Or, Observations; or, Character Profiles of the Rabbinical Kind
This week’s lesson is not a lesson at all. This week’s lesson is a list; and not a list like last summer’s three precepts, pillars, or principles, but a list of names: five students, in fact. It teaches nothing, nothing at all. It is merely a forward to next week.
2.10 Rabbi Yoḥanan ben Zakkai had five disciples, namely:
Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Ḥananiah, Rabbi Yose Ha-Kohen, Rabbi Shimon ben Netanel, Rabbi Elazar ben Arakh.
Not very much to work with, is it? I pondered for a moment, I could discuss names, but that’d be a topic teaching little and lasting less, so I thought, if the point is to study, why not go until we have something to study? That is, this week, I’m doing TWO teachings! So let’s carry on, shall we?
2.11 This is how he characterized their merits:
Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus: a plastered well that never loses a drop;
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Ḥananiah: happy the one who gave him birth;
Rabbi Yose Ha-Kohen: a saintly person;
Rabbi Shimon ben Netanel: a pious person;
Rabbi Elazar ben Arakh: an ever-flowing fountain.
Once more, this is a list, and once more, it’s a prelude to the next teaching (which weighs the merits of one against the others in a classic format: if offered each of these, which would you choose?), but I think I’ll pause here this time because sometimes it takes a good long hard look at what’s meritorious to remember it (and want to remember these you’ll want to do, as they’ll come into play for the next few weeks), rather than a stern kick in the you-know-what’s to not do something instead, right?
So, as with many list evaluations, we’ll begin with number one, in this case one Eliezer ben Hyrcanus (and for those who got a bit upset when I skipped the naming lesson, it’s this simple: Eliezer, son of Hyrcanus. Done). Rabbi Yoḥanan describes him as a plastered well that never loses a drop. What’s this to mean?
It means he’s a plastered well that never loses a drop, what do you think it means?
I think it means a few things on a few different levels. In one way, like a well that never loses a drop and is always able to provide, Eliezer is himself reliable. If you have a need, he’ll have a hand to help you. Who doesn’t have a friend who’s always there for them, to listen, to kick them into action, to be good company if they need it? That sounds like Eliezer to me–and certainly, it’s good to be that person when you can be.
On another level, I think it works in reverse too: Just as there’s always something to get out of that plastered well, whatever’s thrown into it won’t leak out, either. Eliezer is receptive and has a strong memory; what you say to him, what you do to him, what you teach to him, will stay with him for a very long time. Maybe he holds a grudge, maybe he doesn’t; the point is, once in, it’s never out. We all know those people, too, who sometimes seem to remember you better than you remember yourself.
Rabbi Yoḥanan’s next disciple is Yehoshua ben Ḥananiah, described in a rather peculiar way: “happy the one who gave him birth.” This speaks very little of Yehoshua himself, doesn’t it? It implies a boy who makes his mommy proud, the perfect child who casts a perfect shadow who catches the light in just the right way to make everyone come to his parents and say, “That’s some boy you’ve got there.”
Yehoshua’s the jock. The popular kid. The one that goes out of his way to make a good impression and takes that extra moment to do that good deed to make someone thank him. Is it good to act for the reward, for the praise? In past teachings we’ve been taught to do for the sake of doing, that good should be done for the sake of good, yet Yehoshua seems to have forgotten this. He likes to please. He likes the reward of being the one to please.
Next in line is Yose Ha-Kohen, a saintly person. What does it mean to be saintly when, in Judaism, we have no saints? The Hebrew is but one word, “Chasid,” from the same root as “chesed,” loving-kindness. Yose’s a bright lad, in both intellect and action; he’ll hold the door for you and share his jacket even if means getting wet in the rain because it means helping someone around him. He doesn’t care for rewards, he acts because it feels good to do good. He’s the friend who’ll give a helping hand in an instant, no thought to why you need it, no thought to what he must do himself: If he’s able to help, he’s happy to help.
Yose’s the kind of guy who shines in a crowd. He’s the smiling face, truly happy. Is Yehoshua happy? Probably not; he acts to please, to fill a part of him that’s empty. Is Yose happy? Yes–and so happy he spreads it with a smile, a handshake, a glance in your general direction; he acts because he’s full of warmth, more than he can contain. He acts through a desire to do good, to be kind and loving, not for anything else. He’s the one you remember and never want to forget.
