Once upon a time, in a distant empire, the royal fisherman was out on the lake and caught a huge fish. “This is wonderful!” he said aloud. “The Queen loves fish!” The fish thought, “OK, then! I’m going to get to see the Queen.”
The fisherman took the fish to the kitchen of the castle, and presented it to the royal chef. “Ah, such a beautiful fish! Ze Queen, she loves fish. I will prepare zis fish in ze most perfect way.” The fish thought, “Ooh, I’m going to get special treatment! Maybe a massage…?”
Before preparing the fish, the chef and the fisherman brought her to the Queen to show off such a perfect specimen of fish, arrayed on a gorgeous silver platter. The Queen beheld the fantastic fish, and her eyes widened. “Such a beautiful fish!” she said. “I love fish! I simply cannot wait to eat it! Go broil it immediately!”
At this point, the fish realized what was happening, jumped up and blurted out, “You don’t love fish! You love yourself!”
What does it mean to be in a loving relationship with the people around us? As we gradually emerge from the pandemic, many of us are still re-learning to be around people once again, to be in public spaces with lots of others, to feel like part of a community. Now is the time, as we have entered 5783, for us to reconsider how we can be better partners, spouses, community members, and citizens of the world.
This is the fourth and final installment in the “Being There” series. We have up to this point discussed our ḥavurah, program, which we will be rolling out in the coming months; we have discussed the beit kenesset, the synagogue, as a symbol of the continuum of Jewish life; we have considered our relationship with the qehillah qedoshah, the sacred community of Jews around the world, and particularly with those in Israel.
Today, the theme is ḥevruta / partnership. Ḥevruta usually refers to the traditional Jewish mode of study, native to the beit midrash / study hall, and also refers to the person you study with. Your study-buddy for Jewish text is your ḥevruta.
A well-known slogan about learning in ḥevruta comes from the Talmud, in one of the stories of Ḥoni the Circle-Maker, who is perhaps best known for his talent at being able to draw circles within which rain will fall. But he was also known in his beit midrash as the wisest person, who could answer any question.
The story (BT Ta’anit 23a), in brief, is that Ḥoni falls asleep for 70 years, and upon waking he goes to his beit midrash to learn some Torah. But now, since he has been gone for 70 years, nobody recognizes him, and they do not treat him with respect, so he dies.
In responding to the story of his death, the sage Rava declares, “O ḥevruta o mituta.” “Partnership or death.” If we do not commit to ḥevruta, partnership, we might as well be dead. We need ḥevruta. We need partners. We need to be in relationship with others.
There are two essential messages of the concept of ḥevruta:
- We all learn more effectively when we have a partner.
- I cannot learn and be completely satisfied with myself until I have also made sure that my ḥevruta has learned as well. That is, we cannot move on until we both “get it.” So I am not in this just for myself – I am also doing it to help my colleague and friend. A good ḥevruta feels something like mountain climbers tethered to one another, so both can reach the top of the mountain together.
Ultimately, to be in relationship with others means that we give out at least as much love as we receive. And I am not speaking only of romantic relationships, or friendships, or family bonds. Rather, we have to strive to understand that we are in relationship with everybody around us – neighbors, business partners, strangers on the street, even with our perceived enemies.
What, after all, is society, if not simply a diverse, complex web of interpersonal relationships? Every group, every organization, every institution consists of people in relationship with one another.
Every other person around you is a potential ḥevruta. And Being There for those beyond our family and friends, for those whom we do not know, or come from a different culture, for people with whom we do not see eye-to-eye, for people with whom we might greatly disagree, is very difficult. Eizehu ḥakham? Who is wise, asks Pirqei Avot (4:1)? Halomed mikol adam. The one who learns from every person.
Each person with whom we interact is a potential partner. Each person has the potential to broaden our knowledge and our opinions to help us improve ourselves and our world.
There is a wonderful tale in the Talmud about ḥevruta. The story (BT Bava Metzia 84a) features the greatest ḥevruta pair ever: Rabbi Yoḥanan and Resh Laqish, who lived in 3rd-century northern Israel. Rabbi Yoḥanan was one of the most highly-regarded scholars of his age, diligently studying from a very young age and ultimately opening a yeshivah / academy in Tiberias to which students flocked. Resh Laqish came from a more nefarious background: he was a former thief and gladiator. Rabbi Yoḥanan agrees to let Resh Laqish marry his daughter if Resh Laqish commits to studying Torah, which he does.
