Posts Tagged 'Elisha ben Abuya'

7 Years of Emunah: Reflections on Faith and Fidelity

While her secular birthday was on September 2nd, Emunah’s Hebrew birthday is today. It is crazy to realize that today she is 7 years old. It is also crazy for me to pause to recognize that I have been writing this blog for 7 years. This blog started with her birth and I has grown along with her for the years. Every year around this time I reflect on Emunah, the name, person, and concept. I feel blessed to have them Emunah in my life.

As I have quoted before Martin Buber writes:

This ‘existential’ characteristic of Emunah is not sufficiently expressed in the translation ‘faith’, although the verb often does mean to believe (to believe someone, to believe a thing). It must further be noticed that the conception includes the two aspects of a reciprocity of permanence: the active, ‘fidelity’, and the receptive, ’trust’. If we wish to do justice to the intention of the spirit of the language which is so expressed, then we ought not to understand ’trust’ merely in a psychical sense, as we do not with ’fidelity’. The soul is as fundamentally concerned in the one as in the other, but is decisive for both that the disposition of the soul should become an attitude of life. Both, fidelity and trust, exist in the actual realm of relationship between two persons. Only in the full actuality of such a relationship can one be both loyal and trusting. (Two Types of Faith 28-29)

This year I take pause to thing about what it might mean to falter in one’s Emunah. The paradigm of this in the Talmud is the life of Elisha ben Abuyah a rabbi born in Jerusalem sometime before 70 CE who adopted a worldview considered heretical by his community. So why did he lose his Emunah? We learn in the Talmud:

‘How did this happen to him? He [Elisha] once saw a man climb to the top of a palm-tree on the Sabbath, take the mother-bird with the young, and descend in safety. At the termination of the Sabbath he saw a man climb to the top of a palm-tree and take the young but let the mother bird go free, and as he descended a snake bit him and he died. Elisha exclaimed, ‘It is written, “Send away the mother bird, but the young you may take for yourself; that it may be well with you, and that you may prolong your days (Deuteronomy 22:7).” Where is the well-being of this man, and where is the prolonging of his days!’ He was unaware how Rabbi Akiva explained it, ‘That it may be well with you in the World [to Come] which is wholly good,’ And that you may prolong your days’ in the world which is unending. ( Hagigah 15b)

The Talmud depicts that Elisha lost his faith when he saw injustice in the world. As we see in Ki Tetzei, this week’s Torah portion, there is supposed to be a reward of life for sending away the mother bird before taking her eggs. In comparison Rabbi Akiva kept his faith because of his belief in a world to come where the perceived God’s injustice would be made right. In either of their cases it is about having or not having faith or belief. What about Buber’s idea of having fidelity and relationship?

It is said, “Mr Goldfarb goes to synagogue to be in relationship with God. I go to synagogue to be in relationship with Mr. Goldfarb”. It is interesting the Talmud does not say that Elisa did not believe Rabbi Akiva, but that he was unaware of his teaching. Is the assumption that if he was aware Elisha would have believed Rabbi Akiva? Maybe if Elisha was aware of Rabbi Akiva’s teaching he would have known that the system works for someone in his community and he would have stayed in relationship with Rabbi Akiva and his community.

Seven years later while Emunah my daughter might be a struggle times, my relationship with her is steadfast and unshakable, even if my relationship with faith is often a still struggle. Regardless I am still in dynamic relationship with my Emunah and look forward its development for many years to come.




Wrestling Club

In VaYishlach, this week’s Torah portion, Yakov is preparing to meet and reconcile with his estranged brother Esav. Here we read about the mysterious encounter between Yakov and the angel. There we read:

And Yakov was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day. And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Yakov’s thigh was strained, as he wrestled with him. And he said: ‘Let me go, for the day breaks.’ And he said: ‘I will not let go of you until you bless me.’  And he said unto him: ‘What is your name?’ And he said: ‘Yakov.’ And he said: ‘Your name shall be called no more Yakov, but Yisrael; for you hast striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.’ And Yakov asked him, and said: ‘Tell me, I pray of you, your name.’ And he said: ‘Wherefore is it that you do ask after my name?’ And he blessed him there. (Genesis 32:25-30)

Who did Yakov really fight, man or angel, or was it perhaps a dream in which he found himself in a struggle with phantom demons? This is interesting disagreement between the Rambam and the Ramban. Did this wrestling constitute an external event or an inner prophetic experience through the medium of a dream? It is understandable that after a profound experience one would question the reality of that experience. In another way it is interesting to think that Yakov internalized the character of Esav.
I was thinking about this question of internalizing the other when reflecting on the relationship between Rabbi Meir and his master Acher, Rabbi Elisha Ben Abuyah. While Acher, literally “the other”, became an apostate, his student Rabbi Meir went on to be a very important Rabbi and a central figure to the Mishana.. There we read:
Our Rabbis taught: Once Acher was riding on a horse on Shabbat, and Rabbi Meir was walking behind him to learn Torah from his mouth. Said [Acher] to him: Meir, turn back, for I have already measured by the paces of my horse that thus far extends the Sabbath limit, He replied: You, too, go back! [Acher] answered: Have I not already told you that I have already heard from behind the Veil: ‘Return all you backsliding children’ — except Acher. ( Hagiga 15a)
It is prohibited to ride on a horse on Shabbat and it is prohibited to walk beyond a certain distance. Rabbi Meir left the comfort of the house of study to learn from his master even though his master had gone off the derech, the path of Jewish law. Is Acher real or just an internalized character in Rabbi Meir’s life? This story like the story of Yakov and the angel make me wonder how we internalize the traits of our opponents. Maybe this Esav character is now actually part of Yakov in the same way that Acher is now actually part of Rabbi Meir. How else would we have learned about this interchange between Rabbi Meir and Acher if it was not reported to us by Rabbi Meir. The first rule of Fight Club is: You do not talk about Fight Club. The second rule of Fight Club is: You do not talk about Fight Club.

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