Rabbi Yoḥanan’s fourth student is Shimon ben Netanel, in English described as a pious person. But you know what, I hate the word pious; sure, it means reverent, and I like reverence, but to me “pious” seems a little more self-assured than reverence does, and although I might be mistaken in connotation, it leaves a bitter aftertaste in my mouth nonetheless. So I do what anyone would do: I study the Hebrew, and huzzah! I can actually understand it again! “Y’rei cheit,” as Shimon is described, means “he fears sin.” That is much different than pious.
What does it mean to fear sin? I’m sure I have said before that I don’t like the concept of “fearing God,” that I feel it sours an otherwise warm and loving personal relationship we can forge with God, but is fearing sin the same thing? Thinking back to last summer when I took my psychology class, I remember we spent a fair bit of time talking about discipline and conditioning (a fascinating topic; I implore you to take a psychology class if you’re ever offered the chance, and if not, find a good textbook for some light reading that can quickly change your perspective forever). Saying one “fears the sin” is like saying they “fear the punishment.”
So when Shimon is said to “fear the sin” he’s that typical Southern boy who’s God-fearing for all that it’s worth. It’s not about doing the good for him; it’s about not doing the bad. He’s innately distrustful, inherently fearful. He flinches in front of conflict, retreats in the face of danger, barely has a spine to stand with. But from a distance, from the outside, he looks pious enough indeed. He behaves well, doesn’t complain, goes along with the one in charge like any loyal disciple would. Is it really all worth it, though? Shimon doesn’t seem happy to me. He seems fearful, afraid, tied up inside with no way of knowing how to undo the knots, with no knowledge of what it would mean to him if the knots were ever undone.
I think we’ve all known people like Shimon; I think many of us have been in places at one time or another that have made us feel just like him, so consumed in our fears that we forget why we’re afraid and simply submit to them. It’s not a pleasant place. It’s a place bordering on despair and hopelessness, that dark place we run from in nightmares and wake screaming in a cold sweat to avoid at all costs. This solid depth is one we grow too comfortable with; hiding is easy, we remind ourselves, and we never find our way up from them again.
Lastly, after these four characters, we have Elazar ben Arakh, who’s an ever-flowing fountain. He’s the seeming antithesis of Eliezer, but whereas the former holds everything in, Elazar let’s everything flow out. He’s the guy who’ll share a secret because something can be done about it, or just because it’s too good to keep to himself. He’s the one that won’t stop talking–doesn’t matter what about, mind you, so long as there’s something to be said, or the silence into which to say it. He shows off, he flaunts himself, he’s happy to let all his laundry air in the sun, no matter who’s watching it.
But past all the exuberance is a brighter side to Elazar. Sure, he seems the jerk at first, but just as he’ll hold nothing in, he won’t hold anything back: If you need something, he’ll give it to you. He’ll provide and give you what he thinks you need, whether you think you need it or not, and usually it’ll be just what you’re seeking; after all, he has so much to his repertoire that he’s bound to have been in this situation before and knows exactly what to do about it. He’s almost two people in one: The ones we can’t stand, who love themselves over everything else, and the ones who have everything at their disposal and would happily rewrite history to give you the upper hand.
These five disciples, oddly described as they are, each offer us a lesson in meritorious behavior. Eliezer is receptive and reliable; Yehoshua is praiseworthy and proud; Yose is loving and kind; Shimon does what is right no matter the cost; and Elazar is as giving as they come. Certainly, any archetype, if taken past the point of healthy moderation, can become a bane upon himself and others–Eliezer holds awful grudges, Yehoshua acts only for praise; Yose’s easily deceived and taken advantage of; Shimon is susceptible to living a life of fear; and Elazar can easily be that jerk you hate to talk with.
However, if we learn from each of them, to do the good things they do and to avoid the excess that makes them unbearable, we can be as meritorious as they are, as productive and memorable as each of them, all on our own. And isn’t that a wonderful lesson to learn?