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Tuesday, December 12, 2006

A Contemporary Commentary to Bava Metzia 84a, Part II

Continued from here.

To continue our discussion of this aggadata, lets analyze the gemara one section at a time:

One day R. Yochanan was bathing in the Jordan. Reish Lakish saw him and gracefully jumped into the Jordan after him. Said R. Yochanan to him, “Your strength should be used for Torah.” Retorted Reish Lakish, “Your beauty should be for women.” R. Yochanan said to him, “If you will abandon your ways, I will give you my sister [in marriage] who is even more beautiful than I am.” Reish Lakish agreed; he then wanted to turn around to collect his weapons but suddenly he could not jump as far as he did before [for as soon as he committed himself to live by the spiritual values of the Torah his physical strength waned (Rashi)]. R. Yochanan taught him Chumash and Mishnah, and Reish Lakish became a Torah scholar [and the study partner of R. Yochanan].
I would like to suggest that this is a direct continuation of the behavior R. Yochanan exhibits in the previous section of aggadata. Just like R. Yochanan uses his incredible beauty to help increase kavod shamaim in the previous section, he does the same here, utilizing his physical beauty (and the physical beauty of his sister) in order to build another sage in Yisrael. We know from the previous section that R. Yochanan did not fear the potential negative effects of Ayin Hara that others may fear as a result of similar behavior. R. Yochanan, a descendant of Yoseph, is impervious to the ill will of others. R. Yochanan, a leader himself, recognizes a quality of leadership in Reish Lakish and tries to make an appeal to the value system of power which Reish Lakish appreciates: ‘Your strength should be used for Torah’

Reish Lakish is affected by the words of R. Yohanan. He recognizes a great power which is inaccessible to him. However, this new power is of a different nature than the type of power that he is familiar with. The power of R. Yohanan is in the realm of the aesthetic, something which Reish Lakish has up till now associated with femininity and weakness in life (“Your beauty should be for women.”) However, Reish Lakish sees something deeper in the external beauty of R. Yochanan – something reflective of great inner strength that can only be accessed through the aesthetic. When we talk of the power of the aesthetic, we are referring to the ability of humanity to appreciate the beauty of abstract ideas. This ability to appreciate the aesthetic in life can move societies and shift centers of power. The pen is mightier than the sword but in order to wield its power, it must take an aesthetic form that will be appreciated by others. This is key, the power of the aesthetic must exercise itself through the medium of man’s social life. Thus it becomes a double edged sword – in proper hands, it can move society towards greatness. In the wrong hands, the power of the Ayin Hara as explained in the previous installment can reach disastrous proportions.

The fact that Reish Lakish perceives the potential of such a mode of leadership is of great note. Reish Lakish, as we know him at this point in the story, is a leader of a gang of robbers. He knows only the power of the sword and thus immediately appreciates the physical strength of R. Yochanan. R. Yochanan shows him a different kind of strength. The strength of the aesthetic in life. That which up until now he associated with weakness and femininity is now expressive of great strength of a mysterious kind. This is a key lesson that this portion of the aggadata is coming to teach. The power of the aesthetic is identified with the power of Torah. (everyone can think to a particular moment in the development of their learning where a concept became clear to them in all its beauty. The pleasure derived from such moments can best be described as aesthetic pleasure. It is not the utility or power of the teaching which transforms us but rather our appreciation of its internal and uniquely beautiful structure).

Reish Lakish thus perceived the power in beauty. He sees in R. Yochanan that brute force is not the only type of influence that exists in the world. There is a loftier and more human dimension which can be a source of tremendous strength – but not of the physical kind. Expecting to acquire another source of power and strength, Reish Lakish takes upon himself the pursuit of the wisdom of Torah. However, when Reish Lakish focuses his attention on the spiritual dimension through involvement in Torah, his physical strength wanes without him even noticing. What he probably hoped – an additional source of power to add to his list of abilities – ends up coming at the expense of his previous achievements. The power of the word, however, has already ensnared Reish Lakish. There is no going back. Through involvement in Torah NOT for the sake of heaven, he arrives at true love of Torah and the spiritual dimension of life.

Thus, we see that that R. Yohanan has success using his beauty for the purpose of the spiritual good. Behaviors which would cause others to fail were used by him with great success. He was able to navigate the power of the aesthetic without disrupting the social balance. However, there is a potential flaw hidden in this segment of our story. The good that was brought through the behavior of R. Yochanan was contingent upon Reish Lakish having an appreciation for that which R. Yochanan has to offer to the world, even if that appreciation is of the most physical type. What if Reish Lakish lacked such sensitivities? In the next segment of the aggadata, we see for the first time a crisis caused by R. Yohanan’s behavior. In the next installment, we will try to learn the rest of the aggadata in light of the ideas we have so far constructed.