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Living with Torah

David Jay Derovan

Jerusalem 5760

It is a tale with a sad ending. It begins with sunshine and light but it ends with darkness
and despair. It begins with clarity of vision but it ends in muddy confusion. The original tale is
told in Baba Metzi’a, on Daf 84, Amud Alef. Here is my version.
On a warm, clear day, Rabbi Yochanan went swimming in the Jordan River. “And just
who was this Rabbi Yochanan?” you ask. Rabbi Yochanan was a pre-eminent Rabbinic scholar
from the Galilee town of Tzippori. He was on his way to becoming the greatest sage of his time.
He was responsible for the Talmud Yerushalmi. And he was a most handsome fellow!
So, where were we? Oh, yes, Rabbi Yochanan was swimming in the river. All of a
sudden, in jumps a striking fellow named Shimon. Rabbi Yochanan immediately recognized
this second bather for what he was, namely a Jewish bandit. Recognizing a strong, muscular
fellow when he sees one, Rabbi Yochanan called out to him, “Your strength was meant for
“And your beauty was meant for women!” replied the robber.
“Do Teshuva, return to the Torah of your youth and you can marry my sister, who is even
more beautiful than me!” countered Rabbi Yochanan.
To make a short story even shorter, the bandit agreed. Funny, though, after accepting
Rabbi Yochanan’s challenge to study Torah seriously and to become a Ba’al Teshuva, Shimon
the bandit could not manage to jump back onto the riverbank. My Chavruta, Rashi¸ explains
that after placing the yoke to Torah and Mitzvot on his shoulders, Shimon lacked the strength for
his usual acrobatics.
Thus began a lifelong friendship and partnership between two outstanding personalities.
The Gemara reports that Rabbi Yochanan taught his new disciple, Shimon ben Lakish, Bible
and Mishnah and made out of him a great man. Rabbi Yochanan lived to be almost 100 years
old. Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish – fondly known as Raish Lakish – was about 10 years his junior.
The first half of our tale must have taken place when both men were relatively young. Thus, we
can safely assume that they studied together for close to seventy years! Is it any wonder that at
times Rabbi Yochanan calls Raish Lakish, “my right hand”? Aside from being brothers-in-law –
yes, Raish Lakish did marry Rabbi Yochanan’s beautiful sister – they were inseparable, like
brothers. To the untrained eye, it would seem that they were formidable adversaries, for they
seem to argue with each other on almost every page of the Talmud and Midrash. Yes, they
argued vehemently about every major halachic and aggadic issue. However, it was a true labor
of love between two scholars, between a life-long mentor and a life long disciple. Step into any
Bayt Midrash and you can hear the Rabbi Yochanan’s and Raish Lakish’s of today arguing at
the top of their lungs, but you can see in their eyes, in their gestures that they are also the best of
For almost seventy years Rabbi Yochanan and Raish Lakish were a successful Chavruta,
learning pair. Until one day, when the discussion in the Bayt Midrash was turned to swords and
knives. When can a sword or a knife or a long knife or a spear or a hand sickle or a sickle for
harvesting become ritually unclean, Tamay? Everyone agreed that these items can become
ritually unclean, Tamay when the smithy is finished making them. So when is the
manufacturing process complete? For an authoritative answer, all eyes and ears were turned to
the two elder rabbinic statesmen who were present. Sure enough, an argument ensued. Rabbi
Yochanan said, “They can become ritually unclean, Tamay, from the time they are shaped by
fire in the furnace.”
Raish Lakish disagreed. “They can become ritually unclean, Tamay, only after they have
been polished with water.”
Let’s take a moment to reflect. My other Chavruta, Tosafot, raised an interesting
question. Here, we have two of the greatest, if not the greatest sages of their time making a
fundamental error. The Mishnah in Kaylim, which deals with these issues, states exactly when
the manufacturing process is considered completed for each kind of knife or bladed object. The
only problem is that neither Rabbi Yochanan’s nor Raish Lakish’s answers agree with the
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statements found in the Mishnah. That these two gentlemen should not remember or know a
Mishnah is inconceivable! Tosafot suggested an answer. However, it raises more questions than
it answers. So, back to our tale, but don’t forget this question. It is a crucial one.
Here is the rest of the tale, ‘till the bitter end.
“Well, a bandit surely knows banditry!” exclaims Rabbi Yochanan, in response to Raish
Lakish’s answer, implying that Raish Lakish certainly would know all there is to know about
swords and knives.
“What good have you done for me?” asks Raish Lakish. “Before, they – my fellow
robbers -- called me, Rebbe, and here – in the Yeshiva -- they call me, Rebbe.”
“The good I have done for you,” replied Rabbi Yochanan, “is that I have brought you
under the wings of the Shechinah.”
Rabbi Yochanan became so upset that he could not think straight, while Raish Lakish
became sick, literally sick, deathly sick from this argument.
While Raish Lakish lay dying in his bed, his wife came running to her brother. With tears
pouring down her cheeks she pleaded with her brother to pray for his friend Raish Lakish. Rabbi
Yochanan refused.
“Do it for his children,” she cried, “so they will not become orphans.”
Rabbi Yochanan answered by quoting the prophet, Yirmiyahu (49:11), “She has left
orphans, I will support them.”
“Do it so I will not become a widow!” she screamed at him.
Again her brother replied with a quote, the remainder of the verse from Yirmi’yahu,
“Your widows will trust in me.”
Raish Lakish died.

