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Tisha B’Av: The Secret to Survival
Video 3 of 4
Now, what’s the reason why it should? What’s the reason why it shouldn’t? So as it turns out, that revolves around whether the tanur is actually considered a kli, a utensil. Let me explain. Not everything in the world can become tamei, can become contaminated simple by becoming exposed to a source of impurity like for example if a stone come in contact with a dead body, the stone does not become tamei. However, there are other classes of things that can become tamei, that can become impure and one of those classes of things are man made utensils such as a tanur, this earthenware oven.
Generally speaking, earthenware ovens can accept tumah contamination if it’s exposed to a source of tumah it will become impure. The question at stake between Rabbi Eliezer and the chachamim is actually whether this shattered tanur that has been stitched together with sand is actually considered a kli or not. Is it really considered a utensil? It was once a utensil before it as broken apart, now it’s been stitched back together. really, the issue at stake is - is this thing a real kli or not? Is it a legitimate utensil anymore? And now let’s start looking at some of the strange details in the story. Let’s begin with the way this thing was cut apart and how it was put back together.
So the Mishnah had said that what we’re talking about is a smashed oven that was cut into slices as it were, the slices are actually called chuliyot. Chuliyot, as I mentioned before, is really the word for vertebrae. Is like this oven was sliced in horizontal segments since the oven itself is cylindrical, each one of these cylindrical segment almost look like a rib in a ribcage. And then natan chul bein chulia lechulia, “and then sand was put between each one of these ribs”. But it’s a very vivid kind of thing, this tanur that was cut apart in a very vivid kind of way, like separating the ribs in a ribcage, almost as if the tanur was like a skeleton and you took it apart by separating each link at the spine; each one of these vertebrae and then you try to put it back together and you use sand. Why sand of all things? And that leads me to a theory I would like to suggest to you.
So remember, this debate took place in Yavneh. Yavneh is pretty near the ocean and as you look around and you gaze towards the south coming towards you, you see a very interesting feature. The land isn’t really land at all, it’s sand. There are these sand dunes stretching down all the way down from Ashkelon up toward Yavneh, kilometers of sand dunes which actually gives a kind of new meaning to the name that the Sages give to their beit midrash. What do they call it? They call it kerem beyavneh, the vineyard at Yavneh. How ironic! You couldn’t plant a vineyard there if you tried. The Gemara elsewhere talks about how Yavneh got this strange name, kerem beyavneh. Was there in fact a kerem beyavneh the Gemara asked? Was there in fact a vineyard in Yavneh? It’s a rhetorical question. Obviously the answer is no!
The Gemara instead says “ no. These are the rows of talmidei chachamim. These were the rows of sages that were arranged as if carefully planted vines, planted row by row in a vineyard”. There were no vineyards in Yavneh. The vineyard in Yavneh were the Sages who were learning Torah there; Yavneh was just sand.
So what I really want to argue here is that the debate between Rabbi Eliezer and the Sages over this oven stitched together with sand is actually a debate about Yavneh. What is the oven stitched together with sand? What is it’s ribcage? This human body as it were that’s been taken apart? There is this corporate entity that has been shattered, not one person, but a community of people comprising a single great organism - the organism we call the Jewish Nation. That’s the utensil that has been smashed and lie in shards. The Romans have overrun the land of Israel, laid siege to the capital Jerusalem; invaded it’s walls, destroyed it’s temple, subjugated it’s people,sold them as slaves; there is nothing left! The nation of Israel has been shattered . It’s as if this vertebrae of this organism has been sliced apart. But, in the creation of Yavneh, there was an attempt to salvage something. There was an attempt to create a lifeboat for Jewish Nationhood, to reconstruct it on other terms; to stitch it together with sand. The debate between Rabbi Eliezer and the Sages is a debate about whether Yavneh and the Jewish nation it’s intending to hold together is really for real. It’s an attempt to refashion a broken utensil. So is it really a utensil or is it just shards? That’s the debate between these men. Rabbi Eliezer said “it’s not really a kli, it’s not real utensils. The Sages said “oh yes it is!” This experiment in alternative nation building is for real; the essence of the Jewish national enterprise still lives on, and it lives on in these very walls.
So the Gemara continues and it recounts that Rabbi Eliezer didn’t just give in, he marshalled proofs for his position. What are the proofs? The carob tree, the aqueducts and the walls. What are these things? If you think about them carefully, they the elements of nationhood. They are what civilization, any civilization is built out of. What are the elements of the human civilization? You can argue that there are three elements. One of these are raw materials - plant, trees, minerals,iron, ore. What’s the first proof Rabbi Eliezer brings to his position? It’s a carob tree, one of those raw materials. But civilization is built on something else too. Human society might start with hunter gatherers just sort of reaping the world raw materials. But that’s not a civilisation. A civilisation takes that and starts to build something from it and the first thing that they build, is they build stuff to more effectively use raw materials. They build things like aqueducts to channel water where it’s needed. They build hoes, picks and hammers. All of these things are there to take raw materials and to make something more of them. That’s element two in a civilization. But there is a third element too.
