by his own talmid, he was also embarrassed of his chevrusah that he missed an explicit B’raisah. Also, let’s not forget, Reish Lakish was not always Rabi Yochanan’s chevrusah. He started off as a chief thief whom Rabi Yochanan was subsequently mekareiv.
So, how did Rabi Yochanan react? He asked Reish Lakish, “Where is this B’raisah?,” to which the latter responded, “It is in Toras Kohanim.” “Then,” concludes the Gemara, “Rabi Yochanan went out and spent three days memorizing Toras Kohanim, and three months delving into and explaining it.”
Quite remarkable, isn’t it?
Rav Shreirah Gaon writes (Igeres Rav Shreirah Gaon 9:9) that from this account we see that whereas the Mishna took immediate hold throughout all of Klal Yisrael as soon as it was set down, the B’raisos of Sifri and Sifra (etc.) took time until their knowledge became fully widespread.
The simple understanding of Rav Shreirah Gaon’s comment is that Rabi Yochanan was unfamiliar with Toras Kohanim until that point. It was his first time ever learning it. However, this is a difficult pshat to accept. How could it be that both Rabi Yochanan’s chevrusah and talmid were already fluent in Toras Kohanim, and he himself had never before learned it?
Some of the later mefarshim who quote this statement of Rav Shreirah Gaon seem to understand that it is not that Rabi Yochanan was wholly unfamiliar with Toras Kohanim, just that he did not know this particular B’raisah. If so, the upshot of Rav Shreirah Gaon’s statement would be that we see that Rabi Yochanan did not maintain absolute, total command of it; and that in turn indicates that the full-fledged study and knowledge thereof took time until it was firmly established.
Either way, if one were to imagine oneself in Rabi Yochanan’s shoes when this whole interchange took place, the sense of flaming cheeks would be acute. Whether he had never learned it before or he just did not command total mastery over it, the fact remains that he was bested by his talmid and had to effectively admit ignorance to his chevrusah.
So how did he do it? What was Rabi Yochanan’s secret? How did he manage to roll with the punches so smoothly and just keep plugging along?
Perhaps the answer to this is to be found in the expression, nafak. He went out. The Gemara said that he went out to learn Toras Kohanim. Why did he have to go out? He was already in the Beis Medrash!
I would like to make the following suggestion. In his Beis Medrash, Rabi Yochanan wore the mantle of absolute monarchy. He was the undisputed gadol ha’dor and most senior Torah authority. Therefore he left. He went out. He decided that, right now, it is not time for me to be the Rebbi; I have to be the talmid. I have to put myself in a mindset that I am like any other student who needs to learn something new. So, he left his homburg and frock coat behind so that it would not interfere in any way with his ability to submit himself to the status of talmid, which is what he needed to be just then.
What this means is that Rabi Yochanan did not allow his self-identity to become constricted to his position and standing. Because Rabi Yochanan did not allow his own incomparable greatness to define his sense of self, he did not become threatened when that honor was compromised.
You see, no matter how great one’s credentials are, a title has its limits; and, in some situations, those limits can cause problems of preventing a person from doing what is in his own best interests at that moment.
There is certainly nothing wrong with a person taking pleasure in his accomplishments; but, at the same time, it is worthwhile for a person to step out of his box from time to time to remind himself who he really is. I am me. I am not the title or position that I happen to occupy. Therefore, if need be, I can temporarily let go of that station and put on a different hat to enable to me to do whatever it is that I need to do at this moment. For, ultimately, that is what really defines me: my free will to choose the right course of action, whatever the circumstances may be.
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.