Afterwards, Rabbi Yochanan was very sorry. His colleagues asked, “Who can we send to
study with him so he will return to his former self?” They finally sent the sharpest student
among them, Rabbi Elazar ben Pedat. He went and sat with Rabbi Yochanan. Every time Rabbi
Yochanan would say something, Rabbi Elazar ben Pedat would quote a bit of Mishnaic material
to support the statement.
Finally, Rabbi Yochanan could not stand it any longer. He said to Rabbi Elazar, “Do you
really consider yourself to be like ben Lakish? Whenever I said something, Raish Lakish would
pepper me with 24 questions and I’d fire back 24 answers. That is how our Torah grew. And all
you can say is that the Baraita supports my opinion. Don’t you think I know that already?!”
Rabbi Yochanan turned away and began to cry. “Where is ben Lakish? Where is ben Lakish?”
He asked over and over again, each time raising his voice louder and louder, until he became
totally confused.
The Rabbis prayed that God have mercy and compassion for their colleague, Rabbi
Yochanan. As a result, he, too, died.

What happened here? For almost 70 years these two men were as close as brothers. The
give and take between them has immeasurably enriched the great tapestry of Torah and the very
fabric of our lives. How many hundreds on laws are based on their opinions! And in the end
they upset and insult each other to the point that they die! This is tragedy bordering on
The answer to these questions is built on two assumptions. The first is that the Gemara is
not a history book. The purpose of the tale is not to be found in the historical facts per se.
Rather, the Rabbi of the Talmud and Midrash tell us these stories to teach us something. And
that something is supposed to affect our lives, here, today.
The second assumption is the question raised by our friends the authors of the Tosafot.
Why would Rabbi Yochanan and Raish Lakish argue about a well-known Mishnah text?
They aren’t. A quick look back at the exchange of words that follows their expressed
opinions will show that this is not a simple halachic disagreement. Rather, something else,
something much deeper is going on here.
What started as a halachic question in the Bayt Midrash became a sharp argument about
Teshuva. The question was when can a knife theoretically become ritually impure? The opposite
of ritual impurity is Taharah, ritual purity. Only something that is pure, holy, and whole runs
the risk of becoming impure, profaned, and deficient. So when does a Ba’al Teshuva finish the
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process of Teshuva? When does a Ba’al Teshuva become pure and holy to the point that he or
she is at risk of becoming impure?
Rabbi Yochanan answers that the process of Teshuva ends when the fire has burned away
the individual’s former life, thereby fashioning a new life, a new person.
Raish Lakish, the Ba’al Teshuva, replies that the process is finished when the individual
has been polished by water. Water is the metaphor for Torah. When the individual has totally
immerses himself in Torah, when the Ba’al Teshuva has totally adopted a life of Torah and
Mitzvot, then the process is finished, even if he retains certain elements of his former life.
“After all these years, you still remember your knives?” asked Rabbi Yochanan in
dismay. In the most derogatory and demeaning manner, Rabbi Yochanan accuses Raish Lakish
of not having given up his former life as a bandit.
Raish Lakish replies, “According to you, I am no better off here, as the head of the
Yeshiva, than I was as head of my gang of robbers.”
“What are you talking about?” screams Rabbi Yochanan. “I brought you back to God!
Don’t you see the difference between a life of banditry and a life of Torah after all these years?”
In the course of their seventy years together, they never raised the issue. And if Rabbi