What makes their ḥevruta so vaunted is that they came from such vastly different backgrounds and had such fundamentally divergent perspectives that they helped each other greatly in their learning. Rabbi Yoḥanan describes their learning relationship as follows:
בר לקישא כי הוה אמינא מילתא הוה מקשי לי עשרין וארבע קושייתא ומפריקנא ליה עשרין וארבעה פרוקי וממילא רווחא שמעתא
In my discussions with Resh Laqish, when I would state a matter, he would raise twenty-four difficulties against me in an attempt to disprove my claim, and I would answer him with twenty-four answers, and the halakhah by itself would become broadened and clarified.
In other words, when they studied together, Rabbi Yoḥanan would make some kind of pronouncement about the text, and Resh Laqish would push back with numerous ways in which Rabbi Yoḥanan might actually be wrong. Rabbi Yoḥanan knew that in order to actually understand the Torah, he needed a ḥevruta who would widen his perspective, and thus better interpret what God expects of us.
Learning Torah, just as with learning about life, requires that our perception be challenged, that we have others pushing back at us, respectfully, to show us a wider picture.
When Resh Laqish died, Rabbi Yoḥanan was bereft; his students suggested that he study with El’azar ben Pedat, but Rabbi Yoḥanan found that El’azar was simply a yes-man: he would always agree with R. Yoḥanan, and Yoḥanan found this useless and frustrating. He missed his ḥevruta so much, that
הוה קא אזיל וקרע מאניה וקא בכי ואמר היכא את בר לקישא היכא את בר לקישא והוה קא צוח עד דשף דעתיה מיניה בעו רבנן רחמי עליה ונח נפשיה
Rabbi Yoḥanan went around, tearing his clothing, weeping and saying: Where are you, son of Laqish? Where are you, son of Laqish? Rabbi Yoḥanan screamed until he went insane. The Rabbis prayed and requested for God to have mercy on him and take his soul, and Rabbi Yoḥanan died.
O ḥevruta o mituta. Partnership or death.
It is through opposition that we learn. It is by being challenged in our views that we broaden our minds. It is by engaging with the other side with love and respect that we develop nuanced perception which enables us to moderate ourselves.
The principle of ḥevruta is a means to work through differences in order to reach a meaningful understanding of the other’s point of view. Being There, using the ḥevruta model therefore means seeing the humanity of your interlocutor so that you infuse the argument, and indeed the relationship, with respect.
Pulling back the lens, the only way humanity can function sustainably is if we understand that we have to find common ground with others, particularly our rivals in thought, in religious practice, in politics; that we are in relationship with them as well; that we cannot only love ourselves and those like us. We must broaden our perspectives, and for that we need ḥevruta.
I often feel, ladies and gentlemen, that we have reached a place in our society in which many of us are not listening to one another, in which virtually all of the messages we hear are from those like us, people with whom we find it easy to talk to and to agree. Our media environment has become fractured and even atomized, such that we tune into the outlets which tell the story the way we want to hear it. Our social media platforms enable us to be surrounded by voices that sound just like our own, and we pile on with likes and comments which reinforce our own views.
We are all out for self-affirmation, for having our perceptions of the world constantly reinforced as the only possibly believable thing. Everybody else is crazy or dangerous. And everybody is angry; we all just want to tear down everything that does not fit our world view, to see only the broken tiles and not the larger mosaic.
The story of Rabbi Yoḥanan and Resh Laqish reminds us that a good ḥevruta is also a bar plugta, a partner with whom you stand in opposition, and yet you both understand that you need each other.
But many of us today are not seeing that need.
And in this environment, our institutions are losing out. Schools, houses of worship, social groups, families, professions, governments, and so forth – all are suffering from the sentiment that my opinion trumps yours, that my picture of the world is the only legitimate one. Libraries must kowtow to demands for books to be removed due to content which is objectionable to some; Zionists on college campuses are likened to Nazis. Politicians speak only to their base, and believe that they represent and must respond only to the people who voted for them.
We are quick to jump to conclusions and assume ill will; we are quick to be offended and not generous enough in spirit to give kaf zekhut, the benefit of the doubt.
And if I don’t like your position, I’ll berate you in public with a tweet or an Instagram post. That is much easier than calling you up and discussing our disagreement and seeking common ground, and it gets a whole lot more attention.
The author and scholar Yuval Levin, in his recent (2020) book, A Time to Build, describes the value of institutions, and how their declining influence is a great challenge to our society.
