Shiur #2b: Isolation and Education

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Understanding Aggada
Yeshivat Har Etzion

Shiur #2b: Isolation and Education


By Rav Yitzchak Blau


The Rabbis taught: A person may not clear stones from his own domain into the public domain. An incident occurred with a certain person, who was clearing stones from his own domain into the public domain. A pious person found this fellow and said to him: "Empty one! Why are you clearing stones from a domain that is not yours, into a domain that is yours?" The fellow scoffed at the pious person. After some time, he needed to sell his field, and he was walking in that public domain, and tripped over those stones.


He said: "Fittingly did that pious person tell me, 'Why are you clearing stones from a domain that is not yours, into a domain that is yours?'" (Bava Kama 50b)


The straightforward meaning of this story revolves around one's attitude to property. As a basic moral obligation, we need to respect public spaces, and avoid littering or leaving items about that could hurt others. In addition, we should understand that our hold on our own property remains ever tenuous. From that perspective, the public domain belongs to a person in a deeper and more enduring way than his or her own private property. When the pious fellow's apparently erroneous statement proved prophetic, the former field owner, who lost his fortune, understood the wisdom of the pious fellow's attitude to property. 


One of the guiding principles of my aggada shiurim is that finding a good commentary on aggadot often demands expanding the search beyond the standard commentaries on the Talmud. This story provides a good example of the benefits of widening the search for the accumulated wisdom of our sages regarding aggadot. Rav Reuven Katz, former chief rabbi of Petach Tikva, wrote a book on Chumash called Dudaei Reuven, which contains many sharp insights, including some wonderful readings of aggadot.  The following is based on his sermon for Parashat Bo.


Rav Katz locates an additional metaphorical layer of meaning in our story. According to Rav Katz, the story deals with an educational decision. Some parents decide to withdraw completely from the community, and educate their children separately, in an effort to avoid the problematic ideals of the broader community. They focus all their resources on their own children, and ignore communal educational needs. They think that these stones of poor ideals will be safely removed to the public domain. Such an approach is mistaken on two accounts.


First, it ignores the responsibility we all have to others, and in particular, to those without the financial or religious resources to educate their own children.


Second, it is mistaken even with regard to one's own children, as they will invariably be affected by the ideals outside of their own doors. Total isolation from one's communal culture is not an option. Therefore, one must also go about fighting to change the problematic aspects of that culture. If we do not try to clear the stones of culture on the street outside, they inevitably will trip us up.


Of course, Rav Katz does not advocate exposure to every aspect of the surrounding culture. At the same time, he does note the pitfalls of an attempt at extreme isolation. Such an approach both lacks communal responsibility, and shows a narrowness of vision regarding social influences on one's own children.