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Sunday, December 03, 2006

A Contemporary Commentary to Bava Metzia 84a, Part I

The post that Bari posted on the aggadata regarding Rav Yohanan and Reish Lakish generated some very heavy and heated discussion. I would like to attempt to offer a very different approach to this aggadata that I have been working on which I hope will give a possible understanding of the aggadata that will neither cast Rav Yohanan as a villain c”v, nor will it justify the problematic behavior described in the aggadata as I believe Bari’s post did.

My basic theory is that the Aggadata of Rav Yohanan and Reish Lakish is not an autonomous unit but rather the extension of the aggadata that precedes it. Here is the beginning of the discussion of Rav Yohanan on Bava Metzia 84a:

R. Yochanan said: ‘I am the only one left of the beautiful people of Jerusalem [people whose faces radiated with a special glow (Rashi)]. [Comments the gemara:] If a person wants to see this radiance of R. Yochanan, he should take a silver cup straight out of the silversmith’s furnace [while it is still glowing], fill it with the pits of a red pomegranate, surround the top with a crown of red roses, and place it between the sun and the shade; and this radiance is only a semblance of R. Yochanan’s beauty.

[The Gemara asks:] Is that so? For did not a Master say: The beauty of R. Kahane is only a small portion of R. Abbahu’s; the beauty of R. Abbahu is only a small portion of Yaakov Avinu’s; Yaakov Avinu’s beauty was only a small portion of Adam’s; and R. Yochanan is not mentioned at all in this cateogory! [The Gemara answers:] R. Yochanan was different, [he did have this luminous glow,] but he did not have a beard.

R. Yochanan used to go and sit at the gate of the mikveh. He would say, “When the daughters of Israel will come up from performing the mitzvah of immersing in a mikveh, let them see my face, that they should have sons that are as beautiful and as learned as I am.” Said the Rabbis to him, “Aren’t you afraid of an evil eye?” He replied, “I am an offspring of Yoseph against whom an evil eye is powerless.” For it says, “A charming son is Yoseph, a charming son by the well” (Genesis 49:22), on which R. Abbahu commented: Don’t read alei ayin, “by the well”, but rather, olei ayin, “above the [influence of the evil] eye.” R. Yose b. R. Chanina derived it from [Jacob’s blessing to Yoseph’s sons], “And may they proliferate abundantly like fish within the land” (Genesis 48:16): just as fish in the seas are covered by water, and the evil eye has no power over them, so, too, the children of Yoseph – the [evil] eye has no power over them.

There are several reasons to suggest that this aggadata was meant to be read together with the piece that follows it. First, this is a repetition of aggadatas that have already appeared in the Gemara (Berachot 20a and 55b). I think that it is fair to suggest that they were repeated here in order to give context to the story that follows. Further, using one particular understanding of Ayin Hara which I would like to put forth here, I believe that the two stories make up one conceptual unit.

What is Ayin Hara? There are many answers to this question. I would like to put forth a particular formulation of it which was advanced by Rav Kook in Ein Aya. In two remarkable pieces (Vol I, p. 102 and Vol II, pg. 275-6), Rav Kook develops the idea that the evil eye is a disturbance of those unseen social and spiritual connections that tie people to each other. None of us lives as an island, we are all affected by and affect a wider social reality that transcends our selves. Ideally, our relationship with others should be one of balance and propriety where each person takes into account his place in the greater fabric of life. Sometimes, however, a person may act in such a way that causes others to perceive him in a negative fashion. Behaviors that flaunt one’s advantages over others are the most likely to disturb the social balance. Such behaviors engender jealousy and hostility towards that person and then, on either a conscious or subconscious level, the person may respond with negative attitudes of their own until a cycle of hostility ensues which upsets man’s social and spiritual life on all levels. Thus, Ayin Hara is a natural process in which a lack of sensitivity to that which ties humanity together starts a chain reaction which disturbs those very ties and eventually hurts he who initiated such behavior.

How then, is Ayin Hara associated with Yoseph (or with fish, for that matter)? Yoseph is the prototype of someone so true to his self that he becomes impervious to the influences of the environment. Yoseph lived in a foreign culture with tremendous personal challenges and all the while, he stayed true to his inner purpose. Yoseph’s internal spiritual compass was so developed and autonomous to the point that the attitudes of others had no influence on the way in which he defined himself or his purpose. Such a person can allow himself more freedom in his behavior, not having to fear being affected by the ill-will of others. Such a person becomes so secure in his own sense of self that the negative attitudes of others are simply not factors in his day to day life.

Fish have a similar property. Fish live totally unaware of that which occurs over the surface of the water. They continue their life regardless of the actions of those above ground. This is the nature of Yoseph, he set up a mental barrier between himself and the rest of the world which simply did not allow him to be affected by the attitudes of others.

In talking of Yoseph’s immunity from Ayin Hara, we are then discussing protection from Ayin Hara in one direction only. That is, the protection of a person from attitudes others have toward them. It does not, however, guarantee, that Yoseph’s actions will not influence the attitudes of others towards themselves. Yoseph may not be subject to the ill effects of ayin hara; however, this does not mean that he can not disturb the inner lives of others.

In light of the preceding ideas, Rav Yohanan, a tremendously beautiful person, was not concerned with the indirect effect his social behavior might have had on his own spiritual growth. He was not concerned with publicly displaying his tremendous beauty and the potential jealousy that this may engender in others. Internally, he knew that his actions were for the sake of heaven and that he did not, therefore, have to fear the negative attitudes of others. He did not fear the small-minded jealously or the petty ill-will that others may or may not have toward him. This, I believe is central to our understanding of the next part of the story, that of Rav Yohanan and Reish Lakish.