Eliyahu Ha’Navi often came to Rav Anan to teach him Torah, what we know as Tanna d’Bei Eliyahu. But when Rav Anan once accepted a gift from someone who had come to him for a din Torah, and inadvertently caused an unfair disadvantage to the gift-giver’s opposing litigant, Eliyahu stopped coming.
What precisely happened? Litigant A came to Rav Anan with a gift of small fish, apparently somewhat of an uncommon delicacy back then. When Rav Anan queried him as to the reason for this largess and discovered that the individual had a din Torah over which he wanted Rav Anan to preside, the latter categorically rejected the gift. However, the man pressed Rav Anan to accept it nonetheless so that he should get the tremendous zechus of supporting a Talmid Chacham. Rav Anan relented. Not to preside over the din Torah, of course, but to afford the man the inestimable zechus of helping to support a Talmid Chacham.
The story continues that Rav Anan sent a message to Rav Nachman if he could please adjudicate this person’s din Torah, seeing that “I am disqualified from doing so.” Rav Nachman already had a case involving orphans to attend to. However, he mistakenly thought that this man must be Rav Anan’s relative, in which case showing honor to Torah scholars mandated giving this man’s case precedence. So, Rav Nachman temporarily recessed the orphans’ case and immediately proceeded to handle that of this man.
Well, when the gift-giver’s opposing litigant so what great honor Rav Nachman afforded his opponent, he got all stymied. Clammed up. He felt like he had no chance, seeing that Rav Nachman is apparently so favorably predisposed to him. He was thus unable to clearly and convincingly articulate his claims.
That is why Eliyahu stopped coming to Rav Anan.
The Maharsha explains that Rav Anan made two errors. First of all, he should never have accepted the gift. It was not initially brought for the purpose of supporting a Talmid Chacham, it was brought as a bribe. The fact that the man changed his purpose when he saw the bribe tack would not go, doesn’t take away from the fact that it was originally brought to be a shochad. Just as Rabi Yishmael b’Rabi Yosi and Rabi Yishmael bar Elisha, explains the Maharsha, refused to accept the gifts – irrespective of the fact that they did not in the end take the din Torah – so too was Rav Anan expected to conduct himself.
That was mistake number one. The second thing Rav Anan did wrong, continues the Maharsha, is in the way he worded his message to Rav Nachman. He should have been more careful to ensure no misunderstandings would ensue. His lack of carefulness led to an unjust proceedings of a din Torah.
So Eliyahu stopped coming.
Imagine that you had a private audience with the Gadol Ha’Dor. Regularly. One day, he refuses to see you, and the gabbaim tell you that because of something you did, you are no longer welcome. Ouch. With a seriously capital O. We can imagine that Rav Anan may have felt this way, or perhaps worse, when Eliyahu stopped coming to teach him Torah.
But Rav Anan would not allow himself to be defeated. He fasted as an expression of teshuvah (the Maharsha explains that it was an atonement for having eaten those little fish), and he davened to merit giluy Eliyahu once again. Eliyahu did come back, but in a way that somehow inflicted great fear on Rav Anan.
Still, he refused to give up. He would climb into a box when Eliyahu would visit him. The fearful awe was too much for Rav Anan to be able to sit in the open before Eliyahu, but while inside the box he was able to listen to Eliyahu’s words of Torah. This continued, says the Gemara, until the entirety of Tanna d’Bei Eiyahu was completed. It is broken up, explains the Gemara, into two sections. Seider d’Eliyahu Rabbah and Seider Eliyahu Zutah. Rabbah means big and zutah means small. Rashi elaborates that the section which Rav Anan learned from Eliyahu Ha’Navi before this whole thing happened, not sitting inside a box, is called Eliyahu Rabbah, and the section he learned while sitting in a box is Eliyahu Zutah.
Now, who would think of sitting inside of a box?! Pardon the pun, but you have to really think out of the box to go inside a box to learn Torah from Eliyahu Ha’Navi.
I cannot help but wonder if Rav Anan knew that what he was learning then from Eliyahu Ha’Navi was going to be preserved for posterity as a basic Midrashic text. After all, there are numerous Amoraim throughout Shas who merited giluy Eliyahu, and we do not necessarily have as one of our basic Torah works what they learned from him. I would venture to say that Rav Anan was not aware of the portent of what he was doing. Since the Gemara gives us no indication to the contrary, we have no reason to assume that Rav Anan was doing anything more than trying to further his own learning. As far as he was concerned, this giluy Eliyahu to which he was zocheh was his own private affair, enabling him to broaden and deepen his own, personal grasp of Torah knowledge.
And, still, he wasn’t willing to give up. He fasted and davened that giluy Eliyahu should return to him, and when it did, but in a manner that was overwhelming for him, he still didn’t give up. He just climbed into a box! His attitude was, “Eliyahu, I absolutely need to learn from you, and if the only way I can do so is by confining myself to a box during these sessions, so be it! So go ahead, I am listening!” And listen he did. And now we benefit for all generations because of his mesiras nefesh for Torah.
Perhaps, who knows – there really is no way to know for sure – but perhaps it is not incorrect to say that it was precisely that incredible demonstration for how much chashivus Rav Anan ascribed to Torah learning that generated the zechus to make that which he learned become kavuah l’doros, an acquisition that would carry on for all generations.
Many, many fantastic sefarim were compiled throughout the generations, but not all of them become basic texts for Klal Yisrael’s fundamental knowledge of Torah. Those like the Rambam and Rashi, the Maharsha and the Maharal, the Ketzos and the Nesivos – are a relative handful compared to how many were actually compiled. Even those Chachamim whose works became seminal and basic, did not necessarily merit such acclaim for every work they produced. Not every work becomes a Mishna Brurah or a Chafetz Chaim in how sweepingly and broadly it is accepted as a basic text without which one cannot move on the topic.
Does that mean that those sefarim that did not become as widely studied and used, that they are of inferior quality to those that did? How could anyone even suggest such a thing? Who are we to even begin to make such judgement calls? Clearly, there is an esoteric ingredient of siyata d’Shmaya involved. And perhaps, in the case of Rav Anan and the Tanna d’Bei Eliyahu that he bequeathed to Klal Yisrael, what generated that special siyata d’Shmaya was the phenomenal devotion and dedication that he displayed. That no matter what, he would not give up. That he wouldn’t let a failing, no matter how serious (for someone on his level, of course), to block his way. He viewed it as setback, but only temporary. He will keep pushing to get Eliyahu back. And he did.
Although we cannot reasonably expect to experience a giluy Eliyahu Ha’Navi – and if we would even a vault sealed with a thick steel door probably would not suffice to mitigate our overwhelming awe – we do have those goals in our lives that we know we are capable of. Lofty goals that we sometimes can become discouraged from pursuing as a result of failures that we may experience at one point or another.
“Who am I to be involved in such a thing after I did that?!” we may be inclined to think.
But it’s not true. Don’t focus on the failure. Instead, focus on how important that goal and endeavor really is to you, and formulate your strategy in terms of how you can make amends for your mistake and/or continue to pursue your goal in perhaps somewhat of an adjusted manner. Probably, you won’t have to do something so drastic as sitting inside of a box, but maybe try thinking out of the box a little to discover which “box” will fit. However you go about it in the end, though, the main thing to remember is that when you keep at it no matter what, the power that that generates can bring about tremendously positive ripple effects that last for dorei doros.
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.