In the midst of a discussion of Holy men and their miracles, the third chapter of Taanit tells the following story,
Rav Bruka and Elijah were walking in the marketplace. R Bruka asked “is there anyone here ensured (בן) the World to Come?”
“No one,” responded Elijah, “except for those two clowns.”
Rabbi Bruka asked the clowns their secret. “We make sad people laugh,” they explained, “and make peace when people fight.”
The story is the peak of absurdity. In a religion that values Torah study, commandments, and prayer, in the midst of a discussion of mythical characters like Honi Hamaagel and Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa, Elijah promises the world to come to a pair of clowns!?
Before we take a deeper look at R Bruka’s clowns, I want to spend a few minutes on a central theme of the chapter; the idea that nature in general, and weather in particular are communication from G-d.
In the Tanakh, things seem straightforward –rain is a reward and a blessing and drought is a punishment and a curse.
דברים יא:יג) והיה אם שמע תשמעו אל מצותי אשר אנכי מצוה אתכם היום לאהבה את יקוק אלהיכם ולעבדו בכל לבבכם ובכל נפשכם: יד) ונתתי מטר ארצכם בעתו יורה ומלקוש ואספת דגנך ותירשך ויצהרך: טו) ונתתי עשב בשדך לבהמתך ואכלת ושבעת:
In masechet Taanit, however, things aren’t simple at all. Quoting Mishlei, “better wounds from one who loves you than kisses by one who hates”, the Gemara points out that at times rain can be the curse and drought the blessing. For Taanit, blessings may lie less in the events one experiences and more in the relationships that emerge from those experiences. That is a profound move for a tractate that is about fasting and praying for specific things we need.
A startling examples of Taanit’s thesis appears at the very end of the third perek,
In response to drought, Shmuel hakatan decreed a fast. Just before daybreak the following morning, as the fast was about to begin, it rained. The people understood this to mean that G-d was pleased with them, “שבח של ציבור הוא”. But the Rabbi explained things differently, “G-d just didn’t want to spend the day listening to you, so he gave you the rain to keep you at a distance.
The congregation and the Rabbi don’t just read the rain differently, they read reality differently. They see the fast as a means to rain, while he understands the fast as a moment in a relationship that is going badly. In a stunning reversal of the verses in Devarim, Shmuel Hakatan understands the rain as a sign of G-d’s disapproval as it keeps them away from Him. G-d would rather give them their rain than play along with an insincere relationship.
More than he sees physical rewards emerging from a relationship with G-d, Shmuel hakatan sees a relationship with G-d emerging from our heightened awareness of our physical needs. Or, to borrow an idea from Rabbi Eliezer Berkowits, our experience of need can awaken a consciousness of our human needfulness and vulnerability. And that can become a powerful foundation for a relationship with G-d.
Shmuel Hakatan’s view opens the door for masechet Taanit’s remarkably deep criticism of miracles. In the words of Shimon ben Shetach, the harsh critic of Honi Hamaagel, miracles solve local problems by relieving the tensions that might have led to real growth.
Through a story of R Elyashiv, the Gemara (23b) makes the case with a little more humour,
Rabbi Mani once asked R Yitzchak bar Elyashiv for help with his in-laws who looked down on him for being poor. R Yitzchak prayed for the in-laws to become poor and they did. Soon after Rabbi Mani came to R Yitzchak for help with his in-laws who were constantly asking him for money…
Rabbi Mani once asked R Yitzchak bar Elyashiv for help with his wife who wasn’t pretty enough for him. R Elyashiv prayed for her to become beautiful and she did. Soon after Rabbi Mani came to R Yitzchak for help with his wife who felt she was too pretty for a man like R Mani…
Two students once asked R Yitzchak bar Elyashiv for help with their learning, “please pray for us to be smarter”. “I once had that ability,” responded R Yitzchak,”but I prayed for it to go away. and it did.”
Board games with children are a sweet opportunity for intimacy. Assuming that one loves one’s nephew and wants to express it, playing together is much more likely to make the point than telling him for an hour that you love him. Some relationships are more easily revealed when they are concealed in a game.
For a game to work it has to be fun. And for it to be fun one has to play by the rules. My grandmother used to sneak me hotels and cash when we played Monopoly. That’s very cool once. But it got boring quickly.
And at the same time playing with an uncle who took the game too seriously, who would crow jubilantly when his 9 year old nephew landed tearfully on his Park Place loaded with hotels wasn’t much fun either.