Institutions are by their nature formative. They structure our perceptions and our interactions, and as a result they structure us. They form our habits, our expectations, and ultimately our character. By giving shape to our experience of life in society, institutions give shape to our place in the world and to our understanding of its contours. They are at once constraining and enabling. They are the means by which we are socialized, and so they are crucial intermediaries between our inner lives and our social lives.
We need institutions, says Levin, even when they are somewhat flawed, because they shape us; they help us react to events in our world in a way that is healthy; they guide us in our interactions with others. But we are not using institutions the way we used to, allowing them to mold us into better people, according to Levin. Institutions, he says, have ceased to be formative, and have become performative. That is, we are using them as platforms through which we can advance ourselves, effectively through public performance, mostly via social media.
Without the institution of democracy guiding us, how will we ensure that we have a truly representative government? Without the institutions of religion and medicine and law guiding us, how will we ensure that people will make good choices for themselves, for their families, for their neighborhoods? How will we prevent our society from breaking down into a murderous free-for-all?
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks once pointed out that the Hebrew word for responsibility, אחריות / aḥarayut, includes the word אחר / aḥer, other. For us to be responsible human beings, said Rabbi Sacks, we must incorporate the other.
Healthy institutions help create an environment in which the sense of aḥarayut helps to guide our discourse across ethnic or racial or religious or ideological lines, and also guides our public and private behavior. These are the spaces in which ḥevruta flourishes, in which civility is fostered, in which true dialogue triumphs over mere shouting.
Yuval Levin’s solution to our society’s challenge in this regard is to recognize that our institutions need us to Be There.
What’s required of each of us is devotion to the work we do with others in the service of a common aspiration, and therefore devotion to the institutions we compose and inhabit. That kind of devotion calls for sacrifice and commitment. It calls on each of us to pledge ourselves to an institution we belong to unabashedly. To abandon ironic distance and dispassionate analysis and jump in.
Now, of course at this point I could make a plug for more and deeper involvement at Beth Shalom and Jewish life in general, but of course I already did that on the second day of Rosh HaShanah.
So instead I will suggest the following: consider the ways in which you can bring the spirit of ḥevruta to the world. Think about how you can be in relationship with others who are not like you, to broaden your perspective and theirs. Consider how your group of friends might engage with others for the benefit of everybody.
Your online social network is not your ḥevruta. Your smartphone is not a bar plugta. Your aḥarayut, your responsibility to this world is to be in dialogue with real people, people who are not like you. You don’t need yes-men.
OK, Rabbi. So how about some specifics? How can I commit myself in 5783 to Being There for a better society and a better world? How can I act on the principle of ḥevruta?
- Bring your energy and your resources in a positive way to the institutions that shape your world.
- Join and financially support those organizations that reflect the values of a healthier society.
- Volunteer with organizations that provide social services.
- Get involved in the bodies of civic life: school boards, community organizations and partnerships, and make sure you do so while honoring the principles of ḥevruta – of listening and helping your partners along, of being open to the possibility that you might be wrong, that there might be a better way.
- Try to spend less time letting yourself be angered by all the dysfunction of this broken world, particularly as concentrated in toxic online spaces.
- Instead, focus on Being There for others, in person, whenever possible. Muster your love of people, and share it with them.
And, of course, come and daven and learn with us at Beth Shalom. By Being There for synagogue life, your involvement will pay off in many ways: in your personal spiritual satisfaction, but also in helping to foster an environment of ḥevruta which permeates the entire world.
In August, the Presbyterian minister turned novelist Frederick Buechner died at age 96. In an appreciation of his life and work, New York Times Columnist David Brooks said the following:
“Buechner’s vocation was to show a way to experience the fullness of life. Of death, he wrote, “What’s lost is nothing to what’s found, and all the death that ever was, set next to life, would scarcely fill a cup.”
What we yearn for, when we remember those whom we have lost, is not the pain of their absence. It is rather who they were in life, what they meant to us, how they made us who we are.
“What’s lost is nothing to what’s found, said Buechner. What we find in the context of death and mourning is the accumulation of a lifetime of memories, of moments when your parents were there for you, when your brother made you smile, when your sister offered comfort, when your spouse gave you a hug and made all of the day’s troubles go away.
The people who are now no longer with us, they are the ones who gave us their life. All of that life is now ours. We do not carry their death; we carry their life.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Yom Kippur 5783, 10/5/2022.)