When human beings move from just being hunter gatherers, to a society that kind of harnesses raw material, a third and kind of final step that they take is to create institutions that embody their values. Court systems, academic institutions, libraries , that’s the third element of Rabbi Eliezer’s proofs - the walls of Yavneh itself, the buildings that people build to perpetuate their values. These three things, Rabbi Eliezer marshals his proof from, are the stuff out of which civilisation is made and he points to it and says “it’s destroyed” , you know by the way, of all raw materials that he chooses to highlight, isn’t it interesting that he chooses the carob tree. How do you spell carob tree, charov? Chet-resh-vav-bet. Do you know what else charov spells? It spells ‘destruction’. Charov - it’s all destroyed! The carob tree, the aqueducts, all of our institutions, gone! There is nothing left! So he says “if I’m right, let the carob tree proves I'm right”. The carob tree uproots itself and throws itself a hundred yards, the water turns backwards, the walls itself, even of this building are going to fall . Nothing is left! Everything is topsy turvy! But then Rabbi Yeshua steps it. Rabbi Yeshua starts shouting at the wall and it stops falling and it's leaning. Where else do we have ‘leaning’ in the story? Acharei rabin lehatot, “you ‘lean’ after the majority”. And that right there, is what the view of the Sages is all about.
Rabbi Eliezer stands on his feet and screams “if I am right, let the heavens itself declares that I’m right!” A voice comes out from heaven and says “Rabbi Eliezer is right!” What does that mean? It means that God himself, as it were, sides with Rabbi Eliezer. It’s true! Society requires these things. You don’t have them anymore. Jewish civilizations have been destroyed! But the Sages didn’t care. They attempted to reconstruct it anyway. A bold new experiment. We’re going to recreate a lifeboat society. A civilization on other terms. We’re going to stitch together this body politic called the ‘Jewish people’ with sand - with the sands of Yavneh, with the institution of the Sanhedrin and the Torah that we reckon in our debates and that we teach to our children - that is going to be the core of our Jewish nationhood for the foreseeable future until the temple is rebuilt! How do you spell Yavneh? Yud-bet-nun-hey. You know what else yud-bet-nun-hey spells? Yibaneh, “it will be built”. Yavneh expresses the hope and conviction that Jewish nationhood is still alive . It has not been entirely destroyed by the Romans. It lives on in the Torah that we learn here, that we teach here. This is our life boat and one day yibaneh, “it will all be re-built”.
So who wins? The majority views of the Sages or the view of Rabbi Eliezer? Rabbi Eliezer has the carob tree on his side, the aqueduct on his side, the walls on his side ,heaven is on his side. All of that says this pitiful experiment in Yavneh - the skeleton of an oven stitched together with sand, isn’t real. But we follow the majority, and the Sages says it is real. And what is the majority opinion is opposed by God himself? It doesn’t matter. The Torah is not in heaven anymore and therefore Eliyahu haNavi tells Rabbi Natan, “you want to know what God was doing through all of this? He was laughing”. Nitzchuni benai nitzchuni benai, “my children have bested me”. They’ve taken my Torah and they’ve made something out of it. They’ve constructed a civilization; civilization built on sand. Here is a kerem beyavneh, fertile, alive with intellectual ferment. What’s the reason why this new body politic works?
I want to conclude this video by suggesting that the secret to the Sages’ position lies in lo bashamayim hi, “the Torah is no longer in heaven”. That’s not just what gives us permission to disagree with heaven’s point of view on this matter. It’s actually the reason Yavneh can be the basis of a new civilisation. The reason why Yavneh works as a foundation for nationhood, is because the Torah is dynamic. The Torah is not a static thing; it is alive. If the Torah was static, if the Torah was in heaven, if it was just a thing that was passed down from heaven and our job was merely to pass it along generation by generation, there was no human creativity involved, we were not a partner with God in developing it, it could not be the basis of nationhood because civilisation is about human creativity, it's about building ith raw materials . Well, with Torah, you build with raw materials too.
The Torah is the raw material that comes from heaven , just like carob trees do. And men work with it , humankind fashions something out of those raw materials ; they build. That’s the soul of civilization. We may not be able to build with land anymore, we may be stuck with sad right now, but we can build Torah, we can pass it down generation to generation, teacher to students, the students can elaborate whole new world and vistas. It’s a real civilisation. We can build with it. We can create with it. And until we get our land back, until we get conventional nationhood back, we can survive in this life boat. That’s the view of the Sages and it carries today because no matter what heaven says anymore, “after the majority you will ‘lean’”.
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