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Wednesday
Aug092017

THE POWER OF WHAT

OLD PEOPLE IN BABYLONIA?

The Talmud (Brachos 8a) relates that the Israeli Sage, Rabbi Yochanan, upon hearing that there were old people living in Babylonia said in amazement: “How could that be? It is written, ‘In order to prolong your days and the days of your children upon the land [that G-d has sworn to your ancestors to give them],’ however, not so outside of the Land of Israel.” Once they told him [Rabbi Yochanan] that they [the elders of Babylonia] arise early [to attend synagogue in the morning] and stay late in the synagogue [in the evening], he said: “That is the merit that helped them [to enjoy longevity].” As Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said to his sons: “Arise early and stay late when going to the synagogue in order that your days shall be prolonged.”

The question has been asked, if Rabbi Yochanan thought that the Torah insists that long life can only happen in the Land of Israel, how did that understanding of the Torah change when he realized that the old people in Babylonia would go early and stay late in the synagogue? Furthermore, what does going early and staying late have in common with living in Israel, both of which apparently bestow long life?

Several commentators answer by referring to another passage in the Talmud (Megilla 29a): “The synagogues and study halls in Babylonia are destined to be established in the Land of Israel.” Maharsha explains that underlying this prediction is the recognition that the synagogues of today are considered an extension of Israel. This can be compared to embassies which are situated in foreign lands yet are regarded as sovereign territory of the countries they represent. So too, the synagogues and study halls out in the Diaspora are part of Israel, temporarily situated in exile, but eventually to be transported to Israel and Jerusalem.

We can now understand the connection between spending long periods in the synagogues and study halls of Torah with living in Israel.

However, the question can still be raised, why do the synagogues and Houses of Study confer the longevity of Israel only when people frequent them early and late? If living in Israel proper or its “synagogue-satellite-embassies” generates longevity, why does the Talmud add the caveat that the people must come early and leave late to enjoy the full benefit of living in Israel?

LIVING IN ISRAEL

One may suggest that, in truth, the synagogues and Houses of Study themselves are physical extensions of the Land of Israel. However, for a person to be able to say that he lives in Israel, one must show that his presence in these institutions is not reluctant, incidental or perfunctory. We must place our hearts and souls in these places. One dramatic and convincing way of demonstrating our connection and commitment to the synagogue and House of Study is to get there early in the morning and be reluctant to leave at night.

However, every detail of the words of our Sages is precise. If Rabbi Yochanan’s intention was that going early and staying late demonstrated devotion to the synagogue and Houses of Study, he could have said that. Why did he need to emphasize that the people got there early and stayed late?

To understand this, we must first delve into the reason living in Israel is conducive to long life.

WHAT DOES “WHAT” MEAN?

The Talmud (Bava Basra 158b) states, “The air of Israel machkim-endows one with wisdom.” Wisdom is not just an intellectual gift; it is a state of mind. The Hebrew word for wisdom, chochma, means much more than just wisdom or intelligence. Chassidic literature defines chochma by dividing it into its two component parts, ko’ach and mah, “the power of what.”

Just what does “what” mean in this context?

“What-mah” is obviously an acknowledgment that the questioner does not know a certain piece of information. The “what” mindset evinces humility and, in its most extreme formulation, suggests that the mah personality has reached a state of bittul (self-abnegation).

When one is in a state of mah, he or she is in the most receptive mode. When we are full of ourselves, thinking we know it all or that we have the potential to know it all, we erect a barrier of subjectivity and preconception that does not allow us to be receptive to anything that sits outside our world. No matter how hard we try to fathom the depths of a subject, it will remain elusive, because we are using our own set of lenses to see something that has an entirely different color.

The deeper we are in the mah state the more we can grow outside the box by inviting knowledge from another “world.”

The author of the statement “The air of Israel machkim-endows one with wisdom,” was Rabbi Zeira, a Babylonian sage who made aliya to Israel. There he discovered a totally new approach to understanding Talmudic law. Rabbi Zeira experienced going out of his preconceived approach to the subject and was able to see the truth. In other words, while he previously had a subjective understanding of the subject, in Israel he was able to see the subject objectively.

Our Sages expressed this sentiment when they said, “The ultimate knowledge [of G-d] is when we do not know Him.” The “not knowing” means that we have suspended our own human, finite, subjective mindset and opened ourselves to objective truth of the Infinite.

Thus, when the people complained that they had no food in the desert, Moses responded, “But of what [mah] significance are we?”

Moses was the ultimate mah person, the one who was the single most receptive person to G-d. Moses and, to a lesser degree, Aaron, were governed by this state of mah.

This also explains the statement of our Sages in Ethics of the Fathers “Who is a [chocham] wise person? One who learns from everyone.”

The emphasis here is on the chocham, the one who is endowed with the attribute of chochma, the power of what. This individual is able to learn from everyone. All others will be limited with respect to whom he or she can truly learn from. Their own personality and perceptions will inevitably color the things that they hear. In effect, they are not learning from others. They are merely using others as a springboard to reach their own ideas. They cannot escape from their own perceptions and leave the box.

CHOCHMA AND LONG LIFE

We can now understand why the Land of Israel is conducive to chochma. The very atmosphere of Israel is one in which we are more receptive to the Divine.

Once we obtain the chochma mindset, it provides us with more life. King Solomon, in Koheles (7:11), describes the power of chochma to give life.

As created beings, we are inherently limited. When we are self-absorbed, our entire existence is, by definition, finite and ephemeral. When we are endowed with chochma however, we become receptive to external Divine influences that are infinite, and with G-d’s infinite power there is long life.

BREATHING ISRAELI AIR IN BABYLONIA

We can now understand why Rabbi Yochanan was surprised that there were old people in Babylonia. Relative to Israel, Babylonia was known for its darkness and its concomitant limited and subjective way scholars approached the law. How then, Rabbi Yochanan wondered, could they enjoy longevity?

The answer was that they did, in fact, breathe the air of Israel even as they lived in Babylonia. The scholars demonstrated this by going early to shul and leaving late.

“Typical” people focus on their personal needs. If and when they have “free” time they spend it on leisure, entertainment, pursuit of knowledge, etc.

A conventional Torah perspective on these free moments devotes people to the study of Torah, prayer and observance of the Mitzvos.

That approach, however, is bound by the conventions of society, where satisfaction of our personal needs is the overarching determinant of our behavior and how we allocate our time. That, however, is not what chochma is all about.

To be endowed with the spirit of the Chochma of the Land of Israel requires a 180-degree reorientation of one’s perspective.

Translated into practice, these are the individuals who will go to shul or the House of Study early and stay late. Yes, they may have other responsibilities which they must fulfill to remain in line with the dictates of the Torah, which include supporting themselves and their families.

Nevertheless, those responsibilities do not govern these individuals’ approach to life. Rather, it is the shul and House of Study which arises first in their thoughts and it is the last thing they think of as the day comes to an end. The beginning and end of the day define the parameters of their lives. They support their families because the Torah they study in the morning demands nothing less. They take time out to rest and care for their health because the Torah they learn in the evening requires it.

LIVING OUTSIDE THE BOX IN THE MESSIANIC AGE

These chochma people live outside of their own worldly box and can therefore enjoy longevity because they are not hemmed in by a world of limitations.

What has been said thus far deals with the longevity we can enjoy even living in the Diaspora. The one whose power of chochma is more pronounced will feel freer and defy the general rules of nature that dictate against a long life.

In the Messianic Age, particularly after the Resurrection of the Dead, the entire world will attain a level of unmitigated chochma which will bring eternal life in its wake.

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