February 7, 2010
More on learning with Rav Samet and the Yeshivah Gedolah of Lod
We are learning the beginning of Baba Kama which speaks of 4 avot, “parents” (meaning parent categories) of nizikin, of damages -the ox, the pit, the maaveh and the fire.
Typically in all books of the Talmud we find an interweaving of halachic, legal sections, and agaditah, narrative sections. In many yeshivot these narrative sections are seen as beside the point, and in some of the yeshivot I attended even skipped over entirely; viewed as irrelevant to the halachic, or legal sections of the chapter.
The approach in Lod is just the opposite. The narrative and legal sections must not only both be read but seen as an integrated whole. When I asked Rabbi Samet about this he answered that this interweaving of law and narrative was the way in which chazal, our rabbis, wrote because it was their (and by extension Judaism’s?) world view. The reason for the constant presence of agadah in what we usually see as primarily a legal book is not just to pepper the halacha with stories which would teach musar and hashkafah, ethics and Jewish thought, but because for chazal halacha and agada are one and the same.
In fact, he said, agadah is in a way actually the main item. Our story, an understanding of our world and the world around us is chazal’s thrust, halacha is one part of that story. Indeed he said this is true of Tanach, the Bible, which is mostly narrative also. When I asked about the first Rashi on the torah which seems to indicate that laws are the main purpose of the torah, and that the torah should have thus begun from the first mitzvah given to the Jewish people, Rabbi Samet answered that not only does the torah not start with law but with narrative, but in fact the torah is mostly narrative, with law interwoven.
Indeed, he replied, this precisely is Rashi’s answer, the torah had to start from birashit (Genesis) so that people would know that God created the world and thus had the authority to give the Land of Israel to the Jewish people. Why is this the answer? Because the story of the Jewish people as a nation in a land IS the story and point of the Torah. There is no bifurcation of law and story, it is one. The law is but a part of the story. Thus when we study Talmud we must look closely at how the rabbis phrased what they did, often it is not for legal purposes but because they are looking at a much larger narrative, that of life in general and of the Jewish people in particular.
When I asked why it is only now that this approach has come to light, he replied that the reason we can recognize the intention of chazal is that it is we who live in their land and speak their language and thus are closest to the lives they led and the perceptive they had of the universe. Halacha is not meant as a series of actions but as a life lived, as a national story, as the life and thought of a people and nation, halacha is part of this. Thus each halachic concept must be seen as integrated with the agadah because it is agadah (I do not mean by this that it is not binding or not literal).
For instance, the point of labeling the “pit” as a “father “of damage has not only to do with it technically being a way to damage, for there are may ways and many “avot” of damage not listed in the Mishnah of the four Avot. The “pit” is more than a method of damage; it is an idea that plays a role in the Weltanschauung of chazal and in our vision as Jews. When seen it this way, the answer to why Baba Kama begins with specifically these 4 “father” categories of damage when actually there are many more, becomes clear. The rabbis were not only making a statement about the technicalities of damage but about central notions in the life of the Jewish people. This is their program, their method and goal.
Thus the 4 “fathers” of damage, (which the Talmud says also have “children” categories or generations), the pit, the fire, the walking and the ox, loom large in our mishna not because they are the only ways to damage but for much bigger reasons that have everything to do both with damage and with who we are as a nation. For example the “pit” is not only a place of potential damage but just the opposite also, the source of life in the Land of Israel. Israel is a land in which it only rains during the rainy season, there is no large Nile River to irrigate the land, as the torah says in Devarim chapter 11, it is a land irrigated by the rains. The only way to store rain is the bor, the pit. Each source of damage is not only a damager, but its opposite also, a source of creation and life, reflecting the fragile nature of our universe and our mission in it as Jews. Thus are these categories quite aptly referred to as “Avot” parents with “toldot” children.