Shiur #26: Blessings For a Rabbi

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Understanding Aggada
Yeshivat Har Etzion

Shiur #26: Blessings For a Rabbi


By Rav Yitzchak Blau


When the Rabbis would depart from the house of R. Ami, and some say from the house of R. Chanina, they would say to him as follows: "May you see your world in your lifetime, your end in the life of olam haba, your hope for all generations, your heart study understanding, your lips speak wisdom, your tongue whisper joyous songs, your eyelids look straight before you, your eyes illuminate with the light of Torah, your face shine like the firmament, your lips express understanding, your kidneys be joyous in the correct and your legs run to the hear the words of the One old of days." (Berakhot 17a)    


What did these rabbis wish each other upon departing from the shared study hall.  Maharsha notes that the hands do not appear among the various body parts that receive good wishes.  Apparently, these scholars focused exclusively on limbs used for thinking and speaking.  As they focused their energies into the world of learning, their blessings for others naturally turned to the world of learning.


            Maharsha also says that seeing your world in this lifetime refers to the benefits of olam hazeh.  If so, the first part of the blessing wishes that the recipient receives a portion both in this world and in the world to come.  When citing Maharsha, R. Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg (Lifrakim, p. 399) explains that these rabbis were engaged in public service.  Such rabbinic positions often demand great sacrifices in this worldly matters.  They pay is often poor and the hours can be endless.  This motivated the rabbis to wish their colleagues some material enjoyment in this world in addition to their compensation in the world to come. 


            R. Weinberg offers two other interpretations of receiving your world in your lifetime.  The world in question may actually refer to olam haba.  According to this reading, the blessing refers not to the mundane and the material but to the spiritual and the transcendent.  To bolster this theme, we might mention the notion of Shabbat as a taste of the world to come.  Performing mitzvot offers a taste of the transcendent. 


            Alternatively, the world could refer to the ideal world of a human being, the place of his or her dreams and aspirations.  Many dream of a more just and noble society and strive to bring that society closer to realization.  Yet few merit experiencing anything close to their vision.  The good wishes express the hope that their colleagues would not only imagine a better world but get to live it to some degree as well.


            After the mention of receiving your world in this lifetime, the next two blessings refer to the world to come and to all generations.  To explain the progression, R. Weinberg cites a dialogue he had with another famous Jewish personality.  Hermann Cohen, the German Jewish philosopher, asked R. Weinberg why Hashem says this his name is "I will be what I will be (Shemot 3:14).  R. Weinberg answered that most dreams become nullified by success.  If socialism became a reality, people would stop talking about it as a goal.  So too, the ingathering of all the Jewish exiles to the land of Israel will invariably generate a loss of ardor in the Zionist cause.


            Our religious vision works differently.  Any success just points the way towards new horizons and challenges.  In fact, the maturation and development of the religious personality always enables that person to appreciate new goals and aspirations.  The excitement need not wane as the next page to be learned or the next personality trait to be refined constantly beckons.  God describes Himself as the One who will be because the religious vision permanently maintains a look towards a better future.


            Let us recall that R. Weinberg suggested that seeing one's world in this lifetime means a realization of a person's ideal vision.  Therefore, the next element of the blessing must shift our focus to the world to come.  In other words, the idea that we might produce something noble in this world should not lead us to conclude that nothing remains to look forward to in the world to come.  Rather, the future worlds promises further spiritual delights not yet realized even when we achieve some success in building a spiritual society here.


            R. Weinberg also provides a good explanation of "your tongue whisper joyous songs."  Perhaps these scholars emphasized the study of halakha as is common in the world of the yeshivot.  If so, they might have easily appreciated the rigor, logic and discipline of Judaism but missed the excitement and the poetry.  Therefore, another blessing hopes that the scholars also experience this crucial aspect of religious life.


            R. Avraham Yitzchak Hakohen Kook's Ein Ayah has an interpretation quite similar to that of R. Weinberg but he adds a few novel elements.  He understands the various blessings about the lips and tongue as referring to teaching and not just to learning.  If so, the need to speak wisdom and whisper joyous songs reflects the twin challenges of education – the cognitive and the affective.  A quality rebbe must impart knowledge and thinking skills as well as an emotional connection with our tradition.


            The emphasis on teaching may emerge from a different line of the blessing.  "Your hope for all generations" could refer to the continued existence of a given individual beyond his of her death.  Alternatively, as Etz Yosef explains, the hope in subsequent generations reflects the ongoing impact of one's educational endeavors.  The teacher positively influences scores of students who themselves go on to positively impact upon others.  In this vein, the scholar's work does continue from generation to generation long after that scholar's parting.


            "Your eyes should illuminate with the light of Torah."  Rav Kook explains this to mean that Torah becomes a perspective on life that impacts on all that a person does.  The ideals of Torah can permeate even the mundane discourse of a scholar.  Therefore, the gemara (Sukka 21b) says that even the idle chatter of a talmid chakham needs to be studies.


            This last item applies to everyone and not just to scholars.  Ideally, our idle chatter would incorporate elements of wisdom and religious ideals.  An insightful comment of R. Yisrael Lifshutz (Tifferet Yisrael) asserts this theme.


R. Dosa ben Hurkonus said: Morning sleep, afternoon wine, childish chatter and the gatherings of the ignorant remove a person from this world. (Avot 3:10)


            While the mishna seems totally negative about these activities, R. Lifshutz contends that each one represents a category that has a positive manifestation when utilized properly.  Sleep certainly is a necessary part of a person's schedule.  Yet sleeping too much, as symbolized by sleep on the morning, prevents real achievement.  Wine represents human physical enjoyment.  This too can prove helpful but not when it becomes the goal of existence as manifest in excessive afternoon drinking.


            In both of the above examples, Tifferet Yisrael suggests a quantitative distinction.  Engage in these activities but do not overindulge. With regard to the last two categories, he raises qualitative distinctions.  The childish chatter refers to jokes while the gatherings of the ignorant mean idle chatter.  Both of these elements also have their legitimate place.  After all, not very conversation can be a grave discussion of a deep intellectual point. 


            However, the jokes and the idle chatter can be of quality or of coarseness.  Avoiding the gatherings of the ignorant means preventing our idle chatter from denigration into discussion of utter frivolity or slander.  This certainly is a blessing worth having, both for scholars and laymen alike.