Yochanan had his doubts about his lifelong friend, he never expressed them out loud, until now.
Raish Lakish turned away broken hearted. He went home, to bed, to die.
Rabbi Yochanan and Raish Lakish represent two different models of living a life of
Torah. Rabbi Yochanan is the model of “Torah is life.” There is no life outside of Torah. His
motto comes from Pirkay Avot (5:22), “Turn it (the Torah) over again and again, for everything
is in it.” The swirling world around, outside of Torah is at least irrelevant, if not downright
dangerous. You run the risk of becoming unclean, Tamay, when you encounter it. If you still
remember all there is to know about knives, then you are still a bandit!
Raish Lakish is the model of “life with Torah.” Through the eyes of Torah, we look at the
world around us. With the ethics of Torah to guide us, we live in the wide world. Optimally, we
become living, breathing, bipedal Sifray Torah living in a world teeming with both the good and
the bad, with beauty and ugliness. For a Ba’al Teshuva to remember his former life and to
continue to be involved in the valuable and good parts of that life is positive thing, for that is
what a life with Torah is all about anyway. Torah teaches us the correct way for living in the
world. Becoming a Ba’al Teshuva does not require one to give up art, literature and music,
because the observant Jew should also be enjoying the same art, literature and music. To still
know all there is to know about knives does not mean you are still a bandit!
Rabbi Yochanan’s bull-headed and foolish stubbornness does not allow him to see his
error until it is too late. Ignoring the pleas of his sister, he allows Raish Lakish to die of a
broken heart.
Poor Reb Elazar ben Pedat meant well. He tried his best. But how can you argue with a
sage so wise that everything he says is true. It wasn’t Reb Elazar’s own, personal, subjective
opinion. Rather, every word Rabbi Yochanan uttered could be substantiated by proofs from
other sources. And poor Rabbi Yochanan! He discovers his loss when it is too late. Raish
Lakish is gone. Only when Raish Lakish is gone forever does Rabbi Yochanan finally see the
value in Raish Lakish’s knives. Contact and involvement with the world outside of Torah
creates the challenge, the questions that enrich the Torah itself. The twenty-four questions and
answers are equal to the unimpeachable, unchangeable 24 books of the Bible. Nevertheless, the
questions and the answers are the essence of the Oral, Rabbinic tradition. They make the
inanimate words scripted on the parchment come alive!
“Oh, Raish Lakish! Oh, Raish Lakish! Where are you now?!” wails Rabbi Yochanan.
“Where are you? Come back to me so I can tell you I was wrong. You were right. I apologize! I
am, so, so sorry.” Realizing his error, deeply regretting the loss of his best friend, his finest
disciple, Rabbi Yochanan descended into an irreversible depression. With sublime sensitivity,
his colleagues pray that God relieve Rabbi Yochanan’s misery. God responds by reuniting
Rabbi Yochanan with his dear Raish Lakish in the world that is all good.

This final clash of Torah titans was a tournament with no victors. The tragic deaths of
Rabbi Yochanan and Raish Lakish are the bitter end to an otherwise glorious tale of the labor
and love of Torah. As we peruse page after page of Talmud, encountering time and again these
two wise men, we must remember the final lesson they taught us, the expensive lesson that cost
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both their lives. A life of Torah is only enriched when it rises to the challenges thrown at it by
living in the wide world that surrounds us. As Raish Lakish taught, the more we polish
ourselves through immersion in the waters of Torah, the better prepared we will be to personally
rise to the challenge.