By Rabbi Yehoshua Berman
Kesubos 77 – You Never Know…
Fascinating. Incredibly, incredibly fascinating. That really is the only way that this story about Rabi Yehoshua ben Levi can be described. It’s for sure got to be one of the most memorable maasim in Shas (following right on the foot-heels of a description of a form of brain surgery!).
Rabi Yochanan would tell people to stay away from the flies that hang around someone afflicted with raasan. Rabi Zeirah would make sure to never sit somewhere that he would be hit with the same gust of wind as someone afflicted with raasan. Rabi Elazar would make sure to not be in the same room as someone with raasan. Rabi Ami and Rabi Asi would not eat eggs from a mavuy where someone with raasan lived.
Whatever raasan was, it must have been a pretty awful illness/disorder and quite contagious as well. The halachos of guarding one’s health, we see from all of these great Amoraim, mandated that one exercise appropriate care to not get infected. You have to keep your distance. But there was one very significant exception to this rule.
Rabi Yehoshua ben Levi.
Rabi Yehoshua ben Levi was the only one who was willing to get close enough to those afflicted with raasan in order to teach them Torah. He wasn’t just willing; he made a point of it! And what was his excuse for being “careless” with his health? “Ayeles ahavim v’yaalas chein” – the Torah bestows grace and charm upon those who engage themselves in its study. If the Torah bestows chein on those who learn it, reasoned Rabi Yehoshua ben Levi, will it not protect them?!
Now for the eyes-bulging-out part of the story.
When it came time for Rabi Yehoshua ben Levi to die, the Malach Ha’Maves was told to do for him whatever he wants. Rabi Yehoshua ben Levi said, “Show me my place [in Gan Eden]”. The Malach Ha’Maves responded, “Ok.”
“Give me your sword so that you won’t scare me at some point along the way.”
He gave it to him.
When they got there, the Malach Ha’Maves lifted him up to show him [where his place is]. Rabi Yehoshua ben Levi jumped and fell over into the Gan Eden side. The Malach Ha’Maves grabbed him by the edge of his shirt.
“I swear that I am not coming!”
Kudsha Brich Hu said, “If he ever had an oath of his annulled during his lifetime, this oath as well will be retracted; but if not, then not.”
The Malach Ha’Maves said to him, “Give me back my sword.”
He wouldn’t give it back.
A Heavenly voice said, “Give it to him; it is needed for the created beings.”
There is more to this amazing saga, but we’ll leave it at that and skip to the end of the daf. There was another Amora – Rabi Chanina bar Papa – who tried copying what Rabi Yehoshua ben Levi did with the Malach Ha’Maves, but his request was denied.
“Bring a Seifer Torah here and see if there’s even one thing that I did not fulfill!”
“Did you ever get together with people afflicted with raasan to learn Torah with them?!”
Nevertheless, when he died, a pillar of fire divided between his body and everyone else; and we have by tradition that such a thing happens only for one or two people in a generation.
What we see from this is that the key to Rabi Yehoshua ben Levi’s singular, unmatched greatness was the relationship that he maintained with the outcasts of society. The people with whom everyone else, even all the great Amoraim, wanted to have nothing to do. To stay far away from them. Not out of spite or meanness, chas v’shalom, but simply out of a completely justifiable and even mandated need to guard one’s health. If someone has a dreadful sickness and it’s contagious, you may have no choice but to stay away.
And yet, Rabi Yehoshua ben Levi was different. He took a different approach. Quite possibly, it was an approach that we are not allowed to emulate. Maybe you have to be on a really high level of total immersion in Torah, coupled with an extremely refined sense of emunah and bitachon, to behave in such a manner.
But that should not stop us from learning something very important from Rabi Yehoshua ben Levi.
It can happen in life that people that we consider nudniks may cross our path. Bothersome or troublesome individuals who seem to be particularly adept at getting in the way, sapping our time, energy, and resources, and in general being a source of significant aggravation. Sometimes that perception may be subjective and somewhat flawed (or maybe even a lot flawed), but sometimes it’s not really off the mark.
It is quite natural to feel like you would love to see this person’s presence in your life just vanish and disappear, never to return. Difficult is putting it lightly when it comes to describing what it can be like to have to deal with such an individual (all the more so if it is more than one). It’s quite normal that one may try to find ways to minimize his interactions with these challenging figures in his life.