The trick is trying to win the game within the rules -even as you remember the humour in it. Monopoly is a game, but played well a real relationship may emerge from it.
Taanit doesn’t portray life as “just a game”. As G-d tells Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai when he emerges from the cave, “this physical world is my world. If you don’t like it, you can go back to your cave.” Rain and need are real for us. But by weaving Shimon ben Shetach’s critique into its telling of Honi’s miracles, Taanit keeps us conscious of the relationships and the relationship behind life.
Nachum ish Gamzu is the exception. He is known for his cheerfully confident גם זו לטובה (“this too is for the good”, Taanit 21a). But a closer look reveals that Nachum sees everything as good because he refuses to read significance into how anything plays out. Everything is good by definition, whatever it happens to be. That is a clear rejection of the rules of the game, because it is a rejection of the game itself.
In a darker, less familiar agada, we learn that he actively chose a life of suffering.
Nachum ish Gamzu had no hands, no feet, no eyes, was covered with scabs and lay on a bed with its legs resting in water so that ants wouldn’t climb on his body… when his students commented on his misery, he retorted “I brought this upon myself”…
His students cried, “oy that we see you like this”.
“No”, responded the Rabbi, “Oy if you didn’t see me like this.
Nachum Ish Gamzu’s students play by the same rules of the game that we all play by; they hope for and appreciate a good they can recognize as good. They live within a world in which they can recognize the blessings (rain, health) and the curses (suffering).
Their teacher’s point is not that they should be like him, but that they should know that there is another way of looking at things -in which relationships matter, not the circumstances in which the relationship plays out. He tells his students, “play the game, but oy if you never meet someone who knows that whatever happens, it is just a game.”
The tsaddikim of Taanit’s third perek are a challenge. None of us aspires to suffer like Nachum Ish Gamzu, G-d forbid. Nor do we look forward to the prospect of living on carobs alone like R Hanina ben Dosa, even if both have miraculous powers of prayer. And yet, insists Taanit, you cannot live your life without having met a Holy men who see through the circumstances of the world to the relationships beyond.
Which brings us back to the two clowns.
The clowns seem to me to be a gentler version of Nachum Ish Gamzu. We get angry at someone who beat us at the game… and clowns make us laugh. We get sad because we failed at a game we believed we deserved to win… and clowns make us laugh.
Like Nachum Ish Gamzu, clowns know the world is a game. But while Nachum Ish gamzu makes his students cry, the clowns make us laugh at how seriously we take ourselves and what happens. They are in a sense, already in the world to come, bringing us a taste from there.
My reading of the clowns is based on the following teaching of the Besht, who taught that the clowns in Taanit lived life trying to connect people to G-d in everything they did –to never lose track of the relationships behind the circumstances of their lives. The only people who weren’t able to begin the work on the relationship were those stuck in sadness. So the clowns made them laugh.
Shavuot is an opportunity to reflect on how receiving the Torah can change us. On the one hand the commandments and much of the Torah we learn are very much about the world we live in and the blessings it brings. And yet, whether in the Humash or in masechet Taanit, Torah also points beyond itself to the relationship behind it.
May the Torah we receive this Shavuot bring us deeper into the world we love, and may it bring us blessings. May it protect us from suffering. And may it also (gently) remind us not to take ourselves so seriously that we stop laughing at ourselves.
Chag Sameach, Rav Yehoshua
קפד. שמעתי בשם מורי פירוש הש"ס (תענית כ"ב א) דהני תרי בדחי דהוי בני עלמא דאתי, ועל פיק שאלה נאמרה לו, דהענין דהני תרי בדחי היה כל עסקם להתחבר עם כל איש ואיש וליחד קודשא בריך הוא ושכינתיה, בכל פרטי מעשה איש, הן בביתו של כל איש ואיש, או בעסקיו, ובכלל ובפרט, זולת מי שהיה לו צער חס ושלום לא היו יכולים ליחד יחודו להתחבר עמו, לכך הוי מבדחי ליה בדברים, עד ששמח, ונתחברו עמו, לדבוק אתו עמו בו יתברך שמו וכו', והוא כלל גדול והבן, ודברי פי חכם חן: (תולדות יעקב יוסף דף ע"ב ע"א, בן פורת יוסף דף פ"א ע"ג)שיעורים נוספים ניתן למצוא בקטגוריות הבאות: במדבר
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