And who’s to say that it would be wrong to do that? After all, chayecha kodmin, right? You have a life and a family, and you cannot just allow yourself to become the address for all the troubled individuals out there in the world.
Well, yes, but maybe also no. You see, the lesson that we can and should learn from Rabi Yehoshua ben Levi is that you never know wherein may lie your main key to achieving greatness in life. That which will bring you the greatest yeshua and bracha.
Think about it. Quite possibly, everyone living in Rabi Yehoshua ben Levi’s time may have thought of him as something of a nebuch. A great nebuch, but a nebuch nonetheless. The poor guy who’s too nice for his own good. Who just doesn’t know how to say no, and doesn’t have much of a life because of it.
After all, he was the only one willing to do what he was doing. There was no-one else! You do realize what that means, don’t you? It means that every single person who had that contagious affliction (and likely many other types of contagiously ill people as well) had but one address to go to. We can only imagine how much of his time Rabi Yehoshua ben Levi had to give up to learn with the baalei raasan instead of learning with his contemporaries and teaching the best talmidim of the generation!
If you would have been living then, wouldn’t you have also thought “nebuch”; at least to some extent? Sure, we would all think, “Wow! What a great tzaddik!” And that is also what we would say. But wouldn’t there also be that quiet, little voice inside that says, “But I sure am glad that it’s not me!”? Sure, we recognize tremendous tzidkus when we see it; but we may still be inclined to feel, “Yes, but I would never ever want that to be my lot!”
But guess what, it was precisely this “nebuch” lifestyle of Rabi Yehoshua ben Levi that catapulted him to a Heavenly place that went completely unmatched by even the greatest of his peers! It was the singular zechus that put him even beyond the jurisdiction of the Malach Ha’Maves!!
Those “bothersome, troublesome nudniks” who entered his life to stay, are the very individuals who afforded Rabi Yehoshua ben Levi to acquire the unfathomable madreigah to which he flew. And unfathomable is quite apt, isn’t it, seeing that we really have no conception of how such a story is meant to be understood.
But that is insofar as the specific details of the story are concerned. The moral lesson that we can take out of it, though, is quite clear. And that is that you never know which individual it is in your life that may be the one who is there to provide you with the opportunity to open the gates of bracha and hatzlacha in ways you may never have imagined. You just don’t know.
So, practically speaking, what does this mean? It obviously cannot mean that we are all meant to go out and spend the rest of our lives in the highly infectious disease ward of the hospital. Clearly not. It also does not mean that we should drop everything we are doing in life and become the address for all the difficult, challenging, and hapless people in the world. So what does it mean?
Perhaps what it does mean, is that the next time we run into one of those “nudniks”, we’ll pause to reconsider that appellation. Maybe we’ll be a bit more patient with him. Maybe even afford him a bit more of our time. Perhaps we’ll even extend ourselves a bit to accommodate his needs to whatever extent we manageably can.
Every person needs to make an honest assessment of how much of their time, energy, and resources they can devote to others without it negatively impacting oneself and one’s family. But that is just as true when it comes to any worthwhile cause as it does to dealing with those individuals in our lives that we find to be particularly challenging. Because, you see, that really is the whole point, isn’t it?
When your chevrusah, neighbor, or fellow Shul member asks if you can help out with the kimcha d’Pischa drive, for example, even if you really are unable to accommodate the request because of an already overloaded schedule, you don’t react with disdain and disgust. Of course not! You just politely demur, and apologize that you are not able to help with this very important cause. You may even add in, for good measure, that if you find a few minutes here and there you’ll make a few phone calls or do whatever else you can. And you actually make a point to do that.
But when it comes to the “nudniks”, the tendency can often be to get flustered, aggravated, and even upset. People can find themselves inwardly screaming, “Why can’t you just find someone else to bother and leave me alone!” And that is not good. Not only because it is wrong from a ben adam la’chaveiro perspective, but also because it may just be totally missing the boat. For all you know, it may be your interaction with this very individual – and how you negotiate it – that can be the key to an incredible outpouring of blessing to come into your life. Sometimes in ways that you can see, and sometimes in ways that remain hidden until after 120. If we can bring ourselves to consciously recognize this fact, it may just generate a tremendous, dynamic shift in attitude. A shift in attitude that may not only be beneficial for that guy who’s got unique needs, but for ourselves as well. And in ways that we may never have been able to imagine.
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.